Bill Fitch, who gained a reputation for reviving the fortunes of dismal N.B.A. teams and took the Boston Celtics to the 1981 league championship in a pro coaching career spanning 25 seasons, died on Wednesday in Lake Conroe, Texas, north of Houston. He was 89.
His death was announced by Rick Carlisle, the coach of the Indiana Pacers and president of the N.B.A. Coaches Association, who said he had been contacted by Fitch’s daughter Marcy Ann Coville. No other details were provided.
A strong-willed figure who preached unselfish play, Fitch ran demanding workouts and did not spare the feelings of even his best players.
“I believe in discipline and I think it’s the cornerstone of world championship teams,” Fitch once said.
He was an innovator in taping games and practices to analyze his players and their opponents, shrugging off a nickname circulating around the league in its pre-high-tech years: Captain Video.
Fitch was a two-time N.B.A. coach of the year and chosen as one of the top 10 coaches in league history in 1996-97 balloting that marked the N.B.A.’s 50th anniversary.
He received in 2013 the National Basketball Coaches Association’s Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award, named for the coach who won two league championships with the Detroit Pistons.
When Kevin McHale coached the Houston Rockets in 2012, he recalled the lessons he had absorbed as a Celtic rookie during Fitch’s sometimes intimidating reign.
“Coming out of college, I had never been around a coach that talked the way Bill did to you,’’ McHale told The Houston Chronicle, “but he really pushed you hard, and I thought Bill did a great job.”
Larry Bird, who joined with McHale and Robert Parish on Fitch’s championship Celtic team, told Sports Illustrated in 1997 that Fitch “was the best in terms of motivation, getting you to really lay it on the line for each other.”
Bird thought, however, that Fitch, who resigned as the Celtic coach after four seasons, moved on to other teams so often because “he really got under the skin of some guys after a while.”
Fitch made his N.B.A. coaching debut in Cleveland, watching his 1970 expansion-team Cavaliers lose their first 15 games.
But in his sixth season, the Cavaliers won the Central Division title, going 49-33, and made it to the second round of the playoffs, bringing Fitch his first Coach of the Year Award.
Fitch was hired as the Celtics’ coach in 1979 after they had missed the playoffs for two consecutive seasons. He received his second Coach of the Year Award in 1980, when the Celtics, in Bird’s rookie season, went 61-21 and reached the playoffs’ second round.
Fitch’s Celtics won the N.B.A. title the following season, defeating the Houston Rockets in a six-game playoff final, the deciding victory coming in Houston. It was Boston’s 14th National Basketball Association championship and their first since 1976.
Taking the Rockets’ coaching post in 1983 after they had fallen on hard times, Fitch developed the Twin Towers, Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, as the core of a team that he coached to the 1986 N.B.A. finals, where the Rockets lost to the Celtics in six games.
Fitch got the New Jersey Nets’ coaching post in August 1989, succeeding Willis Reed, who became a team vice president after a 26-56 season.
The Nets won only 43 games in Fitch’s first two seasons in New Jersey, but he coached them to the 1992 playoffs, their first postseason appearance in six years, though they were eliminated in the first round.
Fitch had nearly failed to survive that season. A Nets minority owner wanted to hire Jim Valvano, the former North Carolina State coach, in December 1991. Though it didn’t happen, Fitch had other problems, having clashed with several of his players.
He resigned after that season, then became coach of the floundering Los Angeles Clippers in 1994. He never produced a winning team with the Clippers but got them to the playoffs in his third season with them.
Fitch was born on May 19, 1932, in Davenport, Iowa, and grew up in Cedar Rapids. His father, a former Marine drill sergeant, was a disciplinarian, shaping a trait his son would bring to the basketball court.
“I was 14 years old before I found out I wasn’t in the Marine Corps because I lived like a Marine,” Fitch told The Los Angeles Times in 1994. “I had nobody to share that razor strap with. I was an only child.”
Fitch played basketball at Coe College in Cedar Rapids and got his first head-coaching post there in 1958. He later coached at North Dakota, where Phil Jackson was one of his players, and then at Bowling Green and Minnesota before getting the Cavaliers’ head-coaching post.
He retired from pro coaching after the 1997-98 season with 944 victories and 1,106 losses. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., in 2019.
In addition to his daughter Marcy Ann, his survivors include two other daughters, Tammy Fitch and Lisa Fitch.
Fitch retained his zest for basketball gamesmanship long after he retired from coaching.
“I never really thought being known as Captain Video was a bad deal,” he told the N.B.A.’s website in 2013. “Other people could laugh and tease all they wanted. The truth is I was glad that nobody else was doing it because I thought it always gave our teams a big advantage.”
“If you could see my closet today,” he said, “it’s crammed full from floor to ceiling with old tapes and now with DVDs, and I’m still doing film for different people. I still love the competition and the strategy.”