CLEVELAND, Ohio — Sunday nights on the Fratello home in Hackensack, Recent Jersey…
Out got here the cigar box. Ignajio “Vincent” Fratello was at the top of the little table. To his right was Marie, his wife. To his left was Mike, the couple’s only child.
“My father would open the cigar box and start pulling out money,” recalled Fratello. “Ten dollars for the heating bill. Five dollars for the phone bill. Money for groceries. Money for every bill, and the cash was tight. Every Sunday night was like that, the cigar box and paying the bills.”
Fratello talked about those times as we sat in his sparkling home on Cleveland’s East Side. The cramped 2-bedroom house with one little table probably would slot in his front room today.
“Vincent’s Luncheonette,” said Fratello. “4 booths, 13 stools. That’s where the cash within the cigar box got here from. My mother or I worked the money register. You usually wanted a member of the family on the money register to keep watch over the cash.”
I used to be visiting Fratello to speak about him winning the Chuck Daly NBA Coaches Lifetime Achievement Award. He was honored by the NBA Coaches Association. This can be a big deal. Previous winners include Larry Brown, Lenny Wilkens, Bill Fitch, Hubie Brown, Bernie Bickerstaff and Pat Riley.
Fratello was head coach of the Atlanta Hawks from 1986-90. His next stop was Cleveland, 1993-99. He later coached the Memphis Grizzlies. He had a profession 667-548 record (.549) and only 4 losing seasons in his 16 years as a head coach.
The 75-year-old Fratello also has done extensive TV broadcasting, each national and native. He currently supplies evaluation for about 40 L.A. Clippers games each season and infrequently appears on some Cavs broadcasts.
FATHER & SON
But this conversation was way more concerning the heart of Michael Robert Fratello than the intense lights of NBA arenas or network TV cameras.
He showed me his father’s gold medals from 1938-39 when Vincent Fratello was the Recent York/Recent Jersey Gold Gloves middleweight boxing champion at 5-foot-7 and 160 kilos. Then got here World War II.
“When he got here home from the war, my father weighed 220 kilos,” said Fratello. “He was a cook in service and sampled a variety of his food. He got back into shape, turned pro and fought about 50 middleweight fights.”
Marie was OK along with her husband the boxer until she became pregnant with Michael. That was the ultimate bell within the ring. The luncheonette in downtown Hackensack became their life. Vincent already had an idea about running a small business because he grew up working in his father’s butcher shop.
Young Fratello not only helped out within the family business, he worked across the road within the bowling alley and pool hall. He arrange the pins. Yes, it was that way back, before machines did the work.
Fratello was a three-sport athlete at Hackensack High. Linebacker/center in football, catcher in baseball and guard in basketball. Like his dad, he was 5-foot-7, about 150 kilos.
Hours before some games, the team would show up on the luncheonette.
“My father and mother made egg sandwiches for everybody,” he said. “Our pregame meal…”
Fratello smiled concerning the memory.
“I don’t think my father ever missed a game,” Fratello recalled. “He’d show up in those all-white outfits they wore in diners back then. He’d get there right because the games began, left immediately as they ended – back to work.”
Did his father ever give him advice?
“After one little league game, he said I needed to play harder,” said Fratello. “I used to be about 9 years old.”
Did he ever say that again?
“Never,” said Fratello. “I used to be determined to never let anyone say I didn’t work hard enough.”
I WANT TO BE A HIGH SCHOOL COACH
The grandson of a butcher…
The son of a boxer and cook…
The life on the luncheonette and the bowling alley, scrambling for a couple of dollars…
“The NBA?” he said. “No way. My dream was to be a highschool coach. My father went to work at 4 a.m. Sometimes, he didn’t get home until 11 p.m.”
Fratello listened to Recent York Knicks games on a small transistor radio he bought through the mail for a dollar. He never saw an NBA game in person until highschool, and that was a rare occasion.
That’s the life he knew.
Then got here Hubie Brown, who’s now a Hall of Fame basketball coach.
But this was in 1966 when Brown was a highschool coach (three different sports) at Fair Lawn, N.J. His school played in the identical league as Fratello’s Hackensack team. In the future, Brown asked the 18-year-old Fratello to play in a summer basketball league. He also secured Fratello a job as a life guard at an area swim club where Brown worked in summers.
“On every team he played, Mike was in a leadership position – all three sports in highschool,” said Brown. “I do know, because I coached all three sports. I saw him. Other kids would follow him.”
In a single summer league game, Fratello injured his knee so severely he couldn’t walk. Brown took Fratello home, carried the young man up the steps and into the home.
Meeting Brown modified Fratello’s life.
THE LIFE CHANGER
Fratello played football at Montclair (N.J.) State. He also helped out his old highschool coaching basketball. He also worked with Brown and other future coaching stars on the Howard Garfinkel 5-star summer basketball camps.
When he graduated from college, Fratello coached freshman basketball and taught drivers education at his alma mater.
“That’s what I believed I’d be, a highschool teacher and coach,” he said.
Brown and Garfinkel didn’t imagine that they were actually putting together a casual school for future college and NBA coaches first in Honesdsale, Pa., within the Pocono Mountains and later at Robert Morris University near Pittsburgh.
Starting within the Nineteen Sixties and carrying on for many years, the summer camp was for the highest highschool players within the country. It also became a spot for young highschool and college coaches to learn and network.
It’s where Brown saw Fratello in motion, coaching individual players.
It’s where Brown – still a highschool coach – caught the eye of William & Mary college. He was hired as an assistant coach, starting his eventual rise to the NBA. That opened the door to so many others who were Hubie Brown disciples.
