Sunday, August 26, 2007

Earthy Mentor to Eclectic Collection of Protégés

Published: August 26, 2007

The old boys range from Pulitzer Prize-winning poet to minister to endodontist. There was even a Knick who became a senator.

Every day in their chosen fields, they think about their earthy mentor with the booming guffaw and the ripe cigar. They find themselves imitating Butch van Breda Kolff in ways big and small, civil and profane.

Larry Lucchino, the president of the Boston Red Sox, says he urges his staff to compete in matters like guessing the day’s attendance or predicting the weather or simply remembering the worst idea from previous meetings. These contests remind Lucchino of the little games Butch held during practice to keep the boys laughing when Lucchino was a backup guard at Princeton.

Stephen Dunn, who was awarded the 2001 Pulitzer for poetry, was allowed to take only jump shots against the zone when he played for Butch at Hofstra. In an e-mail message, Dunn recalled Butch as “the kind of thinker who introduced me to what a good mind, well-versed in his subject, could offer.”

“Heady stuff, to this day,” Dunn added. “Things like, ‘He goes left if he’s going to drive, otherwise he’s going to his right, and will pull up for a jump shot after two dribbles.’ Downright Jesuitical in its logic and exactitude.”

Butch would have scoffed at the Jesuitical part. He did his teaching at high decibels, punctuating it with two fingers against his prominent teeth, emitting a fierce whistle that cut through a noisy gym, striking fear in his players. He once kept Wilt Chamberlain on the bench. And his Lakers lost in the finals. And Butch never second-guessed himself. Ex-Marine. Tough guy.

Butch, who died Wednesday at 84, was the best college basketball coach I ever saw. After observing him up close as a student publicist at Hofstra from 1956 through 1960, I later saw Smith and Knight, Thompson and Krzyzewski, but nobody could top Butch.

“He put people in the right spot so they could be successful,” said Gary Walters, once a star point guard for Butch at Princeton, now the athletic director there.

Butch is a legend to most of the old boys — and girls — he coached all over the map. (He coached a women’s pro team in New Orleans for a while. Said the best thing about it was the huddle. Which was pretty much the essential Willem Hendrik van Breda Kolff, whom I came to think of as Zorba the Dutchman, in that he seemed to fascinate introspective types. I remember watching Bill Bradley’s eyes widening at Butch’s Rabelaisian output (vulgar pregame talks, gross sounds) during Bradley’s first season. Butch was good for Bradley. Loosened him up. Would have been helpful out on the hustings, having a coldie with the locals.

Christopher M. Thomforde, a Lutheran minister who is now the president of Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pa., was a serious (and tall) young man when he encountered Butch in a summer camp on Long Island. Butch was in his 40s by then, a former Knick from the Pleistocene era who would play in the games, outthinking the youngsters. Then Butch came around to recruit Thomforde for Princeton.

“My father was an immigrant from Germany,” Thomforde said the other day. “He believed in hard work. Some coaches would talk about the Bible or praise me. My father asked Butch what he thought of me.”

“ ‘Yeah, he’s not too bad,’ ” Thomforde recalled Butch saying. “ ‘He needs a little work, and after a while, he’ll be O.K.’ ”

That was enough for Fredrich Thomforde. His son enrolled at Princeton, not for the prestige but for the hard work. Princeton would be a top-10 team in his years.

Butch kept it simple, didn’t run as many patterns as his pal and successor, Pete Carril. But they had the same idea: move around, move the ball, get open. Butch had learned from his college coach, Cappy Cappon, and the Knicks’ coach, Joe Lapchick. He had roles for everybody, although Bradley was a different case — given his huge mix of talent and unselfishness.

In the 2005 book “Coach: 25 Writers Reflect on People Who Made a Difference,” the author John McPhee recalls Butch’s foghorn advice to Bradley during a game: “Will ... you ... shoot ... that ... ball.” Only then would Bradley let loose.

“Very bright, very crude,” Stephen Dunn said by telephone Friday. “A person everybody in the room had to deal with.”

Dunn remembered something else: a Hofstra road trip to Gettysburg, Pa., circa 1960, when Teddy Jackson and Bob Stowers, the two black players, were not allowed to use the hotel game room.

Butch marched the whole team out of the hotel, not sure where they would stay but knowing it would not be there. Tough guy. Hard to believe he could wind down.

“I’ve been mourning him for two years,” Gary Walters said the other day.

All his old players mourn him now. Can still hear the whistle and the voice — and the purposefulness behind them.



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