Bring Back the Player-Coach!

Veteran NBA players may be great in the locker room, but they’re more fun on the court.

Statisticians claim that Derek Fisher, the Knicks’ new head coach, contributed 3.1 wins to the Oklahoma City Thunder last season, which means he was more effective than New York’s starting point guard. Fisher is a point guard – or he was before he decided to pick up a clipboard. The NBA doesn’t allow player-coaches, a ban instituted with the salary cap in mid eighties to prevent teams futzing around with their balance sheets. That rule is the only thing keeping Fisher by the bench and probably the only thing keeping the Nets’ Jason Kidd, one of the great passers ever, from subbing himself into a game. It’s time to get rid of it.

The case against banning player-coaches is simple: Player-coaches are fun. When Manchester United fired skipper David Moyes’ earlier this year, local legend Ryan Giggs took over and dramatically substituted himself during the team’s penultimate game. The crowd went nuts. When the Cubs announced they had hired Manny Ramirez, who refuses to give up the ghost, as a player-coach for its Triple-A Iowa affiliate, baseball fans were confused but excited. Could the days of Lenny Wilkens, Bill Russell and Pete Rose be far away? Could Don Mattingly grow so frustrated with the Dodgers struggles he gives himself the nod at first?

The appeal of the player coach is the appeal of the general that leads his troops into battle. Rather than talking about leadership, he leads. And, yes, there is something incredibly dramatic about putting a guy in the position to say, “This game is on me,” and put himself in. It’s an ego thing, but it’s also a democratic idea. Player-coaches toil with their underlings and take the same risks.

And the NBA is clearly our best hope to see a revival of one of sport’s most novel arrangements. Marlins Manager Mike Redmond is only four years removed from the majors, but time isn’t kind to baseball players and no NFL franchise is going to put coaching responsibilities in the hands of a guy whose brain is still bouncing around his skull from the last play. What would happen if Fisher played? He’d probably hit a few outside threes and call it a day. Fans would love it and accountants could sort out the details on those new personal computer things.

The return of player-coaches would also increase the value of smarter, older players. No one wants to see Kevin Garnett or Steve Nash leave the league. Give them a few extra responsibilities and keep them around. Really, would there be anything better than seeing a coach fine himself for being late to practice?

Give Derek the ball.

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