Shortly after Del Harris was brought in as the Lakers' new coach, Mike Downey of the Los Angeles Times jokingly wrote in a column, "Oh no, they hired Leslie Nielsen."
Downey went on to describe how Harris, then coaching in Milwaukee, once bumped into the real Leslie Nielsen at a basketball game in Chicago and spontaneously asked the actor to go into the locker room pretending to be Harris, which Nielsen did -- screaming at Bucks players to "stop dribbling" and "act like men for a change."
"Maybe I can be his body double in the next 'Airplane!' or 'Naked Gun,' " Harris was quoted as saying.
Yes, he resembled "The Naked Gun" guy in appearance, but when it came to coaching, Harris was no comedian. He took his profession seriously and that's one reason why Jerry West and company chose him to lead a team long on potential but short on experience. Prior to Harris, you had to go as far back as Bill Sharman to find someone who had previous pro head coaching experience before being named head coach of the Lakers. Magic Johnson had not. Randy Pfund had not. Mike Dunleavy had not. Pat Riley had not. Neither had Paul Westhead, Jack McKinney or Jerry West.
"When the Los Angeles Lakers put 'no experience necessary' in a want ad, they ain't kidding," Downey wrote.
That is, until they hired Harris. He arrived in Los Angeles having coached 673 regular-season NBA games and 52 more in the playoffs. He guided Moses Malone and the Houston Rockets to the Finals in 1981, yet his league winning percentage was a below average .493. West had first offered the job to then-Kansas head coach Roy Williams, who turned it down. Harris did a credible job his first year, becoming the third man in Lakers history to win coach of the year honors, joining Sharman and Riley.
Harris proved to be a solid coach. The Lakers' win total increased from 48 to 53 to 56 to 61 in his first four seasons, but what eventually led to his departure was the team's inability to produce in the playoffs. The Lakers lost to San Antonio in the second round, lost to Houston in the first round, then were eliminated twice by Utah -- including a four-game sweep in the 1997-98 Western Conference finals. Needing to start the next season strong, the Lakers did just the opposite, stumbling to a 6-6 record out of the gate. The Lakers dismissed Harris on Feb. 24, one day after signing former Detroit and Chicago rebounding king Dennis Rodman, who proved to be an unwise acquisition.
Harris was an assistant for Dallas from 2000-07 and became an assistant to rookie coach Vinnie Del Negro in Chicago in 2008. After 50 years in the game, the 72-year-old Harris retired following the 2008-09 season, only to return as an assistant in New Jersey in 2009-10, resigning in February with the Nets' record a dismal 4-43.