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Old 01-15-06, 03:03 PM
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Buck Harvey: Hill's back as he left — clueless

Buck Harvey: Hill's back as he left — clueless

Web Posted: 01/15/2006 12:00 AM CST

San Antonio Express-News

Give Bob Hill everything.


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Yes, he shouldn't have been fired on the day David Robinson returned from injury. Yes, Gregg Popovich wanted to coach the Spurs. Yes, Hill did a decent job when he was here.

Give him everything.

So why did it take nine years before another NBA franchise let him be a head coach again?

Why?

Give him time to talk, and he will make everything clear.

Hill has been talking this month. He took over for Bob Weiss in Seattle after 30 games (that firing wasn't unfair, was it?), and he went straight to the podium to rehash the terrible injustice done to him long ago.

"It's like Coach (Bob) Knight told me," Hill said to a Seattle newspaper when asked about Popovich. "If you stay in this game long enough, you are going to run into people like that."

Give Hill that, too. Popovich isn't easy to work for.

But Popovich also is the one who gave Hill a break in 1994 when no one else did. Larry Brown, among others, told Popovich not to hire Hill, and Popovich delayed making his decision through most of that summer.

Hill had no choice but to wait. The only other team that showed interest in Hill, then an Orlando assistant, was 20-win Minnesota. A coach named Bill Blair got the Timberwolves' job; Blair lost it a year later and never got another chance.

Hill appealed to Popovich, perhaps, because Popovich wanted someone he could oversee. Popovich selected the assistant coaches and put the model in place because, as he has shown, he likes to run the business.

There was success, with seasons of 62 and 59 wins. But was Hill a great coach? He inherited a 55-win team. Hill also is 121-43 in his NBA career with Robinson and 138-173 without.

Popovich almost fired Hill immediately after Utah overwhelmed the Spurs in the 1996 playoffs. Popovich cared more about defense and playoff toughness than regular-season show.

Hill was baffled. Wasn't it time for a contract extension?

Popovich pulled back, hoping for change. But Hill remained a detail-oriented technician who liked to do the work himself. The cooperative workplace that Popovich has created — where he wants his people to argue and disagree — never suited Hill.

Then Robinson's back went out, skewing everything. Hill's philosophy ate at Popovich more than the losses did, until Popovich made the worst decision of his career. He fired Hill on the day Robinson returned from injury.

Had Popovich waited a month — letting Hill go after a four-game losing streak — no one would have said a thing. But this way Hill became a martyr. The guy mostly known in San Antonio for wearing expensive suits suddenly was beloved.

Hill played to the sentiment. In his mind he was simply too good to be fired, when Hill has taken over three times in midseason the same way. In fact, every franchise but two has replaced its coach at least once since 1996.

The two? Utah and San Antonio.

So nearly every team could have had the magnificent Hill in these nine years. He instead stayed out of the league, and Hill has an explanation.

He told Seattle reporters this month that he was so "taken aback" by being fired that he "wanted a break" from basketball.

That's rich. When the Spurs fired Hill, he thought an assistant's position was beneath him. He would wait for the better jobs. Why coach a loser?

When it was clear no one was calling, Hill stopped being picky. He would have taken anything, anywhere and at any price. Hill's agent called one franchise so often in the late '90s that he was asked to stop. "Pestering" is the word the franchise used.

Then there's this from Shaquille O'Neal. Before the Lakers hired Phil Jackson to replace Kurt Rambis in 1999, Shaq thought Hill would be a good fit. The two were together in Orlando.

"But Jerry (West) didn't like Bob Hill," Shaq wrote in a book. "For some reason, nobody likes Bob Hill."

For some reason? Fordham knows one. The school stretched to give Hill a 10-year deal in 1999, and Hill later led the school to its worst record in 100 years.

He was fired. Only when Hill went back to New York recently with the Sonics, speaking again with the authority of a big-time NBA coach, could he properly frame this.

He blamed himself for taking the job. "I don't want to embarrass the school," Hill said about Fordham. "But it's never going to work there. The pace of the school is slow and you can't run a Division I program like that."

Exactly who should be embarrassed? Fordham has beaten Virginia and Penn this season, among others, and is competing like a Division I program.

But that's Hill. His opinion of himself has alienated peers and employers, and another opinion will have the same effect. He thinks if he had stayed in San Antonio and gotten Tim Duncan, "I would still be there."

He would have connected with Duncan and prompted him to re-sign with the Spurs? He would have brought the best out in a kid from France and plugged into an Argentine power? He would have won three titles?

If other teams thought that, they would have hired him long ago.



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