When I was selected to coach Antigua's national basketball team in the 1982 Caricom Tournament, there was a little less hoopla than when Bobby Knight was chosen to coach the 1984 U.S. Olympic basketball team. Knight was picked by a committee of experts because he is the best; I was chosen by the island's officials probably because I love calypso music.
I haven't coached two national championship teams, devised strategies that have universally affected the game, and I'm not on Puerto Rico's most-wanted list—that's Bobby. I was just a 38-year-old Division II coach for Oakland University in Oakland, Mich. But the Antiguans had a passing acquaintance with me—our team had traveled there on a Christmas tour in 1979. They wanted an American they knew, so I was offered the job.
No pay went with it, but it was a deal I couldn't refuse: $640 air fare and room and board for the entire three weeks. Inasmuch as the average weekly Antiguan wage is around $60, I knew they were serious about their basketball.
I flew off to Antigua on Aug. 1 in 1982 to mold their 12 best players into a team that would whip the likes of the Bahamas, Dominica, Trinidad, Suriname, and Jamaica, the defending Caricom champion. Though I tried to shake him loose in Detroit, Bobby's ghost got on Eastern Flight 963 as my mental stowaway.
Antigua is a three-hour flight from Miami. It's about twice as big as Manhattan and has 365 beaches—one for every day of the year. There are 75,000 citizens. The Antiguans invented calypso music, and dancing to its sweet rhythms is the national pastime for young and old.
I lived with my host, Lucaso Brumant, in the capital city of St. John's. He's a slightly built, fully bearded official in the government's Department of Sports and Games and occasionally a referee who's Mr. Basketball on the island.
I had just 14 days to prepare my team for the tournament that was to be played in Kingston, Jamaica. The mean age of my players was 21. They worked as longshoremen, musicians, cabinetmakers and mechanics, among other occupations. I'd never coached a guy who wore a diamond earring. Richie Francis, one of my best players, did. "Bum," an older but effective guard, liked to smoke before, during and after practice. Grantly Samuels, a human cement mixer, wore a baseball cap with the bill turned up when he played. Canya, a Rastafarian, had dreadlocks four years long.
Tekal Gomes, who must have been 6'10", was always an hour late for practice. Nya, one of my favorites, sometimes played barefoot. If he wore shoes, he wouldn't wear socks. The Christian brothers, Andy and Mark, were known more for their soccer than basketball talents, but their popularity on the island made them indispensable. Bobby Joseph was always 30 minutes early for practice and a delight to coach. Wyllie Abbott, a soft-spoken bank clerk, was to surprise everyone by becoming a star in Jamaica.
They wanted so much to bring honor to Antigua. It was easy for me to get caught up in this nationalism; I just had to do a great job of coaching. The two weeks I had to install a simple team system was less than half the time I was used to in college. I felt the pressure, especially since their play resembled a kindergarten recess. We practiced outdoors under lights on low-grade asphalt courts with crater-sized potholes. Cow dung on the courts was a constant problem. Sometimes we just played around it.
I decided to put in a 1-2-2 zone defense, a 1-3-1 half-court trap, a zone offense and a man-to-man defense. The players were eager to learn and began to share the ball more and do some guarding. Soon we were ahead of schedule.
After a week of team practice, I was informed by Lucaso that the country's deputy prime minister, the Honorable Lester Bird, wanted to meet me. Our high-level government meeting revealed one impressive reason why I was in Antigua. Bird felt the game's popularity had grown so fast (it had been introduced there in the mid-'60s) that it had become a positive factor in limiting the illegitimate birth rate among young people. I've heard many banquet speakers exalt the values of playing basketball, but this was a justification I'd never heard of.
For our 11th practice, Lucaso set up a public scrimmage so I could see how we would react under game conditions. We drove 20 minutes from St. John's to the small country town of Cedar Grove, where junior teams from these two communities were playing. Our game against the rest of the best island players was to follow as the main event.
I hadn't realized that we had entered enemy territory, but I soon noticed that the country players were routing the city team, and their mood was so hostile that the city team quit in the third quarter. I'd never seen a team walk off like that.
Lucaso began an argument with two local officials. The Cedar Grove team, joined by several country comrades, took positions on the court. For some reason, they were determined to prevent us from playing. Our team began to line up to shoot practice layups. There was some pushing and shoving, and as Andy Christian prepared to shoot our first layup, a man with a canoe paddle stepped out and said, "Don't come any further." Andy, who's built like a Sherman tank, accepted the dare.
As Andy rose to shoot, the man hit him across the shoulders with the paddle. The paddle shattered like a clay pigeon. Andy threw his attacker to the ground. The man ran out and returned with a jagged chunk of concrete the size of a football. Andy ran. His aggressor caught up with him and hurled his concrete missile. Andy leaped like a hurdler and was hit in the shoulder. Any normal human would have crumpled on the spot—not Andy. Hard as rock himself, he landed on his feet, picked up the chunk that had hit him and took off after his assailant.
