CLEVELAND (AP) — Bill Fitch helped turn bad NBA teams into winners, and the Celtics back into champions.
A two-time coach of the year who guided Boston to one of its championships during a Hall of Fame coaching career spanning three decades, has died. He was 89.
Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, president of the National Basketball Coaches Association, said Fitch’s daughter told him her father died Wednesday night in Lake Conroe, Texas, surrounded by family.
“Coach Fitch’s numerous accomplishments pale in comparison to the giant impact he had on countless members of the basketball world in a legendary career that spanned 40-plus years,” said Carlisle, who broke in as an assistant under Fitch with New Jersey. ”His mark on the NBA game is indelible.”
Fitch coached for 25 seasons in the NBA, starting with the expansion Cleveland Cavaliers in 1970. He was Larry Bird’s first pro coach in 1979, won a title with the Celtics in 1981 and spent time with Houston, New Jersey and the Los Angeles Clippers.
While he had his greatest success in Boston, Fitch may be best remembered for his early seasons with the Cavs.
He helped develop a young team that won just 15 games in its first season and improved steadily before making the playoffs in 1976 and shocking the Washington Bullets in what became known as the “Miracle of Richfield.”
Fitch was chosen coach of the year that season.
“Our franchise lost a great man and Rock that it was built on,” Cavs great Austin Carr wrote on Twitter. “Coach Fitch, may he rest in peace, love u Coach.”
Fitch spent nine seasons in Cleveland, winning 304 games.
“Coach Fitch earned the love and respect of his Cavaliers players as he embedded a high standard of accountability and a belief system that he felt was a reflection of the team’s motto as a ‘group of daring, fearless men, whose life’s pact was never surrender, no matter what the odds,’ something that continues to be greatly valued by those he coached and worked with on and off the court,” the Cavs said in a statement.
“Coach Fitch was a great friend and trusted mentor and teacher to so many across the entire basketball community, while his impact on the game, and the lives of those he touched, spanned multiple generations. He became a life-long friend to many members of the Cavaliers organization.”
Fitch was hired by Red Auerbach and the Celtics in 1979, the same year Bird arrived in Boston, which was coming off the two worst seasons in the famed franchise’s history. The Celtics went 61-21 in Fitch’s first season and won the championship the following year by beating the Rockets in six games.
“Fitch’s deep knowledge of the game, toughness, and dry wit made him a perfect fit for Boston and the Celtics,” the team said in a statement. “Fitch had already built a reputation as a turnaround artist, and his ability to get the best out of his players paid immediate dividends as Fitch orchestrated what was at the time the best turnaround in NBA history, vaulting to a 61-21 record.”
Fitch went 242-86 in his four seasons in Boston.
He went from there to Houston for five seasons (1983-88), taking the Rockets to the Finals in 1986 with a team powered by Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson.
Fitch joined the Nets in 1989 and took a young team that won just 17 games in his first season to 40 victories and a playoff berth in his third year.
He wrapped up his coaching odyssey with the woebegone Clippers, leading them to the playoffs in his third season before retiring in 1998.
Fitch, who had a 944-1106 record, was elected to the National Basketball Hall of Fame in 2019.
Born in Davenport, Iowa, Fitch coached at his alma mater, Coe College, before stops at Minnesota, Bowling Green and North Dakota, where he saw promise in a young forward named Phil Jackson, who went on to win 10 NBA titles as a coach.