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The Most Miserable—and Hilarious—Coaching Flameouts in NBA History

John Beilein lasted just 54 games with the Cavaliers, but he’s hardly the first coach to see his career quickly bust. Even legends like Magic Johnson and Bill Russell had their own coaching disasters.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Cleveland Cavaliers coach John Beilein resigned on Wednesday. That’s the technical term: resigned. It’s more self-governing than “fired,” less degrading than “forced out by his own players.” Beilein never clicked with the NBA. Not schematically, not as a developmental figure, and certainly not as a relationship guy. The all-powerful coaching style that worked so well for Beilein with student-athletes at Michigan didn’t fly with professionals in Cleveland. He quickly learned that the father-son, principal-student type of symbiotic relationship was not only ineffective at the next level, it was offensive. So Cleveland asked whether he wanted to leave, and he did.

Beilein stayed true to himself until the end. “I want to be clear,” he said in his press release. “This was my decision to step down and I truly appreciate the understanding and support of the front office during this time.” Yet reports dropped Wednesday that said players had been poking fun at Beilein in practice over the past month. After an incident in January when he referred to the Cavs as “thugs” in a film session, players began playing songs in Beilein’s presence that repeatedly said the word “thugs.” (I’m dying to know which of the young guys queued the throwback “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” so we can all buy his jersey.)

Beilein’s 54-game stint was a disaster, but it isn’t unprecedented. I searched for the most humiliating coaching tenures in the history of the NBA. My findings: Philadelphia deserves a list of its own, and Sacramento and Phoenix will never learn. Below are my 14 favorite short-lived coaching stories with miserable and often hilarious endings. As we say in Kentucky, bless their hearts.

Magic Johnson, 1993-94 Lakers

Record: 5-11

Owner Jerry Buss fired Randy Pfund with 18 games left in the season. With 16 contests left, he turned to Magic, who had no coaching experience—not even as an assistant. It wasn’t completely out of the blue. Magic’s name had been tossed around as a potential candidate for open positions. Before the 1993-94 season, Magic, who had retired after the 1991 season, had reportedly rejected offers from both the Lakers and the Hawks. He was a franchise legend and was already familiar with a decent chunk of the roster. What could go wrong? I’ve always been skeptical of the idea that former players will easily graduate to a head-coach position without any proof that they can do the job. (Even for someone with Magic’s on-court vision.) It’s the sports equivalent of what the late comedian Mitch Hedberg said in a 1999 Comedy Central special:

“[Hollywood says], ‘All right. You’re a standup comedian. Can you act? Can you write? Write us a script.’ They want me to do things that’s related to comedy. But not comedy. That’s not fair. It’s as though I was a cook. And I worked my ass off to become a good cook. They said ‘All right. You’re a cook. Can you farm?’ I planted a carrot once.”

The day Magic was hired, Pat Riley said ominously, “Now he’ll find out what torture really is.” Magic quit as head coach just before his 11th game tipped off. He didn’t inform his players before the game, but the “tenor of Johnson’s pregame comments appeared to indicate that he wouldn’t return,” The New York Times wrote. The Lakers scrambled in the second quarter to put together an announcement. How history repeats itself.

What happened next? Magic saw the final five games of the season through, then never coached again.

Roy Rubin, 1972-73 Sixers

Record: 4-47

Nothing like the story of “Poor Roy Rubin” will ever happen again in the NBA. Rubin, who had no NBA coaching experience, found a listing for the Sixers’ head-coaching job in the classified section of The Philadelphia Inquirer. (He’d previously coached Long Island University, leaving with a 174-94 record after seven seasons.) A friend of Rubin’s showed him the ad, then spoke on his behalf to Philly’s general manager, Don DeJardin.

“You mean he’s interested in us?” DeJardin asked.

Philadelphia was a cursed destination back then. The roster was decimated, and coaches were spurning the franchise (hence the newspaper ad). Reporters asked why Rubin would subject himself to the Sixers’ situation. “Who knows?” said Rubin. “Maybe two weeks after the season starts, I’ll feel like killing myself.” Philly started the season 0-15, and Rubin lost 40 pounds over three months. He counted down the minutes until halftime was over, and once said, “I’m not the one who misses the shots, who throws the ball away, who won’t box out. They’re killing me.” Philly fired Rubin after 51 games, maybe out of pity. I maintain that this is the most compassionate act in the organization’s history.

