“If anybody ever tells you that you are a good basketball player … “
A country boy wannabe I know who grew up in the hills and hollows of Annandale in the Washington, D.C. , suburbs often at this time of year quoted his father, who really did grow up out in the sticks.
“It’s too cold to dance and too wet to plow,” Steve Lee would say, meaning this is one of those times when there’s really not a whole heck of a lot going on.
The high school basketball regionals are playing out, but we’re not yet to the state tournament. College basketball is still winding down from an endless regular season. Nobody’s playing football. As for baseball, high school teams are organizing but it’s still so cold nobody can hit a line drive out of the infield. That is, making the doubtful assumption that anybody can be found who can throw a baseball anywhere near the strike zone now to begin with.
So what do you do when it’s too cold to dance and too wet to plow? You tell some stories.
Seeing as how this is basketball season, let’s start with a yarn spun by Trey Williams, the biographer of former East Tennessee State University star and pro-to-be Skeeter Swift.
It seems as though Swift’s JV coach at ETSU (this was before the days freshmen were eligible), a guy by the name of Gary Scheuerman, had become furious with his headstrong young star. The JV coach went to the varsity coach, Madison Brooks, and announced, “Coach Brooks, it’s either me or him.”
Brooks had the answer for that.
“Well, it’s been good working with you, Gary.”
Another occasion, it’s high school basketball season, getting late in the year. By now, everybody knows his role. Coach starts a drill. Guys, he says, during this drill, do exactly what you would do during the game.
To that one lightly-used reserve responded by walking over to the bench and sitting down.
Another high school basketball game, this one going poorly for the home team. It gets so bad that one kid who’s been benched because his play was intolerably God-awful, had to go back in because somebody else was in foul trouble. Before the young man checks in, the coach asks him: “If I put you back in the game can you make a lay-up this time?”
The player had an answer for that.
Then there’s this account from one more basketball game that went poorly, this one in southern West Virginia, where small school hoops used to be religion. The losing team has retired to it its dressing quarters. The coach, who is known as a stoic of few words, is peeved to see one of the players being a little too chatty after such a grave loss.
“Do me a favor,” the coach said, “If anybody ever tells you that you are a good basketball player, I want you to tell them they’re a damned liar.”
Those accounts and hundred more like them are collected from our buddy Lloyd Combs’ just-released volume “These are Their Stories.” Combs is a writer who has covered sports for The Roanoke Times and other papers and publications for years out in that vast, mountainous, and sports crazy corner of the state known by the VHSL as Region D, by the geographers as the coalfields, and the locals as home.
How can you tell a local? Here’s how. They’ll come up to you and say, “Hey buddy, guess what. The state don’t stop at Roanoke.”
I’ve been out the way a whole bunch of times and never was there once that I haven’t remembered every detail. Robert Anderson, who worked at the Bristol Herald-Courier and went to Emory & Henry, can sit there and match Lloyd yarn for yarn, never run out of subject matter, and never venture farther east than Abingdon for thematic material.
Listening to that stuff is almost as good as watching Powell Valley’s Thomas Jones and football pals play Giles in the mud at Bullitt Park in Big Stone Gap.
Next best thing is reading Lloyd’s book. Tears are still running down my cheeks from either laughing or being moved by touching stories about youngsters raised way up the hollow somewhere where a hoop with no net was nailed to a tree, the one piece of flat land was worn down to dirt by tackle football games, and the washing machine was on the front porch.
Speaking of Giles, one of Combs stories reminded me of the Spartans of old. People forget that before Cody Journell and big-footed successors, most of Steve Ragsdale’s teams never had a guy who could kick one past the line of scrimmage. One year, I’m not sure if Giles ever tried so much as one PAT, every conversion going for two points.
Down at Appalachia, which was always the Sparta to Powell Valley’s Athens, the late Tom Turner hated kicking extra points. One year, a reporter gathering material for a preseason article asked the hugely successful coach (five state championship, two runners-up) if he had a kicker.
“Yeah, I’ve got six of them, but none of them are worth a [hoot].”
Here’s one more of Combs’ Turner tales that reminded me of somebody I knew. Turner was known for hating the tradition of trading game films with opposing coaches. One coach was particularly persistent about seeing some film on a common opponent. Finally Turner relented.
“Bring me a case of beer and I’ll watch it with you.”
That reminded me of the late Bob Williams up at Parry McCluer. His solution to film swapping was ingenious. Always a gentleman (he played in college at elegant Washington & Lee), Williams would never be so rude as to out-and-out refuse to trade films. What he did to get around it was that long after everybody else went to VCR tape for recording games, the Fighting Blues crew stuck with 8-millimeter film that nobody else had a projector to show.
Pardon me. I’ve run out of time. I have to get back to Lloyd’s book.
You have to read it. Contact Combs at P.O. Box 73, Davenport, Va., 24239, phone 276-859-2958, or at email@example.com , and he’ll send you a copy. Best $16.95 you’ll ever spend.
- Ray Cox covers recreational, high school and college sports in the New River Valley. If you have information you’d like featured, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 381-1672.