Legendary coach Bill Fitch dies at 89

Boston Celtics coach Bill Fitch, Larry Bird and Kevin McHale
Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images
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Larry Bird once called coach Bill Fitch “by far the best I’ve seen.”

Many of Bird’s Boston Celtics teammates disagreed. The multiple teams that fired Fitch disagreed. The Basketball Hall of Fame disagreed.

But as time passed, the sting faded from Fitch’s Marine-drill-sergeant style (perhaps picked up from his father, a Marine drill sergeant). Appreciation grew for Fitch’s devotion to the job and success in it.

Fitch – who died at 89 – will be remembered as one of the NBA’s all-time great coaches.

Marc Stein:

Fitch lost more games (1,106) than any coach in NBA history besides Lenny Wilkens (1,155). But he lost that much only because he was respected enough to get so many opportunities.

Fitch won 944 games, 11th all-time (behind only Don Nelson, Lenny Wilkens, Gregg Popovich, Jerry Sloan, Pat Riley, George Karl, Phil Jackson, Larry Brown, Rick Adelman and Doc Rivers).

In his 25 years as an NBA head coach, Fitch earned a reputation as a disciplinarian with intense attention to detail. He particularly valued conditioning and film study, earning the nickname “Captain Video.”

His biggest success came in Boston, where he led the Celtics to the 1981 championship and won 74% of his games. Fitch won Coach of the Year his first season in Boston, 1980, as the team went from 29-53 the year prior to 61-21 under Fitch. Probably had more to do with adding Bird, but Fitch deserved some credit for empowering the rookie star.

That was Fitch’s second Coach of the Year. He began his career with the expansion Cleveland Cavaliers in 1970. After five losing seasons, the “Miracle at Richfield” Cavs broke through with a trip to the 1976 Eastern Conference finals, and Fitch won his first Coach of the Year. But Cleveland trended back downward, and Fitch resigned in 1979 after nine seasons there.

Despite coming off a 30-52 record with the Cavaliers, Fitch quickly got hired by the Celtics. His tenure in Boston lasted just four seasons. Fitch again resigned in 1983, citing disappointment with the team being sold.

He immediately went to the Houston Rockets, who ascended as they drafted Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon with back-to-back No. 1 picks. Fitch coached the Rockets to the 1986 NBA Finals, where they lost to his former team, the Celtics. Fitch wore on Olajuwon, and Houston fired Fitch in 1988.

Fitch then had losing records his last seven seasons as a coach, three with the New Jersey Nets and four with the Los Angeles Clippers. Still, he got the Nets into the 1992 playoffs, ending a franchise-long five-year playoff drought. In 1997, Fitch guided the Clippers to their only playoff appearance within a 12-year span.

Fitch retired in 1998. The Basketball Hall of Fame finally enshrined him in 2019. He didn’t attend the ceremony due to health issues.

Fitch mostly took his setbacks with good humor. As he waited for induction, Fitch pointed out he was born in 1932 – not 1934, as his initial coaching bio mistakenly said.

“Can’t a guy grow old and at least get credit for that?” Fitch said.