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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Daly was special to writer, his family

Daly was special to writer, his family

It was at the top of Kim Strother's to-do list: Send Chuck Daly a note of encouragement.

Chuck Daly and his wife, Terry, had always been such solid and supportive friends, especially after Kim lost her husband, Shelby Strother, 18 years ago to the same pancreatic cancer that took Daly's life this past Saturday.

But caught up in her own health issues, awaiting a liver transplant after living with hepatitis most of her life, Kim Strother was still meaning to write her note when, while in the hospital getting treatment Saturday, she heard the news of Daly's passing.

Her thoughts drifted back.

So did mine.

We were huddled outside Shelby's hospital room in Detroit -- family and a bunch of sportswriters who'd flown in from around the country who were just like family. It was March 2, 1991, a Saturday morning, when Chuck Daly, then the coach of the Detroit Pistons, showed up.

Kim laughs now, remembering how he looked that morning.

"He was dressed to be Chuck Daly," she said.

Daly always was a clotheshorse, and this day was no different. A natty sports coat covered a designer shirt.

He was stopped at the door and told the rules.

Shelby Strother, some of you might remember, was one of our own. A Satellite Beach boy and the best writer FLORIDA TODAY has ever had. In our profession, he was known not only for his writing gift, but also for his signature style. Shelby always wore Hawaiian-print shirts, even then, in 1991, when he was a sportswriter for the Detroit News. So we emptied his closet of his Hawaiian-print shirts and brought them to the hospital. The rule was that if you went in to see Shelby, you had to wear one of his shirts. Even the nurses complied.

So did Chuck Daly.

"Where's the Hawaiian shirt?" he asked, when we told him the rule. We gave him one and he immediately put it on.

Shelby had been sleeping, unconscious, or both. He had not been awake or coherent in a while. But when Daly walked in, he sat up in his hospital bed.

"Shelby, how do you like my shirt?" Daly asked, smiling broadly.

Shelby smiled back, a smile that brightened his eyes wide open.

A cassette was playing Shelby's favorite music, and at this moment, it was Clarence "Frogman" Henry's classic, "Ain't Got No Home." Shelby started singing the throaty lyrics. Daly joined in.

I ain't got no home. No place to roam.

We laughed. Shelby put on a show, somehow mustering a few quips and one-liners that was so vintage him. It was the last time he sat up in his bed. The last time we saw him lucid. He died the next morning. Only 44.

Kim took a picture of the moment, that special exchange between her husband and Chuck Daly, and gave a copy to the coach, who told her he always kept it hanging on his office wall.

Before Daly left that morning, he told Shelby something that resonated true.

"I want you to know," he said, "that your family will always be a part of our family."

That night after Chuck Daly visited the hospital, we got word that Isiah Thomas wanted Shelby's two boys and four of their friends to sit in his six courtside seats. One of the boys' friends was a kid born without arms and legs, and you can imagine what a sight that was -- children wheeling a friend without arms and legs into an NBA arena on a red wagon.

It was Daly who arranged for the six boys to come into the Pistons' locker room to meet players and get autographs during those sacrosanct pregame moments when locker rooms are closed to the media and everyone else.

After Shelby died, the Pistons had a moment of silence and wore a black patch on their jerseys the rest of the season. "I was told," Kim said, "that it was the first time an NBA team had ever done that for a sportswriter."

Kim still has the black-patch jerseys Isiah Thomas and Vinnie Johnson wore that season. Bill O'Connell, a former FLORIDA TODAY sportswriter now with the Chicago Tribune, has the jersey Bill Laimbeer wore.

A few months later, at the 1991 NBA Finals, the press credential was fashioned out of a photo of one of Shelby's Hawaiian-print shirts, another first and only.

True to his word, neither Chuck Daly, the Detroit Piston, nor the NBA ever forgot Shelby Strother and his family.

Shelby's two sons, Tommy and Kenny, became honorary Pistons ball boys.

The Pistons held a fundraiser after one of their games, drawing memorabilia from Detroit's other pro teams -- the Tigers, Lions and Red Wings -- and auctioned them off, the proceeds going to the boys' scholarship fund.

Every year, as the boys grew up, they were special guests at the NBA All-Star Game.

For years after Shelby died, Daly's wife, Terry, sent Kim letters of encouragement. When Daly became the Magic head coach, she'd visit them in Orlando.

"Chuck and Terry were the kind of friends you don't see very often, but when you do, you just pick up where you left off," Kim said. "They were friends that, even though you're not always with them, they are always in your heart."

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