What happened next? Rubin never coached again. Obviously. He later invested in a Broadway play. It closed after one performance.

Tyrone Corbin, 2014-15 Kings

Record: 7-21

Justice for Corbin, who was wronged by the Kings so quickly that no one even remembers it. Corbin took over as interim head coach when Mike Malone was fired in December 2014. Eight games into his residency, the team officially lifted the “interim” tag from his title. Corbin could now focus on implementing the faster offense that he wanted without worrying about his place as head coach, at least for the rest of the season. Except 20 games later, the Kings fired Corbin. He was replaced by George Karl, who seemed, by all coaching standards, a much better option. (Karl was fired after the next season.)

What happened next? Corbin was never a head coach again, but returned to the league as an assistant.

Earl Watson, 2017-18 Suns

Record: 33-85

Watson’s promotion to head coach was one of the most negligent actions in NBA history. He was an assistant for one year before he was given the job. He lasted two seasons, sort of; Watson was let go after three games in 2017-18, earning the honor of quickest in-season firing in league history. The Suns lost their first game in 2017-18 by 48 points, though, the worst opening-night loss in league history and the worst overall loss in Suns history. That should count for at least three more L’s.

Watson’s tenure will also always be remembered by Eric Bledsoe’s plea for help: The “I Dont wanna be here” tweet that ended his time in Phoenix.

What happened next? I don’t know. He hasn’t returned to coaching yet. I have noticed from following him on Twitter that everything he retweets, he also faves. He must have a lot of time on his hands.

Jerry Tarkanian, 1992-93 Spurs

Record: 9-11

Like Beilein, Tarkanian came to the NBA after many successful years coaching collegiately. He lasted only 20 games; he was so stressed by team injuries, players publicly disagreeing with him, and mounting pressure that he was hospitalized with chest pains. He was fired after begging team owner Red McCombs for a point guard after Rod Strickland left for Portland.

”All I wanted was a point guard,” Tarkanian said. “I’ll never coach again. I’m all done. I probably shouldn’t have gotten into it this time. I’m 62 years old. I probably ought to be out watering the flowers.”

What happened next? Tarkanian returned to college basketball for the 1995-96 season as head coach at Fresno State. I hope that in between, he was gardening.

Bill Russell, 1987-88 Kings

Record: 17-41

The most bizarre period of Russell’s otherwise storied career is his flopping as head coach of the Kings for 58 games in the ’80s. How do I explain this to my fictitious children? Russell’s transactions backfired, and fans hated his secluded nature. “It’s very hard to know what’s ticking inside him,” one fan told the Los Angeles Times.

What happened next? Russell never coached again in the NBA. Honestly no idea what happened to that guy.

Igor Kokoskov, 2018-19 Suns

Record: 19-63

Unlike so many coaches on this list, Kokoskov had a great deal of experience before his first head-coaching job. He was an assistant for 18 years in the NBA, including five seasons in Phoenix from 2008 to 2013. Unfortunately Kokoskov inherited a lackluster team, the only welcoming gift the Suns know how to give besides impatience.

But Kokoskov will not be forgotten. He passed too many benchmarks! The Suns finished last in the Western Conference, went on a franchise-worst 17-game losing streak, and were the first team since 1954-55 to score fewer than 10 points in the first quarter of consecutive games. Though his Suns team was not the losingest in franchise history. That honor belongs to Red Kerr, who coached the 1968-69 squad to a 16-66 record.

What happened next? Kokoskov is an assistant coach with the Kings.

Don Nelson, 1995-96 Knicks

Record: 34-25

Ways to keep your coaching job: Don’t suggest trading Patrick Ewing. Nelson suggested the Knicks trade Patrick Ewing. He was fired a month later.

