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The special bond between players and their coaches

There will always be a special bond between players and their coaches, no matter where they end up.

As a former basketball coach, I really appreciate the picture of DeMar DeRozan and Gregg Popovich above this post. I took this shot from my television screen when the Bulls recently played the Spurs. Both men are laughing and clearly happy to see each other again.

What is especially great about the shot is that that exact scene has occurred — with Pop and a different ex-Spur — numerous times before. It will also happen many more times in the future. It has happened and will happen virtually every time the team playing the Spurs has one of Pop’s ex-players on it. The player could be Derek White, Jakob Poeltl, Lonnie Walker IV, Boban, Patty Mills, or yes, Kawhi Leonard. With each of them, Pop has a special connection, a connection that does not disappear just because the player has gone to another team, or in Poeltl’s case, to a distant and much colder place.

Because I coached college basketball before the transfer portal — and because Division III players rarely transfer anyway — I didn’t have the opportunity to revisit with ex-players who were playing for different college teams. But I did have the opportunity to play in city and lawyers’ leagues with my ex-players after they graduated. I also played against a team of ex-players in a very competitive 3-on-3 tournament at the LA Athletic Club. My team barely won the championship game against my ex-players’ team, something I tend to mention when we get together.

All of this came to mind this past weekend when one of my ex-players was inducted into the Claremont McKenna College athletic Hall of Fame — a very special honor. I have written earlier about the HOF inductee in these pages:

One of my favorite moments from coaching occurred near the start of my seventh season. We were coming off an excellent year in which we won the league. Our 6’6’’ post player Henry Albrecht, from Seattle, Washington, had won Player of the Year as a junior, and our 6’7’’ shooting guard Chris Greene was first team All-conference as a sophomore.

With both players returning, along with several other excellent players, we had high hopes for the season. A few days into practice, a remarkable thing happened. Henry came into the coaches’ office. He told us that he recognized that Chris was the most talented player on the team, if not the league. Henry told us he would have no problem if the coaches decided to feature Chris ahead of him. Indeed, he encouraged us to do exactly that.

It was a remarkable recognition and concession from such a talented player, especially one entering his senior season. As a result of that talk, the transition to Chris was seamless. Henry remained a fellow top performer, making first team All-Conference and All-District. Chris wound up Player of the Year that year as a junior, and eventually All-American as a senior. Oh, we repeated as league champion.

A bunch of Henry’s teammates, including Chris Greene, came back to college for the weekend to support Henry. This also meant I was able to meet up with my ex-players too. On Saturday, we watched Claremont play Pop’s former school Pomona Pitzer. This was a battle between two teams tied for first going into the game. After Claremont’s 82-78 win, Henry’s team, and mine, is now in first place, while Pomona fell to second. It was a remarkably well-played game, with Claremont shooting 61% from the floor and over 50% from three. All that great shooting was necessary because Pomona shot 51% overall and 44% from three — with over half of the shots being three-pointers.

This is a picture of me with my team after the game — I am the one wearing the Spurs shirt.

The Hall of Fame ceremony took place the next day, with the players from the picture and several others there for Henry’s induction. They showed a video of me telling the story I wrote about above, and Henry gave a very heart-warming speech. At the end of the ceremony, the athletic director gave a special shout-out to the coaches who contributed in their own small way to the success of the various players being inducted. Henry, who was sitting directly behind me, put his hand on my shoulder and said “Thanks Coach.”

Postscript:

I wrote most of this post Sunday evening after the HOF ceremony. On Monday night, the 76ers Joel Embiid had a career night, scoring 70 points against the Spurs – and Spurs assistant coach Brett Brown. Brown was Embiid’s first coach in the NBA while the 76ers were engaged in the Process – which meant the76ers lost a lot of games. Embiid was also injured for a large part of the Process, meaning the player and his coach went through some very difficult times together. That makes this picture from after the game, similar to the Pop – DeRozan picture above, so special. I could not have scripted the end of this post any better: