“A lot of men would say, ‘I don’t know if I want to coach my son.’ And I would tell them it’s the greatest experience in the world but you’re going to die two deaths every time he plays.
“Or you’re going to have a consolation every time he plays.
“Or you’re going to have an incredible celebration every time he plays.
“Because if he plays well and you win, whatever cloud is next to Cloud Nine you’re there. If he plays badly and you win, OK, you’re never as happy but at least you can live with it. And if he plays well and you lose, selfish as it sounds, the sting of the defeat is not so great. But if he plays badly and you lose, that is, I would say, a hell on earth.
“That is the worst of times. I had them all, but with Tony I had a lot more of the Cloud Nine game-type experiences, for sure.”
-- Washington State head coach Dick Bennett, whose son Tony was his best player at Wisconsin-Green Bay and is now his associate head coach
I’m not a coach. But as a sportswriter, I’d like to think I watched my son play sports, especially basketball, with a discerning eye and a healthy perspective.
For as long as he can remember basketball was our bond. Not that there weren’t the usual father-son things. But because I was divorced from his mother, he lived away from me through most of the time he was in elementary school and all of junior high and high school.
There were a lot of flights, long drives, hotel nights and rental cars to see Kirk and his sister, Stacey. For a while they lived in New England and later north Alabama, and I’ve been in Baton Rouge since 1984. I’ve always thought that today’s long-distance dads must have things a lot better with the advent of cell phones and e-mail, not that it’s any easier to be away from your children. You miss a lot of things when you’re apart and they’re growing up.
Our conversations about the game elevated when Kirk was in the 7th grade and playing for Priceville Middle School in some dark gym somewhere in the middle of nowhere Alabama between Decatur and Huntsville. He stood at midcourt to inbound the ball as the second quarter began. As he bounced it to one of his teammates, Kirk stopped and scanned the other team. They had changed defenses.
Quickly, without consulting the coach, he alerted his teammates and called a new offense.
We were on to something. Maybe he was paying attention all those years when I took him with me to LSU practices. Or when I took him to the Final Four. Or when we watched games on TV, sometimes together or other times sharing the moment on the telephone.
Kirk went on to become a pretty good player at Brewer High School, a Class 6A school in north Alabama. At 6-foot-1, the smallest male on my side of the family in three generations, he could dunk with both hands, play both guard positions and small forward. He was a tremendous defensive player.
But no one was breaking down his door to play college basketball. Alabama-Huntsville, which competed in the NCAA’s Division II, offered a full ride.
The UAH coach, Lennie Acuff, was a former coach at Berry College, a small NAIA school in Rome, Georgia. While recruiting Kirk earlier that year, Acuff told me as we watched a game in a gym in Huntsville, “You know your son is a white kid in a black kid’s body.”
Indeed. The kid had hops, a 35-inch vertical leap that was certainly an anomaly, especially since his father had the proverbial “credit-card jump.”
Kirk ultimately told UAH he wasn’t interested. So Acuff contacted Todd Brooks, then the coach at Berry, and told him about Kirk. One thing led to another and soon Kirk had signed on to be a Viking.
I was in for quite an awakening.
I cover LSU basketball. I’ve been to almost every Final Four for 20 years. I’ve joked that I taught Shaquille O’Neal, whom I’ve known since he was only 6-foot-11, how to do interviews. The Southeastern Conference from the early 1990s on was as good as any league in the country and covering it night in and night out was a thrill. Simply put, it was sobering to suddenly watch NAIA basketball where you might see zero dunks in a game, officials who are calling NAIA games in the middle of nowhere for a reason, and sit with 30 or 40 of your closest friends in some gym that doesn’t even have a concession stand. Don’t even get me started about the cheerleaders.
But I knew I was about to enter into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see my son play college basketball and have his education paid for at the same time. I love hoops and I love my son, so I knew I would make every opportunity to see him play. One of the reasons I left the daily newspaper business in 1998 was to create more flexibility in my life so I could see him play in high school.
Kirk made the TranSouth Conference all-freshman team in 2001. His Berry team finished 9-23 after losing in the first round of the TranSouth Conference Tournament.
“That was the worst team I ever played on,” Kirk said.
But the Vikings showed promise. Kirk averaged 7.5 points, 2.6 rebounds and 3.2 assists.
