Dick Versace: Ex-Bradley, NBA coach stood by his players and Chicago

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 began a 50-year bond between the two men, a player and manager of a generation apart who sometimes fought in those early years but in the process forged a friendship that lasted even though the Versace’s career took him to the NBA and that of Maniscalco to the LaSalle Street floors.

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

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

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

Or maybe they knew him from the NBA broadcast career that followed on TBS and TNT or with television and radio stations in Chicago during the Michael Jordan championship runs.

Yet Versace’s death managed to slip through the cracks of the news cycle, without any Chicago newspaper taking notice, which was a shame because Versace loved this city, making it his home of adoption for most of his adult life.

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

“There’s a pulse, a rhythm to the city that has always affected me,” he once told a Tribune writer, adding boastfully, “I bet I know more about Chicago than you. I know where you can cook yourself Alaska at 4 a.m., where at 3:30 a.m. you can hear Diana Washington and Nat King Cole on a jukebox.

Another friend, TV producer Charlie Besser, said, “He liked the authentic stuff. He loved finding a little joint around the corner that no one knew about. He loved getting to know the waiters, managers and bus drivers.

Of course, Versace also knew where – and how – to recruit the best basketball players in town. It was because he spent so much time here recruiting for Bradley – as head coach from 1978 to 1986 – that he first convinced the university that it would be cheaper to hire him a small loft in Pilsen.

The team led by Hersey Hawkins and Jim Les of Versace 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 swap stories of his legendary temper and antics on the pitch, as well as his his generous and positive nature and all the people he helped.

They talked about the tournament in Hawaii where Versace voiced his objection to a particular whistle by snatching the whistle directly from the official’s mouth and throwing it into the stands. This got him sent off, a common occurrence throughout Versace’s coaching career.

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

Pierre Cooper, who attended the memorial, was one of the state’s top prospects when Versace recruited him from Luther South. But he was soon diagnosed with a blood disease that ended his career. Although Cooper never played a minute for Bradley, Versace made sure the school honored his scholarship and Cooper got his business degree. Versace then 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 career in business.

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

“He taught me to appreciate school and to seek an education,” said DiBuono, who said Versace always stayed in touch and their relationship evolved over the years until it finally ended. come to consider it as a family.

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

As a result, Versace saw himself as a Renaissance man with varied interests, not just a basketball coach, according to his son David, 57, a manager at 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 one day coach the NBA.

In his only full season as Pacers head coach, Versace led the team to a 42-40 record and the playoffs for only the third time in franchise history. But the following year, he was fired after the Pacers got off to a bad start, and he never got another head coaching job.

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

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

In fact, another great basketball opportunity came to Versace in 1999, when Chicago businessman Michael Heisley asked him for help acquiring an NBA franchise. After Heisley successfully purchased the Vancouver Grizzlies, he installed Versace as president and general manager. Soon after, they moved the team to Memphis. Versace was ousted in 2005.

Dick Versace with his grandchildren Deklin and Tessa.

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

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

“He made you believe,” he said.

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