Meanwhile, other Cedar Grovers had picked up rocks and surrounded our team. I watched Tekal take a direct hit on the knee from point-blank range. Mark Christian was struck in the back of the head. When a chunk whistled past my ear, I said, "Let's get the hell out of here!" We helped our wounded and started to run for our lives. A mile out of town Lucaso picked us up in the van. He explained the fight. The Cedar Grove players felt that Lucaso had cheated them the week before when he was a referee of a game in St. John's. They were convinced his favoritism was the reason they'd lost to a city team. They had been taking revenge. Me? I couldn't have asked for a more emotional happening to bring my guys together.
We found out some very bad news the next day. The Caricom Tournament had been postponed indefinitely because of a polio outbreak in Jamaica. We were all terribly disappointed. Even before our harrowing experience, I had felt we were ready to compete as a team. Now we were all revved up with nowhere to go.
I returned home to Michigan in mid-August and made arrangements for barefoot Nya to enroll at Michigan Christian College and for Mark Christian to play soccer for Oakland. We settled into our respective challenges and waited for the tournament to be rescheduled. On Dec. 14, I got word that the tournament in Jamaica was back on. Our first game was against Trinidad in two days.
Mark, Nya and I caught the first available flight from Detroit to Montego Bay on Dec. 16, the opening day of the tournament. From there we were to take a bus to Kingston to rendezvous with the rest of the team, which had flown from Antigua with Lucaso.
I was the 17th person to get into our 12-passenger van. We peeled out of Montego Bay and catapulted our way up, down and around the ribbons the Jamaicans call roads. We finally arrived, 40 minutes late. I was in no shape to make my debut as a famous international basketball coach. We walked into the arena with 10 seconds left in the first half and our team behind by one point. I asked Lucaso lots of questions, then coached Antigua to a 12-point loss.
Actually, we did pretty well, considering the condition in which I found the team. Lucaso had left Tekal behind because he hadn't come to practice since August. During my absence, a local coach had put in a strange offense, dropping mine. It seemed to be designed for a man-to-man defense, which might have worked if Trinidad hadn't played a zone. My most serious problem, however, was that the players who had remained in Antigua were jealous of those I'd taken to the U.S. The stay-behinds felt slighted and were determined to make life miserable for the transplants and me.
We had two more games left in our flight to see who'd play in the championship game. We were scheduled to play Dominica in two days, a team we were supposed to beat. We practiced twice a day, and I tried to solve my problems: with Tekal gone, no real center; a strange new offense; and lots of dissension.
We lost to Dominica by 10 points. All the advice I gave my team fell on deaf ears. Our 1-3-1 trap leaked badly and nobody could make a basket. Even the transplants played poorly. Our team's morale hit bottom because we'd been eliminated from any chance to play for the championship.
But we still had Jamaica left to play. The defending champions seemed invincible. They had men with NBA size, and their best player was called Skywalker, for obvious reasons. If we could beat them, we could salvage our pride. I figured we were 30-point underdogs, especially on their home court. Where was Bobby when I needed him?
The day before the finale, Lucaso gave a heartrending speech to the team and me. He told how he had put himself on the line with the government to get money for the trip. He reminded the guys about the love they should have for their mother country, and he made it clear that we had to make an honorable showing or, frankly, he would be too embarrassed to go home and face his superiors.
I worked hard with the team. We began to have better practices, mostly because the players realized I wouldn't quit on them. I played Bum and Grantly more and the transplants less. The jealousies began to fade.
When the game started, the arena was packed with Jamaicans. As I'd anticipated, their team tried to get the ball inside. But we clogged up the lane and made them shoot from the perimeter. When they missed, they played volleyball with the ball until they scored. But we were scoring, too, and were only eight points down at the half.
Jamaica scored two quick baskets to start the second half. Then, a miracle began to unfold. During the next eight minutes, we outscored them 30 to 4. They called their last time-out with nine minutes left in the game. We were ahead by 14 points. We were as bewildered as the crowd. I even began to get silly and think we could hold on. Their coach wisely changed to a man-to-man defense. Since I'd thrown out our man-to-man offense, we started having trouble scoring. We were losing our lead, fast. With 4:32 remaining, I called our last time-out. We were five points ahead and couldn't score. I lined the team up in the four-corner offense and told Nya to handle the ball. I assigned the rest of the guys a corner to stand in. During the next four minutes, Nya and Wyllie each scored a basket—and the Jamaicans scored seven points. We were up by two.
By this time, the officials had given in to the highly partisan crowd and were hurting us badly. With 32 seconds left, Skywalker made two free throws to tie the score. The next scenes are vivid in my memory:
We get the ball inbounds. Nya dribbles around for 12 seconds and shoots wildly. There's a mad scramble. Bodies are flying. The ball is flicked loose and bounces out in the lane. Grantly roars out of the pack, picks up the ball and rainbows it toward the basket. He scores!
The Jamaicans attack our zone for one last shot. They set up...and Bum makes the interception. We win!
The crowd and refs are stunned. We're hysterical. All of the other tournament teams come out of the stands and carry our boys around like NCAA champions. Lucaso and I cement our friendship with tears.
We stayed out all night, singing patriotic songs. It turned out to be good training for me. You see, the government made me an honorary citizen in January 1983. Eat your heart out, Bobby.