The Five Star Camp is where Fratello met Chuck Daly, whose award he’ll receive today. Daly was an assistant at Duke. It’s also where Fratello got to know Tom Carmody, also a Duke assistant.
When Carmody was hired to be the top coach at Rhode Island, Fratello went along as a graduate assistant. No more highschool coaching for him.
“I took a pay cut from $10,000 a yr in highschool to $2,000,” said Fratello. “It was like starting over in some respects.”
It’s an extended story with several turns and job changes, but Brown eventually ended up as the top coach of the Atlanta Hawks. Fratello? After being an assistant coach at Rhode Island, James Madison and Villanova – he was hired by Brown to be an assistant coach with the Hawks.
The yr was 1978. Fratello was 31 years old. The child who worked in his father’s diner, who set pins on the bowling alley and was a life guard was within the NBA.
And he’d remain there for the remaining of his life, either as a coach or broadcaster.
HOW DID HE MAKE IT?
Brown opened doors to many future NBA assistant and head coaches. A number of the names are Rick Pitino, Ron Rothstein, Brian Hill, Brendan Malone, Richie Adubato and Bob Hill – all future NBA coaches.
“I had 10 assistant coaches who went on to turn into head coaches within the NBA,” said Brown. “All of them had these traits. It begins with presence. Whenever you walk right into a room, do people concentrate as you begin to talk? Does it get quiet?”
But that’s just the beginning, in keeping with Brown.
“Then there’s knowledge,” said Brown. “You’ll be able to have their attention together with your presence, but you higher know what you’re talking about.”
But there’s more.
“Are you able to teach?” asked Brown. “You’ll be able to know your stuff, but are you able to teach it? Are you able to make it clear? Are you able to set expectations and hold people accountable? Great coaches are great teachers. I never hired a coach unless he could teach.”
What made it work for the 5-foot-7 Fratello, who looked nothing like a basketball player.
“Michael was one of the crucial organized assistants I’ve ever had,” said Brown. “He was a natural teacher. If a man can teach, it doesn’t matter who he teaches – highschool kids or pros. He’d discover a method to communicate the important thing points. Michael could try this from Day 1.”
Brown oozes intensity and heart when he talks about coaches.
“The nice coaches see all 10 players on the court at the identical time,” he explained. “The common coaches see about six – one side of the court. They miss the opposite side. Michael saw the entire court. He was born with it. He also had the courage to make major in-game decisions immediately.”
Brown said Atlanta made Fratello a head coach in 1983 on the age of 36 due to these attributes.
“In addition they knew he’d bring discipline and accountability,” he said. “Michael all the time ran a good ship wherever he coached.”
HIS TIME IN CLEVELAND
“Once we hired Mike (in 1993), we thought we had a team able to win,” said former Cavs GM Wayne Embry. “But we got hit with injuries. Mike never coached the team we envisioned.”
In 1993, the Cavs were coming to the top of the Mark Price/Brad Daugherty/Larry Nance/John “Hot Rod” Williams Era.
Daugherty played only 50 games and was stricken by back injuries that cut short his profession at the top of the season. Nance also battled injuries, playing only 33 games after which retiring. Price was coming to the top of his best basketball days.
The Cavs went right into a rebuild. Fratello still had five consecutive winning seasons, but couldn’t survive the primary round of the playoffs.
“Michael was all the time prepared,” said Embry. “It turned out to be a tricky job here. He did it well, given all he faced.”
Fratello said he had three teams in Cleveland. The primary was the aging group he was hired to educate. The subsequent was a young team with Bobby Phills, Chris Mills, Terrell Brandon and a few others. Then got here his third version with veteran Shawn Kemp.
Within the rearview mirror of life, Fratello’s tenure in Cleveland looks higher than when he was on the bench here. The last Cavs team to make the playoffs without LeBron James? It was Fratello’s 1997-98 Cavs, who finished 47-35 but were knocked out of the playoffs in the primary round by Indiana.
Fratello bought a house in Cleveland in 1996. He found he liked the town and decided to remain even after he was fired.
“I actually prefer it here,” he said. “With the TV work I do, I actually have to fly. So that you fly out of Cleveland in addition to anywhere else. Why move?”
AN UNDERRATED NBA COACH
Fratello had 12 winning seasons in 16 years. He never took over a talent-rich team in Atlanta, Cleveland or Memphis. The one superstar he coached in his prime was Atlanta’s Dominique Wilkins.
Ron Rothstein was Fratello’s assistant for six years in Cleveland. He also was the top coach of the Miami Heat and the Detroit Pistons – together with being an NBA assistant with other teams.
Rothstein got here through the highschool coaching ranks and the Five Star camps. He was a part-time scout for Atlanta while also the top coach at Eastchester High in Recent York.
“When Mike was hired as head coach in Atlanta, he brought me along,” said Rothstein. “All the pieces I actually have within the NBA, I owe to Mike.”
Provided that, it’s no surprise Rothstein calls Fratello “very underrated.”
Then Rothstein told a story of a speech he gave where he mentioned coaches he worked with – Daly, Riley, Rick Carlisle and Stan Van Gundy.
“I said Mike Fratello doesn’t take a back seat to any of those,” said Rothstein. “Then next day, I bumped into Pat Riley. He said, ‘You’re right about Mike.’”
Wilkens, the previous Cavs coach, praised Fratello’s “game preparation and love of the sport. You might see his enthusiasm. He was a superb coach.”
Wilkens was on the committee together with Bickerstaff, Billy Cunningham, Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich and other big names who chosen Fratello for this award.
“Winning this award is incredible,” said Fratello. “I had an in depth friendship with Chuck Daly (who died of cancer in 2009), and that makes this much more special. This can all the time mean loads to me.”
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