Sunday, September 27, 2009

OTR Special: Teaneck, NJ

Last night I attended the FDU Sports Hall of Fame Induction Dinner which honored the 1970-71 basketball team. The team was coached by Al Lobalbo who is regarded by many as the father of modern defense. He brought national prominence to FDU with his defensive principle, "Ball-You-Man' and is credited with influencing some of the most successful coaches in basketball including Bobby Knight, Hubie Brown and Mike Krzyzewski. In his first season at FDU (when I was the team manager) he took a sub-500 team to a 13-10 record. In 1970-71 the team complied a 16-7 record (including going 10-1 at home), which was, up to then, the best in school history. That historic season was the one which finally got the team inducted into the FDU Sports Hall of Fame as they were ranked No.1 nationally in defense, allowing opponents an average of only 53.7 points per game.

I was the head manager of that team for three years prior to this 'hall of fame' season (I had gotten more into rock 'n roll than b-ball at that time) and went to the dinner to see some guys that I had spent a lot of time with back then. It was a joyous night as, just like with the reunion of my childhood friends from Forest Hills, most had not been in touch over the years but some had.

My favorite sports movie is “Hoosiers” in which Gene Hackman becomes the coach of an Indiana high school team and tears them down and builds them up and in their first season under his tutelage they win the state championship. It’s funny that until last night I didn’t realize that that story bore a strong resemblance to what happened at FDU. Al LoBalbo was one of the winningest high school coaches in NJ and considered to be one of the best true teaching coaches ever. Just prior to FDU, he was assistant to legendary maniac coach Bobby Knight at Army. When he walked in the door he turned a mediocre program upside down and inside out and created a team of both believers and winners. “Coach Lo” saw what he had inherited and realized what was missing: defense and pride and he proceeded to instill both in us. So when the team walked into the matchbook size gym for it’s first ‘official’ practice with the new coach, everyone knew that, well, “we weren’t in Kansas anymore.” The first half of the practices (and they were long and sometimes two in one day, seven seven days a week) did not include the aforementioned basketball itself but rather were grueling conditioning (i.e. get your ass in shape and I don't care if you vomit) drills. Then the second half was when we actually got to touch the ball. But rather than ‘run and gun’ Al realized that for us to have any chance of winning, we needed to take control of the game (this was before the shot clock came into being in the days when fans at North Carolina cheered as the team went into it’s famous ‘four corner’ stall and basically iced the game by not letting the opponent get the ball, except without committing a foul, basically out of frustration).

The FDU control came from a stack offensive set that we folded into every time down the floor. Patience was our cornerstone. Our fans also learned to appreciate the structure (which also allowed some free-wheeling, but just a tad. Btw, if you ever threw up a crazy shot, the Coach called it a "Hobsingaben"-don't ask me!) As we came together we started winning some games and as the coach used to say, “Participating means nothing; winning means everything.” But more than the winning or losing, this team started feeling good about itself. (Note: Coach LoBalbo was born Jan. 1, 1920, in what is now East Harlem and was raised there and in the Bronx. He earned a bachelor's degree from Iowa State in 1942 and a master's degree from Columbia Teachers College in 1947. He served in the Navy from 1942 to 1945, and after a brief fling as a left-handed pitcher in the minor leagues, he became a basketball coach.)