The next season, 2001-02, Berry ended 16-17, getting blown out in the first round of the conference tournament at Lee, a little school in Cleveland, Tennessee. Kirk averaged 13.9 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists. But a month before the season ended, en route to making the All-TranSouth second team, Kirk gave me a shock.
He told me that was it. He’d had enough basketball. No more off-season conditioning. No more long bus rides, like that nine-hour jaunt to Lyons, Arkansas. No more getting yelled at. He didn’t want to go to school at Berry anymore; rather he longed for the big-time college atmosphere of a place like Florida State or LSU.
I had a big dad dilemma: Happy kid or a kid on full scholarship. The thought of paying for college was right up there with getting hemorrhoids.
By the time the semester ended I realized there was no substitute for having a happy kid. So he gave up his scholarship and came to Baton Rouge and became a student at LSU.
“I couldn’t have played,” he said. “The next year if I had tried to play again, well, I couldn’t. I just wouldn’t have been any good. All my friends were graduating, I wasn’t going to have a good group of friends there anymore, and I just thought I was ready to do something else.”
I implored him to become a positive member of society: Get good grades, don’t get in any fights with LSU football players at the bars he and his friends frequented, don’t drink and drive and get used to manual labor around our house.
That fall, he coached an 8th-grade girls basketball team and got a technical in his first game.
“Hell, I got thrown out of my first game,” Kirk said, still blaming the second technical on his assistant. “I still hate that referee.”
Later that winter, he coached a 7th-grade boys team. And he was good. Great demeanor. He could teach the game. And the kids played hard for him and he got lots of presents at season’s end, always a good barometer. What’s more, I enjoyed watching him coach almost as much as watching him play. I have to admit I didn’t miss the traveling to Rome and it was fun to have him around all the time.
One day in February, however, he called the house and told me and my wife, Brenda, that he had a lot on his mind, that he had to come see us, because he was “all stressed out.” We had no idea what it could be, but it wasn’t like him.
Kirk came to the house and started babbling and pacing about the kitchen. So I stopped him and asked him to get to the point. By now I was a bit concerned, especially after Brenda’s crack before he arrived about hoping no one was pregnant.
“I’m thinking of going back to Berry,” he blurted out.
“Is that all?” I asked, laughing.
I hopped off the counter and jumped in the air with both fists over my head and yelled.
We all laughed. He was obviously relieved.
“You think that’s all right?” he asked.
Hell, yeah, it was! I told him he had one chance in life to play college sports and that’s when you’re in college. We also pointed out that he had a passion for the game that he was wasting.
“If I had never coached that year I was at LSU I probably never would have gone back,” Kirk said. “If I had never picked up a ball and never been around the game, I’d have been fine. But getting into coaching and being so involved, basically I was wrapped up in the game all year. It was like I never took a break. It was just different.”
It didn’t hurt, however, that he got constant phone calls from his old Berry teammates trying to get him to return. And the new coach, Jeff Haarlow, Todd Brooks’ former assistant who got the job when Brooks decided to concentrate on being Berry’s athletic director, had kept in touch and assured Kirk that his scholarship was still there if he wanted it.
Haarlow finished 21-13 in his first year as head coach. He and I agreed that if he could put Kirk back into the mix, Berry could be really good.
“I knew his love for the game would come back. I knew he wanted to play some more,” Haarlow told me.
And a bell went off in this sportswriter’s head that there was a book in all of this. I wasn’t sure exactly what at the time, but I knew what basketball had meant to us and what his going back would mean for the next couple of years. For me, at least, writing this book was a chance to not only chronicle Kirk’s career, but also give it special meaning for me and him.
After kicking it around, I realized that there were so many great examples out there of fathers and sons whose lives were intertwined by basketball and that their stories were worth getting. In five minutes I had a list that was a Who’s Who of fathers and sons in basketball.
Even Haarlow fit the bill, since his dad, Bob, played at Princeton with Bill Bradley. And Bob’s father, the late William “Bill” Haarlow, was once head of officials for the Big Ten.
There were stories out there and I was going to get them. And it was all going to tie in with Kirk’s senior year, one made even more significant because of something really stupid he did at LSU right after he decided to return to Berry.