What happened next? Nelson coached for 12 more seasons after leaving New York. He’s now retired and growing weed in Maui. He calls the strain “Nellie Kush.”

Mike Brown, 2012-13 Lakers

Record: 42-29 overall; 1-4 in 2012-13

When Brown was fired five games into the 2012-13 season, an ESPN source said that the move was “more to stop what was happening than to pursue anybody else.” Having no plan was preferable to Brown’s current plan. His replacement, Bernie Bickerstaff, was shocked by the news. Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol also came out in support of Brown. The coach had led the Lakers to a 41-25 record the previous season (a lockout year cut the total games to 62), but the team went 0-8 during the preseason, and the Busses aren’t known for patience.

What happened next? Brown coached the Cavaliers the season after, and hasn’t held a head-coaching job since.

Larry Drew, 2013-14 Bucks

Record: 15-67

There’s bad management, and then there’s James Dolan, and then there’s the way Drew was fired in 2014. His Bucks finished with the fewest wins in franchise history despite having a roster that was largely the same as the one that had made the playoffs the season before. But it’s what came after the season that’s really interesting:

1. The Bucks fired Drew, but only after they had come to terms with his replacement, Jason Kidd.

2. Kidd played under Drew when the latter was an assistant for New Jersey in 2003-04.

3. It’s wildly disrespectful to come for someone’s job while he still has it. This is my favorite Woj bomb ever:

4. John Hammond, Milwaukee’s general manager at the time, had no knowledge that Kidd was interviewing for the job. Owners Marc Lasry and Wes Edens were negotiating with the Nets behind Hammond’s back.

5. Consider that this was all happening to get Kidd, who was having a tumultuous time as head coach of the Nets. (And is a chaotic person in general.) Brooklyn had shut down his request for full control of the front office the week before the trade. Kidd then pushed for Milwaukee to grant him full authority over the front office in addition to coaching. He toyed with the Nets, the Bucks, Drew, and Hammond, all for four regrettable seasons in Milwaukee.

What happened next? Kidd is an assistant coach with the Lakers.

Bill Hanzlik, 1997-98 Nuggets

Record: 11-71

Hanzlik was adored in Denver after spending the last eight seasons of his playing career there before retiring in 1990. He had no head-coaching experience. For franchise legends, that never seems to matter. The Nuggets were so bad under Hanzlik that Dennis Rodman said, “Playing Denver is like playing a high school team. This is the worst team in the history of basketball.” General manager Dan Issel, hired after Hanzlik, called him a “good man” who was “thrown into a no-win situation” because of offseason moves. (Technically, it was an 11-win situation.)

What happened next? Hanzlik never coached again.

Quinn Buckner, 1993-94 Mavericks

Record: 13-69

Buckner played in the NBA for 10 seasons from 1976 to 1986, but came to Dallas with no previous coaching experience when owner Donald Carter hired him. Later, Carter said that Buckner had “burned bridges” with his players because he gave terrible advice. Buckner was unusually upbeat about the entire thing: “We had a great run. It was fun.” Sixty-nine losses is Nice, but it’s not fun.

What happened next? Buckner never coached again. He also, thankfully, never wrote an advice column.

Larry Brown, 2005-06 Knicks

Record: 23-59

Brown’s record in his one season with the Knicks was the franchise’s worst in two decades. (If only they knew what was to come.) Brown had run-ins with Stephon Marbury, who he’d previously coached during the 2004 Olympics. Marbury called that experience the “worst 38 days of my life playing for that man.” Their season together with the Knicks wasn’t much better. The blood was so bad that Dolan refused to pay the $40 million left on Brown’s contract.

What happened next? Brown coached Charlotte for three seasons. He coached SMU for a few seasons after that, but never returned to the NBA.

Eric Musselman, 2006-07 Kings

Record: 33-49

Musselman was in hot water before his first game as Kings head coach. He was arrested for drunk driving after Sac’s first preseason game, landing him a two-game suspension in February. The ending was ugly, too: The Kings lost 17 out of their final 22 games, and failed to make the postseason.

What happened next? Musselman never coached again in the NBA. He returned to college basketball, and currently coaches at Arkansas.