After both my CBA (Continental Basketball Association) coaching career and my playing days were over, I still had the itch to some way be involved in basketball. So, after a couple of phone calls and a personal interview I became the coach of the women’s varsity team at SUNY New Paltz. The competition was officially classified as D-3, the lowest level in intercollegiate sports. But I had a Jones and the campus was only a half hour’s drive from my home in Woodstock.
We were only 8-18 during my initial season but had qualified for the conference’s postseason playoffs — as the eighth seed — for the first time in the school’s history. And, of course, we got shellacked in the opening game.
Yet despite the relative success we’d achieved, my rookie season wasn’t much fun. Because of the mucho-macho attitude in the athletic department, the women were treated as second-class citizens. So we had to practice at six o’clock in the morning. And sometimes we had to convene at halftime of our games in the remnant of a basement bowling alley so the men’s team wouldn’t be distracted while doing their pregame stuff upstairs in a classroom.
There seemed to be substantial financial hanky-panky in the department. Rumors of impropriety about the department’s practices swirled around: a slush fund filled with leftover money from deliberately overbudgeted items, kickbacks from sporting goods stores, having three players share a motel room on the road instead of two (with the coach and the hotel clerk splitting the monies allotted for the empty rooms), and coaches keeping meal money for players who didn’t make road trips because of injuries, term papers due, etc.
After nine years coaching over a hundred once-and-future NBA players, the actual coaching was rewarding but also frustrating. I liked the fact that the women didn’t define themselves as being basketball players, so they were open to learning and they always played hard. And they were a joy to work with.
However, the talent level was so low that my coaching chops were not fully utilized. I often felt like I was a highly experienced guitar player having to play a fretless instrument that had only one string.
Still, the biggest problem was the quality of the referees. They simply couldn’t be any worse — or so I thought. Too many of them had a superior attitude, as if it was beneath them to be officiating a D-3 women’s game.
In any event, I agreed to return for a second season primarily because my daughter, Alexandra, would be on the team. A legitimate six-footer, Alexandra wasn’t much of a player — but she could make an occasional layup and set crushing picks. Late in the season she converted a pair of clutch free-throws that clinched a tight road game.
Near the end of that season we traveled to New York City to play against Hunter College. Since I’d been admitted to Hunter’s athletic hall of fame several years back, I was looking forward to the game as a kind of homecoming.