One late spring afternoon back in college, a friend and I were playing a little one-on-one in the gym after tennis practice. The only other people in the building at the time were another student, who was shooting baskets at the far end of the floor, and the men's head basketball coach, who was staying late in his office finishing up some administrative paperwork. Another losing basketball season had already concluded, but even at the Division III level, a coach's work is never done.
"Hey," the coach called out to us. "You guys mind if we make it two-on-two?"
He beckoned to the other gym rat, and just like that, there was a new game in town.
Many times in my life I've been within whispering distance of athletic greatness. I stood less than four feet from Ernie Els blasting out of the deep rough on the 16th hole at the 2002 U.S. Open in Bethpage. I watched Bill Russell, John Havlicek and the rest of the perennial world champion Boston Celtics practice every afternoon in the Brandeis University gym. And I've been cursed out while attempting to interview the world's greatest outside linebacker and consummate asshole Lawrence Taylor in the New York Giants locker room.
But all that was as a spectator or journalist. This time sports greatness was truly being thrust upon me. I was in a game of two-on-two versus K.C. Jones, who had assumed the Brandeis coaching position immediately upon his retirement as a Hall of Fame Celtics point guard. At the time of his retirement, K.C. was widely considered among basketball cognoscenti as the greatest defensive guard in NBA history. On this overcast afternoon in Waltham, Mass., his opposition had devolved from Oscar Robertson and Jerry West to yours truly.
But K.C. seemed cool with that. To be sure, he wasn't looking to embarrass or impress anyone, least of all us. We knew who he was and what he had accomplished over a 9-year pro career, which included eight—count 'em, eight—consecutive NBA championships, not to mention the two NCAA titles he accumulated at San Francisco University in the mid '50s and the Olympic gold he won in '56. He was, indeed, American basketball royalty.
K.C. took it easy on us kids. He drove by me for a few easy baskets (he was never much of an outside shooter), but he was in this pickup game strictly for the exercise and the emotional release. His first year as a college coach had been a frustrating one. Brandeis players tended to favor their organic chemistry or Spanish literature classes over basketball, and this was an attitude that the new coach could not fathom, given his basketball mindset. And, then, there was all that losing, which collided with everything he had experienced in his lifetime.
But on this afternoon, he was just an older guy on the court kicking back with some kids. Still, I knew what I wanted from this man—to experience, just once in my life, what it's like to play straight, no-chaser hoops against the greatest defensive guard ever. I asked K.C. to give me the full NBA treatment, and he graciously obliged.
He passed me the ball to begin the play, and then he muscled up within inches of my chest, his arms spread wide, almost encircling my body. Forget not being able to dribble right or left out of the press—to be honest, I could never go to my left anyway—or pass the ball, or move any part of my body in a lateral direction. Shit, I could barely breathe. I was up to my sweet neck in basketball prison. Fortunately, this suffocating pressure didn't last long. K.C.'s quick hands knocked the ball from my grasp and he was off to the basket for an easy layup. He turned and smiled at me. No need to say you're welcome.
We resumed our friendly game. K.C. let me score a couple of baskets, and when it was over we all shook hands and K.C. went back to his paperwork. But my lesson was learned. Since that little game of two-on-two, I have never watched professional basketball in quite the same way. I got a taste of what it takes to get up and down the court 90 or 100 times a game, and a deeper appreciation of the vast athletic skills on display every night in the NBA.
K.C. lasted only three years at Brandeis. He went on to coach the NBA's Baltimore Bullets and later won two more league championships as head coach of his beloved Boston Celtics. I chronicled K.C.'s lean years as a Division III coach in a magazine piece in the mid-1970s. I took him to task in that article for his failure to understand the true student-athlete and teach to that level of skill and commitment.
But, for me personally, K.C. was an excellent teacher. I should have asked him to teach me how to go left.