There's this whole dictionary, see, in Doug Moe's mind, crowded with names and phrases. There are "dogs" and "stiffs." There's his wife, filed under the unflattering title of "Big Jane," even though she isn't big. And there are "no-hopers." In Moe's Unabridged Dictionary, dogs and no-hopers are different because no-hopers often work hard but are usually beyond hope. Dogs are simply losers.
In the cosmic world of Doug Moe, a world of shining suns and lunar eclipses, it all makes sense. It's all laid out, like one of his old polyester leisure suits, perhaps in disarray, but definitely serviceable. It makes sense that Moe would call the World Champion Chicago Bulls "Michael Jordan and a bunch of stiffs" last summer. Because a stiff, in the Moe Dictionary, isn't anything to be ashamed of. "You have to understand, you guys' definition of a stiff isn't the same as mine," he says.It is October. Time to talk about the upcoming season. After two years out of the game, Moe is back, clamorous as ever, this time as coach of the Philadelphia 76ers. Moe was fired from his last job in Denver in 1990, but who could fault the Sixers for hiring him? They lost the instant sound bite, Charles Barkley, over the summer in a trade with Phoenix. But the recovery was nice. They landed the loquacious Moe. And, oh, how the writers love him.
"A stiff," continues Moe expansively, "has no talent, but he can help you win."
"So what do you call a stiff who can't win?" someone asks.
"A dog," says Moe.
"There's also a no-hoper," he continues. "Hey, (ex-Nugget) Bill Hanzlik was a no-hoper. He actually upgraded himself from a no-hoper to a stiff. He became the greatest stiff of all time."
Of all the players on Moe's Philadelphia team going into this season, none has been called a stiff more than center Charles Shackleford. But Moe says calling him a stiff is premature. "He'd have to improve himself to be a stiff. He hasn't done enough to be a stiff. A stiff helps the team."
Now this is prime material. This is priceless. Surrounded by a morass of NBA corporate coachspeak, Moe represents a fast break in faded jeans and worn sneakers. No carefully planned responses, no watery comments about execution. The writers, some 75 of them connected on a nationwide conference call, are now scribbling as fast as they can.
"Is Shackleford a dog?" someone says, baiting Moe.
"Not yet," Moe retorts. "Anyone I have at the time is never a dog. I'd get in trouble for saying something like that. I wait till I get rid of them, and then you can call them a dog."
But Moe is no stranger to trouble.
Growing up in Brooklyn, Moe loved his basketball and wasn't interested in studies. He attended legendary Erasmus High, the alma mater of chess icon Bobby Fischer, singers Barbara Streisand and Neil Diamond, L.A. Raiders owner Al Davis and Miami Heat partner Billy Cunningham. Moe's father was a small motor salesman.
In his first semester at the University of North Carolina, Moe's grades were so bad he was declared ineligible for the freshman team. Bad grades also cost him part of his junior season.
Whatever his problems in class, Moe never had any serious dilemmas, except one. In 1961 he met with a gambler who asked Moe to shave points in certain games. Moe says he refused, but as he was walking away, the gambler handed him an envelope with about $75 in it to take back to school. Moe, who was awaiting marriage, was eventually discovered and banned from the NBA. "I was crushed," he told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Here I was getting married, and I didn't know what else I was going to do with my life. I always just thought I'd play ball. I had no idea."
Eventually he landed a job as an assistant at Elon (N.C.) College and later caught on playing with a team in Italy. Finally, the fledgling American Basketball Association with the flamboyant red, white and blue ball came calling. And the league wasn't worried about his history, signing him as a 29-year-old rookie. Moe played five years in the ABA, then took a job under former college teammate Larry Brown as an assistant for the ABA's Carolina Cougars.
Once the ABA expired, Moe was offered the head job of the San Antonio Spurs. From then on it was all Moe's show. He spent four years coaching in San Antonio and 10 in Denver, building an impressive 609-492 record, making him the 11th winningest coach in NBA history.
It has been a journey as outrageous as his wardrobe, filled with gasps, laughs and more than a few fines. Most of Moe's troubles as a head coach came the same way Barkley's did when he was in Philadelphia: from his unbridled spontaneity. In a profession where color is usually considered high treason, Moe is a Sherwin-Williams paint store.
There was the time he threw water on a referee. And the time his team played so badly that he ordered everyone to stop playing defense. (He was fined $5,000 by the league and suspended for two games.) "I've always been less mature than my age. Mentally, I'm still 12," he explained later.
Perhaps Moe's most celebrated stunt was during the 1985 playoffs, when he declared his Denver team had "no shot" at beating the Lakers. "And neither does anyone else," he added.
