THE YEAR BEFORE I TOOK THE JOB at Walhonde High School I taught and coached at a tiny junior high school in Pocahontas County. We were about as far up in the mountains as a school could be and our basketball schedule was often interrupted by storms that would dump as much as two feet of snow in one evening and make the roads impassable for the buses. That year it was so bad that the county had used up all of its road salt by mid-February and the conference decided to quit fighting it and ended the basketball season two weeks early.
I had interviewed for the Walhonde job back in December and had been hopeful ever since. It was no secret that the Walhonde coach was on his way out. He had survived there longer than his record justified on the capital a decent career as a player, good looks and a sunny personality afforded him. But he had finally seen the writing on the wall and decided that he wanted to spend more time with his family and that this year would be his last. Just before I decided to make the trip down, I heard through a back channel I trusted that the principle there, who was friends with my old coach at Glenville State, would name me the new coach immediately after the season ended.
I was ecstatic. Walhonde was a great place to start. It was a large school, by West Virginia standards, and, before the arrival of the present coach, had enjoyed one of the best basketball traditions in the state. I would have a good selection of boys to choose from, an easy act to follow and, at least for a while, the support of a community hungry for a winning team. This would be my beginning. Chapter one in a great success story.
Another big snow came on Thursday and the county ordered schools closed for the next day. With my season already ended I had no more practices to schedule or plan for, and I knew that the two junior high schools that fed into Walhonde were playing that night in their final game. The intra-city rivalry.
I also had a bad case of cabin fever and wanted out of the snow and so I called up Brooks Nast who had played with me a couple of seasons at Glenville State. Like me, he was still single and he lived only five miles from my new place of employment. I promised him a dinner at the best spot in town – this would have been modest – in return for a room for the night and then I jumped in my beetle that would go anywhere on any road and headed down Route 60, out of the mountains and the snow and into my new life and, as I thought, the beginning of my destiny.
I had been keeping an eye on both junior-high teams in the Charleston papers since I had put in for the job at Walhonde. I did not expect it to be much of a game. Taft Junior High was 12-1 on the year and Dewey was 4–9 in the same conference. But I had watched the box scores for both teams for weeks and I wanted to put faces with the names, particularly those names with double-figure scoring. I relished the thought that I would be seeing them completely surreptitiously. They would not know who I was. I would learn a lot.
I knew that the Taft coach had applied for the job at Walhonde and I suspected that the Dewey coach had, too. I had ideas about how things would be between me and the two junior-high coaches and the relationships I wanted had to be carefully built. We would not be buddies and every confidence I would share with either of them would come at a price. I knew what a back-biting mess a basketball program can get to be in a hurry. Everybody has their own interests; their own opinions. Everybody is an expert; everybody a critic. They all want my job. I would need to communicate with these guys as I whipped the town’s program into shape, but I would trust no one. I would measure every word, every expression, every offer of assistance. I was not ready to start on all of that that this evening. For one thing, my being hired as the high-school coach was not yet public knowledge. My source had told me not to dare breathe a word of it until after the high-school season was over. But I thought there was a good chance that these guys might have gotten inside reports, too. I did not want to start conversations with either one of them where the subject would be breached and my answers would have to be, well, dishonest, in a way that the dishonesty might be obvious.
I would watch both coaches tonight. I would undoubtedly learn something about each of them – were they quick on their feet? Did they make good decisions? Were they involved? Disengaged? Did their players respect them? How confident were they? All of that would help me understand how to deal with then when the time came.
And so I arrived at John H. Dewey Junior High School early enough to slip quietly into one end of the top bleacher, right under the rafter, and I watched the crowd trickle into the gym below me.
The game did not go the way the records would have suggested. Dewey led from wire to wire and finished with a nine-point victory. There was some extra-curricular activity throughout the game between the two centers, one of them tall and skinny, the other tall and heavy, and the referee had to intervene at least twice. The Dewey center – the skinny one – got the best of his counterpart. The heavy center, who obviously thought that the mere idea that Dewey could stay in the same gym with Taft was against every law of God and nature, fouled out in the third quarter. I did not see any particularly impressive individual performances. Taft had simply taken their rival too lightly and had expected to waltz through the game to an easy win. Dewey won the game by executing good fundamentals — boxing out, rebounding and getting second shots. I could build on that.
