Every coach enters the profession, dreaming of the moment he or she gets to lift up the trophy, cut the net down, get thrown in the pool, or whatever other defining ritual goes along with becoming the leader of a championship team.
It never happens as often as any coach likes. But, . . . other than maybe the coaches who lead the pay-for-play guys, i.e. the pros, there are other moments that make the coach realize he or she is making a difference.
In the math classes I teach, I often relate “life stories” to learning math (not as difficult as you might think). When the subject of hard work came up a few days ago, I told the class the foillowing story, even though it happened before any of them were born.
In the fall of 1980, I had just taken a job as an assistant coach at the University of Tennessee when the phone in my office rang. It was our secretary, saying there was an “Earl Cureton” on the phone. I had coached a 6’9″ center by that name during the one and only season (1976-77) I served as an assistant coach at Robert Morris College. At the end of that season (Earl’s sophomore year), he left as well, transferring to play in his hometown of Detroit – at UD – for their coach, Dick Vitale. Still, since it had been so long since I’d talked to Earl, I thought it was a hoax, one of my coaching friends playing some sort of practical joke on me.
However, when I answered the phone, I heard a guy whispering, “coach fertig?”
I replied, “Earl, is that you? Where are you – and why are you whispering?”
“yeah, coach, it’s me and i’m in a phone booth at the spectrum.” The Spectrum was the building the Philadelphia 76ers used to play. Oh yeah, and a phone booth is where people used to go to make calls before cell phones were invented. “coach, i think i just made the 76ers – it was down to me and another guy and i just saw the equipment guy cleaning out his locker!” Yeah, I’d say that’s was hint-and-a-half that guy was gone. He said this with as much enthusiasm as a person who was whispering could.
“Hey, Earl, that’s great! Congratulations!”
Now, he finally got up his courage to be heard – or else he got tired of the clandestine tone he’d been using up to now. “Coach, I had to call somebody because I was so excited I just wanted to jump up and high five somebody, but the guy’s locker on one side of me is Moses Malone and the locker on the other side is Dr. J’s.” (Good idea, on holding off on the celebration since they probably knew they were making the squad). “The reason I’m calling you, coach, is to thank you for all the help you gave me. I think you know what I’m talking about.”
I have to admit I didn’t know exactly what he meant – until he jogged my memory. “You remember that day in your office when you told me there were a million guys like me and that every day I worked, I would pass someone by, BUT every day I didn’t work, someone would pass me by? Well, coach, I wanted to let you know that I never forgot that and everyday I didn’t feel like going hard or wanted to take a day off, I thought of what you said and was so afraid somebody was going to pass my by, I fought my way through whatever was dragging me down and worked my butt off.” Come to think of it, I did remember Dick telling me that, during the year Earl was redshirting (due to the transfer rule – and the only year he was under Dickie V, who would take the Detroit Pistons job that following season), Earl was the hardest working redshirt, i.e. a guy who was only allowed to practice, he had ever seen.
I now had perfect recall of that day and said to him, “Earl, do you remember who else was in my office that day?”
“Sure,” he said. Larry and Charlie.”
Right,” I told him. “And what are they doing now?”
“Last time I heard they were just hanging out.”
“That’s because they were part of the million other guys.”
We exchanged “goodbyes” & “good lucks” and after I hung up, I wasn’t sure who was flying higher – him or me. For the record, Earl Cureton played twelve (12) seasons in the NBA or seven different teams – and helped two of them win NBA Championships (and the rings that go along with them) by being a key backup, first to Moses in Philly and then to Hakeem Olajuwon with the Houston Rockets.
It’s moments like these (many of which you don’t find out until your career is over) that justify all the hard work and long hours (and even the disappointments) you experienced. The actual line I told Earl (and Charlie and Larry) in my office that (now) memorable day is worth repeating:
“There are a million guys like you and every day you work, you pass one of them by, but, every day you don’t work, someone passes you by – and you’ll never catch him.”
This story is one of over 200 from my book, Life’s A Joke. For other excerpts, click on the “Jack’s Book” tab on the Home Page of this website.