The comments so irked Lakers' coach Pat Riley, he responded, "We're just from two different planets."
The differences between the loosey-goosey Moe and the tightly wound Riley are obvious. Riley wears custom Italian suits and silk neckwear; Moe is the crown prince of bargain basements everywhere. Moe reportedly wore the same tie for nearly every home game during his last year in Denver. After games he would loosen the knot, slip the tie over his head, drape it on a chair and pull it back on the next game.
Riley is a fanatic of preparation, working his team sometimes three hours at practice; Moe often sends his teams home within an hour. While Riley analyzes strategies like Schwartzkopf, Moe once responded to a question about studying films by cracking, "Yeah. As a matter of fact, the other night Big Jane and I watched `Gone With the Wind.' "
Moe's cavalier attitude toward basketball has made him a near-cult hero among media members. During an interview session before the season, he began comments by saying, "We have a nice team with nice players. I think we're going to win. Anything specific, you're going to have to ask me."
A long pause.
"We're awestruck," said one writer.
Replied Moe, "And well you should be."
If some things are changing about Moe, it isn't his personality. He's still eliciting whoops of delight wherever he goes. Only last week he was asked how his team broke a seven-game losing streak. "I think it was the lunar eclipse," he said.
When asked before the season began what his starting lineup looked like, he responded, "Big, medium and small."
But Moe's most endearing quality - that rumpled, flare-legged, plaid-jacketed look he wore five years too long - is changing. "Doug's the only guy I knew who could dress from head to foot at Kmart," Jazz President Frank Layden says. "I always happy he was in league, because I knew I would always come in next-to-last as worst-dressed coach."
The marketing people in Philadelphia apparently decided a change was in order. The guy who former teammate Brown says he tied neckties for now has a razor cut and mousse on his hair. He recently showed up on the front of NBA News and in Sports Illustrated wearing suits from fashionable clothier Boyds Philadelphia.
Layden, a longtime friend of Moe, says he noted Moe's new wardrobe with dismay. "I was disappointed," says Layden.
One year the Jazz were playing an exhibition game in Butte, Mont., against the Nuggets, but a heavy snowstorm convinced the Nuggets not to make the trip. The Jazz had already arrived. Finally a plane was chartered and the Nuggets arrived at the arena, albeit late. "I look down and in comes Doug into arena," says Layden. "He's got on this plaid lumberjack shirt and dungarees, no socks and running shoes.
"So I see him and I say, `Doug, look at how you're dressed. You can't dress like this NBA. You've got to wear a jacket.' He told me, `I was sitting home and I figured we weren't going to play. Jane called me and said they had rented a plane and I'd have to go.' He just jumped up and came the way he was."
Layden says since the regular season began, he's been comforted by the sight of Moe walking off the court with his shirt-tails pulled out and his hair sticking straight up in the air. Beneath that $2,000 suit still lurks the soul of a man who buys his ties in a grocery store. "So," says Layden with satisfaction, "he's back to being the old Doug."
Moussed hair and expensive suits aside, Moe is more than willing to resume his dominion as the no-hoper from Brooklyn who accidentally lucked out. A bout with pancreatitis got serious enough to scare him after he was fired by the Nuggets, but when the Sixers came calling, Moe was ready.
But wasn't he the guy who declared he was "born to retire"? Certainly he enjoyed his retirement, traveling the country with his wife of 31 years and playing golf.
So why come back? "Well," says Moe, "they don't pay you for retirement."
"For all his fooling around, he likes to win. He wants to win, even if you're playing golf," says Layden. "Behind the facade, he really knows the game. I thought he was one of the best bench coaches in the game. It's an instinctive thing. A lot of coaches are good with X's and O's, but don't have a feel for the game. Doug did."
Moe unabashedly admits he loves both retirement and coaching and can live with either. "It just so happened that it worked out where the timing was good. A whole bunch of events happened and, well, here I am," he says. He adds that if things don't work out in Philadelphia, "I can always retire again."Comment on this story
Then he laughs his gravelly laugh. As always, the interview session ends too soon. Writers are still scribbling, trying to catch up on the last one-liner. It may be a long time before they find another coach who will talk to them about stiffs, no-hopers and lunar eclipses. As recorders whir and pens scratch, Moe falls momentarily silent. Should he finish up by recommending a movie? Predicting the next earthquake? Throwing water on someone?
"I guess that's it," says the interview moderator. "Thanks, coach, for being with us today."
"Thank you," says Moe. "And may the sun shine upon you."