This was close knit team, as college teams tend to be partially because so many of them lived in the dorms together and because we spent so much time together, basically every day from October 15 to the end of the season in February at practice, games, traveling and, yes, partying. At the dinner, I talked with all the guys (Lee Shulman, Pete Tierney, Kenny Maxwell, Paul Stonis, Ollie Smith, Howie Weinstein, Ed Surgen, Jack Dean, Lance Walsky and a former standout player, Mike McKenna) but only briefly as there was not that much time for schmoozing before dinner and I had to leave before the event ended. But just seeing these guys again meant a lot to me. Basic personalities were the same (do we ever really change?) and the guys all looked more or less like they did way back then. Smiles and hugs and stories were abundant. One of the co-captains, Pete “Mad Dog” Tierney gave the acceptance speech for the team (one of the missing was Richard Weinstein who we learned had died some years back of a massive heart attack at 43). A lot of his talk, a lot of the talk of the evening was about the Coach. The coach’s wife attended, as did their daughter. The story of me and the coach’s’ daughter (you knew there had to be one, right?) was that I had taken her to see Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young at the Fillmore East in 1969. Funny, it wasn’t a date and I’m not sure how it all evolved (although I know that I didn’t have a girlfriend at that time) and with all the talk about how Coach was so tough and everything I asked Karen how he could have let me take her (she was then in 10th grade) to the concert. “He trusted you” was what she said and I nodded my head because I knew that I was trustworthy. She said she’d always remembered that show and I realized that that concert was a memory for her. How good to feel that you can be the one who can be part of a happy memory for someone else.

But what I really want to say in all this is that there was another induction last night: the first recipient of the Al Lobalbo Award. Seth played for FDU and has gone on to be a successful coach in his own right now at Virginia Tech. He extolled virtues of Coach Lo, his commitment to any program he was involved with, the dedication of teaching a full day at a NJ high school and then driving two hours to the practice at West Point and two hours back home. Or the time to get from NJ to St. John's practices and games when he was assistant to Lou Carneseca in that great program. And I was sitting and listening to this guy, who also talked about how proud he was of his family who was sitting right in front of him and I got to wonder about whether Al LoBalbo had had time for his family or if basketball just consumed his life (and consequently theirs).

Al was a tough street kid who grew up to be a fighter and a tough, really tough, coach. And, in that role, he had success and has been recognized as one of the great coaches by a number of today’s great coaches. But for some reason, I got the feeling that he might not have been that great a father or husband. And that got me to thinking about my earlier years and while I was not dedicated to one thing, like basketball, I have been traveling for work, always real estate, for many years. In the early years of my first marriage and when my sons were born I traveled to a greater or lesser degree and at points was away from Monday through Friday and then when I returned from a trip I was not that pleasant to be around. I realized, many years later that the decompression from the road, from being in full-blown business mode and then abruptly moving back into family mode, well, it wasn’t easy and I didn’t do a great job of it. Even as I got older, and continued to travel, while aware of the need for this decompression of which I speak, I didn’t always remember to do it and paid a price for it (as did those around me). Maybe some of the things that rubbed off on that FDU Basketball Team of 1970-71 and others that Al LoBalbo coached were more important in life than just in sports. Maybe, we used to ask each other, ‘Doesn’t he have a life?’ although at that time I'm not sure that we thought about 'real life' that much, after all, we were young and in college. And you know what? He did have a life. His life was basketball. His life was coaching. His life was winning. His life was teaching. But at the end of the day, how do we really measure our wins? Is it in the morning paper or is it in whether we have become someone we can be proud of as a person, a balanced person, who is able to be objective about themselves, who can listen to those close to him and accept criticism and not get angry or push them away, further as it were, than may have already happened.

Yes, Al LoBalbo was a great coach and that time was a great experience for me and I know for the other guys on those teams. But now, with perspective, maybe he taught us things about life as a total package that he didn’t even realize he was teaching us. That winning may not be everything; that trying your best is really important and that being sensitive to the needs of those you love is something that helps bring love back to you. I sort of wish I had had time to talk with the guys last night about this; about whether Al, for all the good he did as a coach, may have done even more good as a role model, both a positive one and a negative one. But that will have to wait for another time. Al was 82 when he died in 2002. Rest in peace Coach, you gave us everything you had and all you knew and for that we are grateful.

Photo: This photo is just one of those Facebook type things. A friend from college sent me this. It's from 1970 when my band, "Everyone" played at the Homecoming concert at FDU (Fairleigh Dickinson University) in Rutherford, NJ. The fact that it's in B&W and out of focus perfectly captured the moment.

1 comment:

peter said...

lets talk soon
peter tierney

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