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Monday, October 27, 2014

MY FAVORITE TEAM

By in large coaches never admit to having a favorite player or a favorite team.  It's probably the politically correct route to take.  When I talk to my teams I let them know up front that I have favorite players -- and I'm not ashamed of it.  They are the players that are the first on the floor for practice...the players that work hard...the players that care about their teammates...the players that take pride in their preparation...the players who understand the importance of an education...the players that want to pass it forward to the community.  You bet I have favorite players.

But until now, I've never shared my favorite team.  God knows I've been blessed with some great teams -- some can even be labeled as special.  But I'm going be honest -- my favorite team without question is the men's team I was blessed to be a part of at West Virginia State College in 1987.  From the outside-in many would say it was because we achieved so much -- winning the regular season WVIAC title and the WVIAC conference championship before losing in the National Championship game 79-77.

But it wasn't the championships that made that team special -- it was the champions that played for it.

They are college graduates...husbands and fathers...they are business owners, administrators, educators, coaches...one worked in city government, one on Wall Street and another for NASA.  These are student-athletes, many who came from difficult backgrounds and certainly battled financial hardships.  We didn't have scholarships at West Virginia State College -- their Pell Grant money went to cover what work study didn't.  There were no charter flights, but beat up university vans with bald tires and windshield wipers that didn't work half the time.

We played in a dingy gymnasium that wasn't quite regulation in length.  During Christmas break, the college turned off the heat which meant our practices usually were held in 50 degree temperatures.  In the morning, as you felt your way across the floor to get the light breaker, there would the occasional crunch of a cock roach.  Meals during the holidays were at Shoney's...over and over and over.

And they played...and played...and played.  We found out several were playing intramural basketball during our season (and running away with the league until we halted that).  We once called off practice because we thought they looked tired after a sloppy win only to later found out that our captain called a night practice himself and that went for three hours.

Too often in sports, terms like family, brothers and sisters are utilized far too easily and undeservedly so.  But this group of men meet the criteria and beyond.  We just recently passed the 25th anniversary of our NAIA run and for many teams that gather for such occasions it's incredibly special because they haven't seen each other in a decade or more and it's a chance to catch up on what's going on with each other's families.

But that just isn't close to the case with this team.  Each year they meet in Institute, West Virginia at homecoming and have their own private reunion.  But it's not really a reunion -- because they are constantly in touch with each other.  They visit each other...call each other...and certainly social media is helpful.  They are already planning next year's fall trek to West Virginia State. No team I've ever coached has been more loyal to each other and had each other's back -- for 25+ years now!

I'm blessed to be a part of this unique family.  They keep me involved as well.  Doug Hobson came to visit us in Baton Rouge as did Wayne Casey.  James Washington brought his daughter to our summer basketball camp.  An east coast game allowed me to spend some time with Larry Gaines. West coast swings gave Ruben Noles and Jeff Woods a chance to attend some games.  While at UCF, Omar Booth attended our game against Seton Hall and last year while playing in Madison Square Garden I got a big bear hug from Ron Moore who was there to see us play.  And there's phone calls -- I especially love the ones from Ronnie Legette who's gonna get a few cracks in on me.  Or the note from Joey Oden who still loves to tease me about my fear of flying.

This was a team that averaged over 100 points a game during 1987 but is still one of the best defensive teams I've ever coached.  But my favorite time with them was at practice because practice was an all out war -- they came everyday and competed at such a great level.  My second favorite time was driving the van after a win and listening to them crack on each other -- and me at times.

And still I know I can't fully appreciate everything they overcame to achieve greatness.  It was not easy being an all African-American team in the late 1980's.  I saw and heard things directed at our team that disgusted me.  But they got closer and played harder -- something they have continued to do in life.

I could mention some great games -- monumental wins...there were some amazing individual performances...outstanding season stats for players and the team...but I want to keep the focus on these men...these men who remain close to each other almost 30 years after coming together.  They came from New York (Brooklyn, The Bronx, Harlem and Syracuse)...they came from Pittsburgh and Seattle...New Jersey...and of course West Virginia.

And they bonded -- like no other team I've ever been associated with and in a fashion I've never been a part of -- at a strength I've never seen. 

And not all of us are still here.  We lost Andre Burrell unexpectedly and far too soon.  But he's still with us in spirit because these brothers constantly remind each other that he is still a part of us.

For me, as a coach, you hope that some of what you taught rubs off on your team -- but this team has taught me more than I taught them.

And today, to the best team I've been a part of, I just want them to know how proud I am of them and how honored I was to have been their coach.

I love you guys!