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Legendary Hall of Fame coach Bill Fitch, who coached some of the NBA’s biggest names and helped guide Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics to an NBA championship in 1981, died at the age of 89 on Wednesday.
Fitch, a two-time NBA Coach of the Year, was named to the Top 10 Coaches of All-Time list when the NBA celebrated its 50 greatest players during the league’s 50th anniversary. Fitch was 10th all-time in wins among NBA coaches until Doc Rivers passed him in December of 2020.
The NBA announced the passing of Fitch on Thursday.
“The NBA mourns the passing of Hall of Fame coach Bill Fitch, an NBA champion with the Boston Celtics and a two-time Coach of the Year,” the league posted on Twitter. “Bill served 25 seasons as an NBA head coach and mentored countless players and coaches. Our deepest condolences go out to his family and friends.”
The NBA mourns the passing of Hall of Fame coach Bill Fitch, an NBA champion with the Boston Celtics and a two-time Coach of the Year. Bill served 25 seasons as an NBA head coach and mentored countless players and coaches. Our deepest condolences go out to his family and friends. pic.twitter.com/39TOkCTOwQ
— NBA (@NBA) February 3, 2022
He began his NBA career as the first head coach of the expansion of the Cavaliers in 1970, guiding them to the playoffs three times after winning just 15 games in their inaugural season. He earned his first NBA Coach of the Year honor in 1975-76, guiding the “Miracle of Richfield” team to 49 wins and the Eastern Conference Finals.
Fitch was named Celtics head coach in 1979-80, just after Boston had drafted its latest franchise star in Bird. In their first season together, Fitch, Bird and the Celtics went 61-21 and reached the Eastern Conference Finals, resulting in his second NBA Coach of the Year honor.
“Fitch’s deep knowledge of the game, toughness, and dry wit made him a perfect fit for Boston and the Celtics,” the Celtics said in a statement Thursday. “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. … The Celtics family mourns his loss as we celebrate his legacy.”
After an offseason that yielded Robert Parish and rookie Kevin McHale, Fitch guided the Celtics to 62 wins, beating the Rockets in the 1981 NBA Finals for Bird’s first championship and Fitch’s only title.
“Bill was a complicated, Vince Lombardi-type guy who didn’t give a damn about the opposition and always made us believe,” former Celtics forward Cedric Maxwell told the Boston Globe on Thursday. “He was Kevin Garnett before Kevin Garnett. Kevin always said it was us against them, and with Bill Fitch it was us against them.”
After winning 61, 62, 63 and 56 games in his four seasons with the Celtics, Fitch joined the Rockets in 1983-84. Houston had won just 14 games the season before but drafted Ralph Sampson first overall in the 1983 draft. Fitch guided Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon to the NBA Finals in 1985-86, losing to the Celtics.
Fitch wasn’t done helping turn around franchises. He joined the Nets and won just 17 games in his first season in 1989-90, but he led a group that included Kenny Anderson, Derrick Coleman and Drazen Petrovic to 40 wins and the 1992 playoffs.
Fitch’s final NBA stop was with the Clippers. He won 17 games in his first season with the franchise in 1994-95 but helped the team reach the playoffs after winning 36 games in 1996-97.
Born in 1932, the Iowa native led his teams to the NBA playoffs 13 times and finished with a 944-1,106 record during his NBA coaching career. Known to some as “Captain Video” for his love of studying game tape, Fitch coached in college at Minnesota, Bowling Green, North Dakota — where he coached Phil Jackson — and his alma mater Coe College.