One play that in the long run proved more consequential than was immediately obvious came late in the third quarter. One of the Taft guards – Danny Kelso – tried to take a charge deep in the lane. He was not fully set, or so the ref believed, and got called for a blocking foul, his fifth personal. The contact with the opposing player knocked Kelso to the floor and a glance from a fingernail or tooth in that collision cut him on the shoulder. He was fouled out and bleeding and a student manager, holding a towel to Kelso’s cut, led him out of the gym and into the locker room for triage. By the time the game ended, Kelso was showered, bandaged and sitting with his parents in the stands behind the Taft bench
With the game over, I wondered if the open position at Walhonde High may have entered into the surprising dynamics of the evening’s contest. Had the Taft coach already gone into neutral, believing he had the high-school job sewn up? Did the Dewey coach feel like he had more than usual to prove tonight?
No matter. The real drama came after the game. I stayed in my seat after the buzzer to let the gym empty out before I headed for my car. There was always a chance that someone there would recognize me, make the connection and pull me in to conversations or situations that I was not prepared for. What people coaches and parents fish for in such situations is some statement of praise, implying a commitment to some player or another, and that was the last thing I wanted then and there.
There came an optimal moment to make my escape. The crowd had thinned enough to allow me an unobstructed line to the exit, but there were still enough folks in the gym — parents, teachers and students – so as not to make my departure conspicuous. I started to leave my seat when I saw the Dewey coach come back into the gym and speak to a Taft student manager who was sitting outside the door to the locker room, guarding the team’s duffle of basketballs. The kid, contrary to what I am sure were his direct and clear orders, left the equipment, darted back into the locker room and then, almost immediately, returned with the Taft coach.
The Taft coach nodded slowly again and again as the Dewey coach spoke to him. I knew something was up and, although I could not have been farther away from them and still be in the gym and I knew it was useless, I leaned forward to try to apprehend some little part of the conversation. I heard nothing, but saw the Taft coach go quickly back into the locker room and march his players out – there were nine of twelve left, all carrying gear bags – and set them in a row on the first bleacher. He found another man; I guess it was a teacher, to monitor the group while he and the Dewey coach took one player at a time into one of the offices off of the gymnasium. These sessions with individual players took only a few minutes, but none of the players returned to the gym after being questioned.
Intrigued as I was, I knew that I would hear this entire story soon enough. And if I had been hesitant to insinuate myself into this evening’s dynamics before, this unsettled and disciplinary matter made me even more so. I did not want my future players’ first impression of me to be made in this context and I certainly did not want to be called on to take sides in the matter. So I let my desire for anonymity override my impulse to find out what this was all about and slipped quietly out of the gym not knowing the reasons for what was clearly some kind of investigation.
Once I was in place at Walhonde High, establishing relations with the junior-high coaches was a priority. Good communications were important to me, as I would need honest evaluations of players and some cooperation on what I wanted the kids to be taught at the junior-high level. But the junior—high coaches needed me, too. Their control and sway over their players would be strengthened if the kids believed that their reports would have some influence over me in the all-important decisions I would make in tryouts the year following.
The Dewey coach was the smarter of the two and was not as sore about me getting the job he wanted as the Taft coach continued to be. And so I made a point of favoring the Dewey coach with some level of attention and confidence, hoping that the man at Taft, who had the bigger and better pool of kids to draw from, would get the message, drop the grudge and get on board.
Late that summer I found out that the coaches in the junior-high conference there were meeting at the Dewey gymnasium to go over some eligibility changes that had been handed down by the school board. I knew that the Taft coach would be there and so I dropped by the school as the meeting was ending. I did have a matter I wanted to discuss with the Dewey coach, but my real motive was to show the Taft coach that he was outside of the inner circle I was forming.
I waited in the hallway between the gym and the exit to the parking lot and watched through a window in the door until the meeting ended. There is nothing so relaxed as a group of junior-high coaches in the summer. After weeks of sleeping in and nothing more demanding than mowing the lawn, they were all smiles and handshakes as the meeting broke up. When I saw the Taft coach heading for the door, I walked in, nodding as I passed him, and up to the Dewey coach, who was moving a podium into an equipment closet. We said our hellos and then I started to inquire.
“You know I was in the gym last year for that last game against Taft.”
“I didn’t. You saw us whip ‘em?”
“Yeah. Very encouraging, coach. Good game plan. I saw good fundamental execution all around.”
“Thanks, coach. That was a sweet one.”
“I want to build this program and this town’s basketball reputation on good fundamentals. It’s a winning strategy, and you can succeed with it even in the years when talent is scarce.”
