Tom Nissalke, the Jazz’s first head coach after the franchise moved from New Orleans to Utah in 1979, died Thursday in Salt Lake City at the age of 87.
Nissalke, a Wisconsin native who won Coach of the Year awards in both the NBA and the defunct ABA, had a record of 60-124 in two-plus seasons with the Jazz.
“Gail Miller and the Miller Family, along with the Jazz organization, are saddened to hear about the passing of former head coach Tom Nissalke," the team said Friday in a statement. "As our first head coach when the team moved in 1979 from New Orleans to Salt Lake City, he was instrumental in helping the franchise transition to its new home. We express our appreciation for all he did as the Jazz coach and for introducing the NBA to our community. Our thoughts are with Coach Nissalke’s daughter, son, grandchildren and friends during this time.”
When hired by the Jazz following their relocation, Nissalke had already served as a head coach for three ABA teams — including the Utah Stars — and a pair of NBA franchises.
He got his start in professional coaching as an assistant with the expansion Milwaukee Bucks in 1968-69. When the Bucks won the NBA championship in the 1970-71 season, thanks to a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and a veteran Oscar Roberton, Nissalke was able to parlay the team’s success into his first head coaching job, with the ABA’s Dallas Chaparrals.
Despite the Chaparrals going just 42-42, he was named the ABA Coach of the Year for his efforts. That, in turn, led to an opportunity to coach the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics, though he was fired just 45 games into the season, with the Sonics sporting a 13-32 record.
He then returned to the ABA, for stints with the San Antonio Spurs and the Utah Stars — he was with the latter when the team suddenly folded midway through the 1975-76 season.
In 1976-77, Nissalke got his second shot in the NBA, this time with the Houston Rockets. His first season with the team saw them finish 49-33 and reach the second round of the playoffs, leading to him being named the NBA Coach of the Year.
Following three seasons with the Rockets, he agreed to return to Utah to coach the Jazz. The team went 24-58 in 1979-80, then 28-54 a season later. He was fired by the Jazz during the 1981-82 season, with Utah off to an 8-12 start.
The Jazz struggled both on the floor and financially during that early period after the franchise’s relocation from New Orleans. Nissalke was replaced by then-Jazz general manager Frank Layden.
He would get one more head coaching opportunity, with the Cleveland Cavaliers, though he was fired after two seasons there, with a 51-113 record.
After years away from coaching (he at one point served as the commissioner of the short-lived National Basketball League), he would subsequently return for two more seasons as an assistant, with the Charlotte Hornets in 1990-91, and with the Denver Nuggets in 1994-95.
In 878 career games as a head coach spanning both the ABA and NBA, he had a record of 371-508 (.422). Nissalke did have considerably more success in the ABA (123-117; .513) than in the NBA (248-391; .388).
He also served as the national team coach for the Puerto Rico men’s team in 1976.
Following his coaching career, Nissalke was perhaps best known for his work with the YMCA. He served as chairman and CEO of the Salt Lake City chapter, and was regarded as an expert fundraiser. Nissalke also served as a radio analyst over the years.
Nissalke’s wife of 46 years, Nancy, died in 2006. He is survived by his daughter Holly, son Thomas Jr., and a pair of grandchildren.