Al Bianchi, a pro basketball figure for more than half a century who returned to his New York roots in the late 1980s and oversaw a promising but short-lived revival of the Knicks as their general manager, died on Monday in Phoenix. He was 87.
His death was announced by the Knicks.
Bianchi played for a decade in the National Basketball Association as a guard; he was a head coach and executive in two leagues; and he scouted as well.
He made his N.B.A. debut with the Syracuse Nationals in 1956, and he was chomping on a cigar as a silver-haired scout six decades later.
As he put it, “I’m a basketball guy.”
After coaching stints with the Chicago Bulls and the Seattle SuperSonics in the late 1960s, Bianchi became the coach and general manager of the American Basketball Association’s Virginia Squires. The Squires signed Julius Erving out of the University of Massachusetts in 1971, and he became a sensation. But they sent him to the Nets two years later for what the Squires called “a lot of cash” and a forward, George Carter.
“We had to sell players just to survive,” Bianchi told The Richmond Times Dispatch in 2006. Erving’s departure, he remarked wryly, “made me a lousy coach.”
The Squires fired Bianchi in November 1975 and went out of business the following May.
Bianchi worked as an assistant coach with the Phoenix Suns, under John MacLeod, from 1976 to 1987, then was hired as general manager of the Knicks.
The Knicks had won only 24 games in the 1986-87 season under Coach Hubie Brown and his successor, Bob Hill. Bianchi replaced Hill with Providence College’s Rick Pitino, who installed a pressing defense and a run-and-gun offense with an emphasis on three-point shots.
Bianchi didn’t attempt to keep Bernard King, the Knicks’ once prolific scorer, from signing with the Washington Bullets at the outset of the 1987-88 season, when he was returning from a severe knee injury, since Pitino felt he wouldn’t fit into his system.
King made a remarkable comeback with the Bullets. But the Knicks made progress in their own right, led by Patrick Ewing at center and the point guard Mark Jackson, whom Bianchi drafted out of St. John’s. They won 38 games that season, though they were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
The Knicks won 52 games in Bianchi and Pitino’s second season and again made the playoffs, this time reaching the second round. But Pitino quit afterward to become head coach at the University of Kentucky.
Bianchi and Pitino had been at odds. Bianchi, who later said he had wanted to hire a pro coach only to be rebuffed by Knick ownership, favored a traditional pro style, at least in the playoffs, feeling that the Pitino-style system could exhaust players by the end of the regular season.
“In June, when you still want to be playing, you need a half-court offense and defense, like it or not,” he told The New York Times after Pitino’s resignation.
Pitino later told The Times of his relationship with Bianchi, “There was a basic mistrust, both ways, from the start.”
Bianchi hired Stu Jackson, a former assistant to Pitino, to replace him. He fired Jackson in December 1990 and gave the coaching job to his old Phoenix colleague MacLeod. Three months after that, Bianchi was fired and replaced by Dave Checketts.
Bianchi brought players like Charles Oakley, John Starks, Kiki Vandeweghe and Maurice Cheeks to the Knicks, but he was never able to get the team to an elite level.
Alfred Bianchi was born on March 26, 1932, in Queens and played basketball there at Long Island City High School. He was a high-scoring guard at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and was selected by the Minneapolis Lakers in the second round of the 1954 N.B.A. draft.
After he spent two years in the Army, the Lakers sent him to the Nationals. He played for seven seasons in Syracuse, mostly behind the outstanding backcourt pairing of Hal Greer and Larry Costello.
Bianchi remained with the franchise when it became the Philadelphia 76ers in 1963. He retired after the 1965-1966 season with a career scoring average of 8.1 points a game.
He was an assistant coach for one season with the expansion Bulls and head coach for two seasons with the SuperSonics, another new team, who won only 53 games over his two seasons in Seattle.
Moving to the A.B.A., he was named coach of the year for 1970-71. Then came Julius Erving’s pro debut.
Survivors include a son, Luc. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
In his later years, Bianchi was a scout for the Suns and the Golden State Warriors.
Bianchi was never part of a league championship team, but he did have a championship ring. It was silver with a turquoise stone and inscribed “Phoenix Suns, 1975-76 World Champs.”
The Suns had, in fact, lost to the Boston Celtics in a six-game 1976 N.B.A. finals. Bianchi, then a first-year Suns assistant, had been incensed by Richie Powers’s refereeing in the triple-overtime Game 5, which Boston won. Feeling that the Suns had been deprived of a chance to win the title, he commissioned the ring in 1977 and had an expletive directed at Powers inscribed on the inside of the band.
That championship series “was my only chance to win a ring,” he told The Arizona Republic long afterward, “so I thought, I’ll have one made for myself.”
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