The first coach in the Utah part of Utah Jazz history passed away last Friday. Tom Nissalke died at the age of 87 at his home in Salt Lake City, Utah according to the Deseret News. He had been dealing with a series of health problems. While many Jazz fans are very familiar with Jerry Sloan and Frank Layden, few may know of Tom Nissalke.
The Alpha and Omega of pro basketball coaches in Utah ... or the Omega and Alpha
Tom Nissalke wasn’t just a part of Utah Jazz history but pro basketball history in Utah. He coached Ron Boone with Utah Stars prior to his time in the NBA. He coincidentally was the last coach of the ABA Utah Stars before the league was disbanded and the first coach of the Utah Jazz after the Jazz moved from New Orleans to the Beehive State.
In his 44 games coaching the Utah Stars, his Stars went 18-26. With the Utah Jazz, he never had a winning record. He coached for 2 seasons and some change. His first season in Utah (1979-1980) he went 24-58. His following season (1980-1981) he went 28-54. His last season (1981-1982) he was fired after 20 games while the team was 8-12. Frank Layden would take over that season and only win 17 more games. That team had Rickey Green, Adrian Dantley, and Darrell Griffith. It would be another two seasons before the Utah Jazz would make the playoffs.
Tom Nissalke coached Moses Malone as a rookie
Moses Malone is known as one of the best rebounders the NBA has ever seen. An absolute unit of a man with lighting quick reflexes to match his lightning quick speed with strength, Moses Malone was first drafted into the ABA, not the NBA. That team who drafted him? The Utah Stars. Why didn’t anyone else draft him? He was a high schooler. That’s right, a professional team in Utah became the first pro basketball team to draft a high schooler. Nissalke would later say of Moses as recorded in the ABA oral history Loose Balls:
The young Moses Malone had virtually no offensive moves other than a devastating ability to get the ball off the glass. He was so lightning-quick and just seemed to know where a rebound was going. I saw a playoff game in his rookie season where he had 38 rebounds, 23 of them off the offensive glass.
Tom Nissalke wanted to make Ron Boone—yes, that Ron Boone—a player coach
Most young fans and even older fans only know Ron Boone as the Utah Jazz’s radio analyst. But before he was a radio analyst he was a great player for the Utah Stars that helped them win an ABA championship. Before that he was an Idaho State Bengal, but that only matters to the person writing this article. When the Utah Jazz came to Utah, the Jazz signed ABA Utah Stars great Ron Boone. He was 32 and toward the end of his career when they signed him.
While the Utah Jazz would end up releasing Boone, Tom Nissalke—perhaps admitting he knew things weren’t going his way with the Jazz—says he regretted not resigning and making Ron Boone a player-coach in his stead.
According to the Deseret News, Tom Nissalke said, “He would have had a terrific future as a coach.”
Ron Boone is a fantastic color commentator, but, man, what would have been.
Tom Nissalke waived a player for farting
I could summarize what happened, but the Deseret News account word for word is so much better.
During a halftime talk, one of his other players - of whom Nissalke did not think much - audibly farted, thinking it pretty funny. Nissalke didn’t say anything, but assistant coach Gene Littles sidled up to the player on the way back to the court and told him, “I think this will be your last half with the team.”
Sure enough, Nissalke later turned to Littles on the bench and said he thought they had to get rid of the offender. “And he said, ‘It’s already been taken care of,’ “ Nissalke recalled. Trainer Don Sparks had a plane ticket waiting, right after the final horn.
Tom Nissalke is one of three Jazz employed head coaches who would win Coach of the Year at some point in their career
Jerry Sloan never won a Coach of the Year award, but you know who did? Tom Nissalke. He won the award in 1976-1977 with the Houston Rockets, the year after the ABA Utah Stars disbanded. He coached the Houston Rockets to a 49-33 record. That team featured Moses Malone and the very first John Lucas—not even the third.
Funny story, though, that wasn’t his first Coach of the Year trophy. He won one in the ABA with the Dallas Chaparrals. Click for cool old school ABA logo here.
Tom Nissalke thought that Pistol Pete would be like Steph Curry in this era, but they didn’t get along in Utah
Tom Nissalke has—for the most part—spoken well of Pistol Pete despite their rocky time together in Utah. By the time Pete Maravich made his way to Utah in the move, he was disenchanted with the game and had numerous off the court issues he was dealing with.
“He was very much a recluse when he was here,” Nissalke said looking back on his time to utahjazz.com. “He never tried to lead the team. I think part of it was he sensed he couldn’t anymore.
“He didn’t want to come here. Not that many players did at the time. And when he came here he had a bad knee. He couldn’t really run anymore. We would have practice and in the old days he would have dominated any practice we ever had. He would have gotten 50 or 60 on anybody we had.”
Despite all that, Tom Nissalke worked with Frank Layden to try to get Pistol Pete a chance to win a championship before his time in the NBA was over. They called Boston and Red Auerbach.
“Would you want Pete Maravich?” Layden recalled asking.
“He can’t play, can he?” Auerbach surmised.
“No. His knee is shot. It’s like a noodle and that’s the end. However, he loves to play and he loves to practice. He doesn’t say boo. The other players will like him and we want to get him a ring before he’s done. He’s done a lot for the league.”
They struck a deal.
Boston would not win a championship that year. They would end up losing to the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals who were led by Julius Irving.