Fitch yelled and screamed and cajoled his players and often the players wanted to yell back. Or shut him out. "After a while, we just quit listening," Robert Parish said.
Five years after leading the Celtics to the NBA championship against Houston, Fitch is back in the finals for the first time. The Celtics are here, too, but this time Fitch is coaching the Rockets. There is much intrigue about his return, not as a Celtics coach, but as an adversary. Fitch has been asked hundreds of times whether any bitterness lingers, whether he feels like a stranger in a strange land.
Patiently, he has said no. The past is the past. There are no hard feelings. The man on the street still loves him in Boston. He hit all the old places, the Chinese restaurants, saw all the old faces.
"I enjoyed my four years in Boston," he said. "I gave them the best I had. We had a good time building that club. I've still got a lot of friends there."
If he was too much of a disciplinarian, well, discipline is necessary in molding a basketball team, Fitch said. Especially the Boston team that he inherited for the 1979-80 season.
The Celtics had gone through a rough, troubled period. These were the turbulent years of Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe and Bob McAdoo. In 1978-79, Boston finished 29-53 under coaches Satch Sanders and Dave Cowens, the Celtics' worst record in three decades. Fitch was brought in as a ghostbuster.
"Discipline is a very important part of building a champion," Fitch said. ''Discipline is another word for poise, for doing the right thing at the right time, for getting tougher when things get tough.
"Basketball is an animalistic sport. You coach on the run. You're always yelling, screaming. But I think I have the respect of every player I've ever had."
Larry Bird joined the Celtics when Fitch did, then Kevin McHale and Robert Parish came the next year. Fitch whipped Parish into running shape when Dave Cowens unexpectedly retired, and Boston won the NBA title.
Fitch won a Coach of the Year award and three division titles in Boston, but after four years, he had worn out his welcome. He had built the Celtics into winners, but a veteran team now balked at his heavy-handed approach. Even assistant coach - and current Celtics head coach - K.C. Jones had a non- relationship with Fitch. The story goes that Jones used to ask the media what time practice was.
"Bill did a good job here, but he's a builder, not a maintainer," McHale said.
"No one listens when you yell," Parish said. "K.C.'s a players' coach. He knows when to let up. And he takes suggestions. He doesn't yell much, but when he does, sometimes you want to leave the room."
After the 1983 Eastern Conference semifinals ended with a four-game sweep by Milwaukee, Fitch was gone. The players revolted. Fitch had lost his grip. He resigned.
"If we had won four straight games against Milwaukee, I still would have been gone," Fitch said.
Harry Mangurian was going to sell the team. Red Auerbach's presence was low-key, almost invisible.
"Red was going to be gone," Fitch said. "I didn't want to stay around here and hear, 'Well, Red didn't do it that way.' "
From the beginning, Fitch had been an outsider. Since Auerbach took over in 1950, Fitch had been the only non-Celtic to coach the team. He left and went to Houston, and Jones became the Celtics' boss.
Of course, not every member of the Celtics revolted against Fitch. Bird has been frothy with compliments about his former coach.
"Bill Fitch is probably more of a competitor than some of the people we have on this team," Bird said. "Excepting K.C., I've always said that I thought Bill Fitch was the best coach in the league, bar none. He's a great X's and O's man. He's always prepared. He puts the time into it. He's very intense and he's a winner. The guy does not accept losing. If he loses a game, he wants to know why. We definitely had some guys who didn't believe in the way Bill Fitch was running the team, but we had success."
Fitch, too, has kind words for Bird. "I think he's the best ever. He played in practice like it was the seventh game of the championship series. Someday, if someone discovers that man can actually fly, I expect Larry Bird will be the first to actually do it."
To this day, Fitch maintains that no one disobeyed his orders, refused to do what he was told.
"If I had coached a game the day I left, there's not a player who wouldn't have gone out and played the game the way it's supposed to be played."
And, Parish insists, these finals are not a personal vendetta for Boston. ''We're playing against the Rockets, not against Bill Fitch," he said.
There have been some unpleasantries in Houston, too. No one ever described Fitch and his team as one big happy family. This preseason, he questioned Ralph Sampson's dedication, and Sampson exploded, saying leave me alone or trade me. "It's time to stop treating everyone like kids," Sampson said.
But Fitch's approach has been undeniably successful in Houston, just as it was in Boston. He has gotten Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon to play in harmony. He drafted Rodney McCray ahead of Clyde Drexler in 1983, and McCray has become one of the most efficient, unselfish players in the league. Fitch also coaxed Robert Reid out of retirement and plucked Lewis Lloyd from free agency. And here the Rockets are, in the NBA finals, three years after Fitch arrived and two years ahead of management's "five-year plan."
Fitch and Sampson have patched up their differences, at least to the point where Fitch can coach and Sampson can take suggestions. "It's a player-coach relationship," Sampson said. "He's a good coach. That's his job."
Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but at least there is no public bickering. Some have gone so far as to say that Fitch has mellowed. Not true, Fitch said.
"I haven't mellowed," he said. "I just don't crack the whip when they are doing things right. What the players don't understand is that they are disciplining themselves."
With the Twin Towers on Houston's basketball skyline, the Rockets should be contenders for years to come. But with Fitch as coach? His reputation suggests otherwise. That he can build but not maintain. Now he has a chance to prove that reputation wrong.
"I'm going to learn to maintain," he said. "I'm too damn old to pack up and move."