It takes more than firing rumor to knock Nets' Fitch off-stride

December 22, 1991|By Sam Smith | Sam Smith,Chicago Tribune

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Bill Fitch, coach of the New Jersey Nets, is a bright, engaging man who knows a little something about his business. He won an NBA title in Boston in 1981 and almost did it in Houston five years later. He has twice been named Coach of the Year, has coached more than 800 pro victories and has been fired three times.

So when the media hubbub began here earlier this week about Fitch's imminent departure in favor of Jim Valvano, the &r 57-year-old Fitch could only offer perspective.

"They're saying Valvano is coming next week," Fitch said Thursday about reports that the former North Carolina State coach and TV commentator had accepted the head coaching job of the Nets. "Well, I'm looking at New York, Cleveland, Chicago and Indiana this week. I'm saying, 'Hey, what's wrong with this week?' "

It appears Fitch isn't quite ready to make his own exit, it probably won't even be Valvano when a move is made. Fitch has one more guaranteed year (at $400,000) after this on his %J contract.

Former Hawks coach Mike Fratello, a close friend of Nets personnel chief Willis Reed, reportedly remains the prime candidate to succeed Fitch.

But what the media storm has done is expose the feud on the Nets' seven-member board.

Minority owner Joe Taub, generally depicted as a renegade, has been campaigning for Fitch's dismissal because Fitch has used rookie point guard Kenny Anderson so little.

Anderson, the No. 2 draft choice from Georgia Tech, signed a $14.5 million five-year contract after missing training camp in a holdout. He's averaging 9.7 points and 4.2 assists and shooting 35 percent in about 22 minutes per game.

Taub has lobbied hard for Anderson to start, but Fitch has resisted because of Anderson's immaturity (he left school after two years), inexperience and holdout. Also, while Anderson has shown flashes of greatness, he often takes bad shots and makes poor passing decisions.

L Fitch has called for patience, but Anderson hasn't listened.

"I haven't really been out there much," Anderson has said. "On this level, it's a lot of politics, more so than talent."

Then, when rumors of Valvano's hiring surfaced, Anderson added this:

"He's [Valvano] a fast-paced, up-tempo coach, and that fits me. He's a rah-rah guy, and you need that. The young legs on our team can get out and run. I don't think we've [he and Fitch] ever been on the same page. I don't have to love nobody. I just play basketball."

Fitch was never sure he wanted Anderson to play basketball for him.

He had argued for the Nets to draft Dikembe Mutombo, now starring with the Denver Nuggets, saying in June: "How many times does a guy like that come along? Anyone who's seen him knows he's not going to be another LaRue Martin," the 1972 draft bust for the Trail Blazers.

Taub fought hard for Anderson and won (Reed wanted Billy Owens) and began to work against Fitch. He sent feelers to former Bulls coach Doug Collins, former Nuggets coach Doug Moe and Kentucky coach Rick Pitino before finally settling on Valvano for five years at more than $500,000 per year.

But the Nets' majority owners, Alan Aufzien and David Gerstein, this week disavowed Taub's actions, saying Taub "doesn't hire or fire. He advises."

Fitch condemned the ownership when it waived Dave Feitl and Jud Buechler to accommodate Anderson's salary. Star forward Derrick Coleman, meanwhile, has criticized Fitch's coaching and has become a discipline problem.

So Fitch may not have much time.

"He's like Jason," said a member of the Nets. "He won't die."

I= But if Fitch is going anywhere, it's not without a smile.

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