As a player more than two decades ago, Marc Iavaroni was an ideal teammate. The same qualities that made him such may well have gotten him fired Thursday after a season-and-a-half as head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies. Iavaroni's dismissal was announced as the team arrived in New York for a game Friday night with the Knicks. Memphis has lost seven straight games and has a record of 11-30. Since taking over the job at the start of the 2007-08 season, Iavaroni's mark stood at 33-90. Former interim coach Lionel Hollins will take over after Johnny Davis handles the duty this weekend (the Grizzlies host New Jersey Saturday night).
As a rookie with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1982, Iavaroni was thrust into a starting lineup that included a pair of future Hall of Famers (Julius Erving and Moses Malone) and another pair of All-Star guards (Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney). Iavaroni's job was to rebound, defend, and basically not interfere with his teammates' greatness until super-sub Bobby Jones came off the bench. Those Sixers won 65 games and lost but a single playoff game in winning the 1983 NBA championship. They swept a Laker team featuring three future Hall of Famers (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, and James Worthy) in the Finals. Upon Iavaroni's hiring in Memphis, I asked Cheeks about the role the rookie played on a team still considered among the ten greatest in NBA history. "He just always did his job," emphasized Cheeks. (In an ironic twist, Cheeks will be an assistant on Hollins' staff with the Grizzlies.)
Guiding an NBA team today, alas, requires more than merely doing one's job. Probably more than any other team sport, a professional basketball team thirsts for motivation from its leader on the bench. With but 30 teams, and active rosters of merely 12 players, NBA clubs are exclusive to the extreme, made up entirely of young men who have known stardom since before they could shave. Add seven-figure (sometimes eight-figure) salaries to the mix, and a carrot isn't needed so much to drive an NBA team as is a stick. Too often this season, Grizzly players -- and Iavaroni himself -- have diagnosed losses with the explanation that "we have to play tougher." Even after rare wins, fans often heard that "we played tougher, we battled." The unspoken implication, of course, is that there were nights when the Grizzlies were not tough, and didn't battle as they should.
Iavaroni's last home game as Grizzlies coach was the Martin Luther King Day Celebration Game on January 19th. With hindsight, the event was dripping with irony, as the largest crowd of the season filled FedExForum, and the most famous of Iavaroni's former teammates, Dr. J himself, received one of two Sports Legacy Awards from the National Civil Rights Museum. Had Iavaroni known this was his Memphis sendoff, however bitter the taste, he probably would have approved the script.
In profiling Iavaroni for Memphis magazine two years ago, I asked Erving to point out what might distinguish Iavaroni as an NBA head coach. Replied the Doctor: "Marc is one of the better human beings I've met in my lifetime. He's a dedicated professional to the game of basketball, and the game of life. He had an air of confidence, but was a team guy from day one."
Iavaroni's career in the NBA isn't over. He'll likely land an assistant's gig and, with the right chain of events, get another shot at the big seat on an NBA bench. But I'd venture to guess his days as "a team guy" are over, that Iavaroni will spend less time trying to figure out the young men under his charge, calculating how he can make life better for them. Perhaps the first step in the evolution of an NBA head coach is learning that it's the players' job to embody the will and dedication of their coach. Pushing twenty-something millionaires to that point requires an under appreciated, and all too rare skill set. Here's hoping Iavaroni gets the chance.