After getting fired after one season in Savannah, I was hired to coach the Rockford Lightning of that same basketball minor league, the CBA. Situated 70 miles south of Chicago, Rockford was tightly wedged into the very buckle of the Rust Belt. Rockford featured the emptiest libraries in the Western Hemisphere, only two decent restaurants, a clock museum, a highly advanced mall culture, and scores of rabid basketball fans. A dismal, gray place, Rockford was once rated as the worst city in the country by Money magazine.
The Lightning’s leading holdover player was Richard Rellford from Michigan, known to the local fans as “King.” He was 6’5”, weighed about 240, and was a ‘tweener — too short to play a true power game and too slow to play small forward.
Even before the season began I knew Rellford would be a problem if only because he was the only player I ever heard of who gained weight during a routinely rigorous training camp. If Rellford loved to eat junk food and hoist up long jumpers, he was disinclined to rebound, run plays, defend, or pass. I was dissatisfied with his lazy, selfish game plan — and we often had friendly, but pointed discussions. After all, he was the reigning king and I was a newcomer to his fiefdom. So I settled for periodically reminding him that there was more to the game than just shooting.
Eventually, though, I knew I’d have to go to war with Rellford.
The war broke out during and after a mid-season game in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
The day before we bused up to La Crosse, Elston Turner joined the team after being cut by the Chicago Bulls. A native of Knoxville, Tennessee, ET wound up playing eight NBA seasons with Dallas, Chicago, and Denver. At 6’5”, 200, he was a lock-down defender with a flawed jump shot. More important, he was honest, modest, intelligent, a proficient jazz bassist, an amateur magician, and an all-around good guy. He later became a respected assistant coach with several NBA teams, and is currently with the Memphis Grizzlies. (Note: More on ET in a subsequent column.)
During the four-hour ride from Rockford to La Crosse, ET studied, and mastered, my thick playbook. By the time we arrived, he was more familiar with our offenses and defenses than was Rellford.
The game itself proved to be a disaster for us. Nothing seemed to go our way and we trailed by 20 points at the first-quarter break with Rellford’s lackadaisical play being a primary factor. That’s when I decided to pull all of the starters and give the brothers of the pine a long look.
To no avail.
We also lost the second and third quarters by sizable margins, and with our deficit approaching 30 points, I once more made wholesale substitutions and kept the starters glued to the bench for the entire fourth quarter. The final score was 139-90.
In the postgame locker room, I was about to begin a heated harangue when Rellford beat me to it.
“I know what you’re trying to do to me, Charley,” he shouted.
“Break me down. Destroy me. That’s the only reason you didn’t play me in the fourth quarter.”
“Richard,” I said, trying my best to control my anger and my disbelief. “We got stomped in every quarter you played in, so what makes you think that the fourth quarter would have been any different?”
“It would’ve been because I’m the best player on this team.”
“That’s your opinion.”
“Anyway, I’m not gonna let you beat me, Charley.”
My last word was “Whatever.”
Just as we left the locker room, ET took me aside. “This is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. What have I gotten myself into?”
I could only shrug and say, “I ask myself the same question every day.”
After getting mauled in La Crosse, we arrived the next morning in Albany to play that night against Bill Musselman’s league-leading Patroons — which featured such once and future NBA players as Tod Murphy, Scott Roth, Tony Campbell, Derrick Rowland, Michael Brooks, Scott Brooks, Eric Fernsten, Lowes Moore, and Micheal Ray Richardson. Truly an awesome ballclub.
Because of Rellford’s outburst after the La Crosse game, the King began the game on the bench and only played eight minutes. And with ET feeling more comfortable, we played inspired ball.
In fact, the game wasn’t decided until the final play. We were ahead 108-107 and the Patroons had the ball. Musselman’s win-or-lose call was a clear-out for Roth.
So there it was: Roth dribbling at the top of the key looking for the game-winning score. Unfortunately for Roth, he was being guarded at close quarters by Elston Turner, who had been a defensive-stopper in the NBA. No make how many fakes and jukes Roth attempted, ET refused to be suckered out of position. The startled look in Roth’s eyes showed how confused he was by ET’s stubbornly adhesive defense — and Roth eventually responded by backing away.
By now the game clock was about to explode, and Muss was hysterical on the Patroons’ bench. “Go!” he screamed at Roth. “Go!”
Roth stayed clear of ET and wound up taking a weak fadeaway jumper that barely scraped the rim as the buzzer sounded.
Musselman was still steaming as our paths crossed in the vestibule outside the locker rooms.
“I know what you did Charley! You can’t fool me!”
“How many points did you lose by in La Crosse last night?”
“Don’t tell me I’m lying, Charley, but you tanked that game. You threw it. You deliberately lost it.”
“Muss, why would I do that?”
“To lull my players into a false sense of security. If you dumped the game in La Crosse, then you’d do the same thing here. I ought to report you to the commissioner. Hell, I ought to report you to the FBI.”
Then he stormed away.
Craziness on top of craziness.
P.S. The next morning I traded Rellford to the Wyoming Wildcatters for a player to be named later.
Author, professional basketball coach, columnist Charley Rosen, of Stone Ridge, is a Woodstock legend on and off the court. Many a local sternum wears a permanent imprint of his elbow. He has nearly two dozen books on the market, both fiction and non-fiction. His latest book, Perfectly Awful: The Philadelphia 76ers’ Horrendous and Hilarious 1972-1973 Season is on sale at The Golden Notebook, Amazon and Barnes and Noble.