Former Bradley, NBA coach Dick Versace stood by his players and by Chicago

“He made you believe,” says one of the many people whose lives he touched.

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Former Bradley University basketball coach Dick Versace, who went on to coach in the NBA, died Feb. 25 in Chicago, which he made his home most of his adult life.

Former Bradley University basketball coach Dick Versace, who went on to coach in the NBA, died Feb. 25 in Chicago, which he made his home most of his adult life.

Provided

Dick Versace recruited Carl Maniscalco as a 13-year-old eighth grader to play basketball for him at Gordon Tech, then recruited him again to join him at Jackson Community College in Michigan and finally once more to finish his college career at Bradley University in Peoria when Versace landed the head coaching job there.

It started a 50-year bond between the two men, a player and coach a generation apart who battled sometimes in those early years but, in the process, forged a friendship that endured even as Versace’s career led him to the NBA and Maniscalco’s to the trading floors of LaSalle Street.

When Maniscalco’s son Sam later became a star at Bradley, it was Versace who joined him on long drives to watch the son play. Later still, when Versace’s mobility was limited by Parkinson’s disease, it was Maniscalco who continued to escort him to visit his favorite haunts.

“We talked every day,” Maniscalco said — right until Feb. 25, when Versace, 81, died at Rush University Medical Center after a heart attack.

Versace probably is best known to older Chicago sports fans as the flamboyant, love-him-or-hate-him, sideline showman with the white bird’s-nest hairdo who led Gordon Tech to a city title and returned Bradley to national prominence before becoming Chuck Daly’s assistant on the Detroit Pistons’ “Bad Boys” teams and then the head coach of the Indiana Pacers.

Or maybe they knew him from the NBA broadcasting career that came afterward on TBS and TNT or with TV and radio stations in Chicago during the Michael Jordan championship runs.

Yet Versace’s death managed to slip between the cracks of the news cycle, with neither Chicago newspaper taking note, which was a shame because Versace loved this city, making it his adopted home for most of his adult life.

He loved The Second City and listening to live music at blues bars. He loved dining in Greek Town and along Taylor Street. He loved any movie theater with a film he hadn’t seen.

“There’s a pulse, a beat to the city that I’ve always been affected by,” he once told a Tribune writer, adding boastfully, “I bet I know more about Chicago than you do. I know where you can get baked Alaska at 4 a.m. Where at 3:30 a.m. you can hear Dinah Washington and Nat King Cole on a juke box.”

Another friend, television producer Charlie Besser, said: “He loved the authentic stuff. He loved finding a little joint on the corner that no one knew of. He loved knowing the waiters and the managers and the bus boys.”

Of course, Versace also knew where — and how — to recruit the city’s best basketball players. It was because he was spending so much time here recruiting for Bradley — as head coach from 1978 to 1986 — that he first convinced the university it would be cheaper to just rent him a small loft apartment in Pilsen.

Versace’s Hersey Hawkins- and Jim Les-led team finished 32-3, advancing to the second round of the 1986 NCAA tournament before falling to eventual national champion Louisville.

After that season, Versace left Bradley under the cloud of NCAA penalties. But he kept the apartment and maintained a home here pretty much ever since.

More than 100 of Versace’s friends and family gathered for a memorial service last month at Tufano’s Vernon Park Tap, the coach’s favorite restaurant, to trade stories about his legendary temper and courtside antics and also about his generous, positive nature and all of the people he helped.

They talked about the tournament in Hawaii where Versace registered his objection to one particular foul call by plucking the whistle directly from the official’s mouth and chucking it into the stands. That got him ejected, a common occurrence throughout Versace’s coaching career.

Dick Versace demonstrating his displeasure, a common sight at Bradley basketball games from 1978 to 1986.

Dick Versace demonstrating his displeasure, a common sight at Bradley basketball games from 1978 to 1986.

Bradley University

Pierre Cooper, who attended the memorial, was one of the top prospects in the state when Versace recruited him out of Luther South. But he soon was diagnosed with a blood disorder that ended his career. Despite Cooper never playing a minute for Bradley, Versace made sure the school honored his scholarship, and Cooper completed his business degree. Versace later helped him land a good job.

“Dick promised my parents: ‘One thing you’re going to do is get an education,’” said Cooper, who went on to a successful business career.

Tufano’s owner Joey DiBuono was one of Versace’s students at Gordon Tech, where the coach taught English literature.

“He taught me how to enjoy school and seek education,” said DiBuono, who said Versace always kept in touch and their relationship evolved through the years until he came to think of him as family.

Versace had an unconventional family upbringing as a self-professed Army brat. His father Humbert was an Army colonel whose postings took the family around the world. His mother Tere Rios was an author. Her book “The Fifteenth Pelican” became the basis for “The Flying Nun,” a popular 1960s TV sitcom.

As a result, Versace regarded himself as a Renaissance man with varied interests, not just a basketball coach, according to his son David, 57, a manager with Deloitte.

“It almost seemed like he was too smart to be a basketball coach,” Maniscalco said.

But basketball drove him. He told Maniscalco during that eighth-grade recruiting visit that he would coach in the NBA some day.

During his only full season as the Pacers’ head coach, Versace led the team to a 42-40 record and into the playoffs for only the third time in franchise history. But the next year he was fired after the Pacers started poorly, and he never got another head coaching job.

Versace later told Chicago writer Ben Joravsky he knew when he took the Pacers opening that it would end with him getting fired, but he couldn’t let that stop him.

“It was the culmination of my lifelong dream; I couldn’t turn the Pacers down,” he said.

As it happened, another great basketball opportunity came Versace’s way in 1999, when Chicago businessman Michael Heisley asked him for help in acquiring an NBA franchise. After Heisley succeeded in buying the Vancouver Grizzlies, he installed Versace as president and general manager. Soon afterward, they moved the team to Memphis. Versace was ousted in 2005.

Dick Versace with grandchildren Deklin and Tessa.

Dick Versace with grandchildren Deklin and Tessa.

Provided

Maniscalco said it was a much mellower Versace who spent his final years here, the last 14 with his girlfriend Dorothy Culhane.

Now, Maniscalco finds himself contemplating Versace’s strong influence on his life, including that quality that made Versace a successful recruiter and winner.

“He made you believe,” he said.

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