“I’m glad to hear that from you, coach. I couldn’t agree with you more.”
“I’ll tell you something else. If we train all our kids to play defense and position for rebounds, we can be competitive in this conference. You don’t have to have a star. Just between us, I’m not partial to high-school stars myself. I don’t want any one kid running the show. I don’t want to be dependent on the mood of some seventeen-year-old who likes what he reads about himself in the paper.”
“I agree again. Things are going too much that way now.”
“Tell me something, coach. What happened after the game that night? I was there a little while after and I saw you guys pulling players in and . . .”
He laughed. “Oh. The big gym-shorts heist.”
“The poor little Taft boys had their feelings hurt. You know. They thought they were supposed to win, and they felt like doing something to get us back. Every row of gym-lockers in that dressing room is hooked to a single lock. We unlock ‘em as we need to before each class. You know the kind?”
“Yeah. I’ve seen those.”
“Well. The Taft boys, or one of them, anyway, found out that one of the rows was unlocked and he opened one of the lockers and pulled out the clothes in there and started throwing them around the room. Like always, it was one guy who egged it all on.”
“Well, coach. I’ll tell you. You need to know. But I’ve got to get a promise from you before I do.”
“What do you need?”
“We got confessions from all the kids when we pulled the stolen trunks out of the gear bags, but none of them gave up the ringleader. We didn’t even ask them to. We wanted them to understand that each of them was responsible. The only way I know the details is through one of my managers. And I promised to keep him out of this. He was standing on the other side of a one-way glass and saw the whole thing. Those Taft boys would never let him hear the end of it if they knew.”
“Yep. So you can know what happened generally. The cat is out of the bag on that. But you can’t let on like you know details. I don’t want any of the boys trying to figure it out how they got caught.”
“Alright. I won’t let it on.”
“It was the Appling kid.”
“The center? Heavy set boy?”
“That’s the one. It was no surprise. Not the first time he’s been in trouble.”
“He’d had a bad night.”
“Yeah. I was real proud of Lemley.”
“Yeah. Best game he ever played for me.”
He was right about that, but any agreement I might have expressed would be remembered and likely repeated and might even find its way back to Lemley or, even worse, his dad. It was just the kind of endorsement I wanted to avoid. I did not want anybody coming in to tryouts thinking they had a leg up or already had my approval. I did not want my own words coming back to me from disappointed parents or former coaches. I did not want anyone second guessing me or trying to figure out how I made decisions. My gym was my gym. My team, my team. I did not respond. The coach knew he was playing a card here and with my pause he knew that I knew and that I was not biting. There was a lull in the conversation that most people would have been uncomfortable with, but I am the ranking man in this program and I will not give in. Finally, he continued.
“Anyhow, Appling decides that everybody is going to take home a souvenir of the evening and opens locker after locker and deals out Dewey gym shorts to all the players and they all stick them in their gear bags. When we took each of them back into the office the first thing we did was have them open their bags every last one of them owned up to it.”
“What was done about it? Do you know?”
“Well, the coach kicked every one of them off the team. That didn’t mean much at the time, since that was the last game of the season. They couldn’t have played any more games if there had been any more. There were only three who didn’t get kicked off.”
“Why is that?”
“They weren’t in the room. That Kelso boy had showered and was out of there before the game was over and the two others hadn’t played in the game and didn’t shower and so were out of the room before the hell broke loose.”
“That’s not much of a punishment. Nobody misses any games.”
“I know. The coach thought about that one for a long time. The principal said that the punishment would have to be tied to the basketball program. They couldn’t make any of the kids stay after school for something that wasn’t classroom related. I really think coach would of just let it go but he didn’t want them thinking they’d beat him. He used his last bullet to make his point.”
“In the awards assembly at the end of the year coach only awarded one basketball letter.”
“Who got it?
“Kelso. The other two boys who missed the party hadn’t played enough quarters to qualify. Kelso had enough, even though he wasn’t a starter.”
You understand by now that enforcing justice among my charges was not my first priority. I generally left the boys to their own devices in settling differences. But the stupidity and laziness of this business with Kelso as the coach had described it did stun me for a moment. I was speechless. The Dewey coach went on.
“You know what that did, of course. Now the other kids blame Kelso. They’ve decided it must have been him who turned them in. Not true, of course, and it doesn’t really add up. But it’s handy for them to believe. Gives them a scapegoat. They don’t have to think about their own responsibility. It’s what they want to believe.”