Remembering Coach Bill Chambers

RIP 1930 – 2017

My college basketball coach, Bill Chambers, came suddenly to mind as I was starting to write an essay on authenticity and the #FrictionLessSociety™. I was shaken to discover that he had passed away last July after a long struggle with Parkinson’s Disease.

The essay thread is included below as a reminder to finish the essay later, as well as set the stage for this appreciation letter.  This remembrance is the celebration of a life lived authentically that changed my life for the better and gave me my first adult glimpses of authenticity in action on a big world stage that continues to inspire me.

I had started writing about demand for authenticity increasing as it becomes scarcer; the demand for this attribute in humans seems to have been growing steadily during my lifetime as society has moved fully into the #FrictionLessSociety™.  (The image of thousands of boats being unmoored and let loose at the same time to find their way freely in life’s ocean comes to mind.) My simple  worldview as a teenager was that authenticity was clearer then than now;  either you were or were not authentic and most people were.

That view seems to have muddied over the years, whether in my mind or externally. The extent to which increasing demand for authenticity really exists and is a good or bad thing rests on untangling the inherently paradoxical meaning of authenticity for humans:

Being uniquely true to one’s self, or, original, seems incompatible with the constantly changing lives of humans

The one constant I am most sure of on this question is that Coach Bill Chambers was an authentic original for all seasons! Why do I know this?  Because different versions of my story below have been told in many ways by many other people who were also touched by Bill Chambers throughout his life.

I played basketball on an elite high school team as a 6’ 4’’  195 pound skinny kid who grew eight inches in one year at age 14 and went to the College of William and Mary at 18 on a full four-year basketball scholarship where Bill Chambers was my coach.  He changed my life and was more responsible for me becoming a man than anyone else in my life.  I shall never forget him and am eternally grateful that I somehow found myself at the right place at the right time for the first of many such times in my life.

My biggest claim to fame is from this early experience; I usually tell its story as an opening joke when coming-of-age conversations arise:

  “I once held All American Hall-of-Fame basketballer Jerry West to 42 points when he was a senior at WVA and I was a freshman at the College of W&M.  My unranked W&M team beat #4 nationally ranked West Virginia 94 to 86 ending the 56-game winning streak of WVA.  I scored 6 points.

The closer joke to my story is:

This was not all luck either because as a sophomore the next year we beat WVA again (national rank #8 this time w/o West) in the conference tournament 88 to 76, denying them a seat at the nationals. This time I scored 18 points.

I  wouldn’t have believed this was possible when I arrived at W&M,  but our 6’ 4” Coach Bill Chambers first convinced me and the rest of the team that it was possible by calmly showing us how in his quiet, confident and caring manner by focusing on fundamentals and teamwork.  He created belief by working our asses off with his assistant coach on point, a 5’ 10” ex-marine we called “screaming” Joe Agee, leading the charge preparing us physically and mentally to change the “impossible” into the “probable.”  Then, with specific game time strategy preparation and motivation Coach Chambers  changed our attitude to “we expect to win!”

Coach Chambers had impeccable basketball bonafides: He had been a standout All American at W&M, still currently holds the all-time  all-college rebound record of 51 for a single game (which happened against UVA his senior year when he averaged 21.6 rebounds), and he was an 11th round draft pick of the Minneapolis Lakers just as the really big men like George Mikan were taking over the game.  Chambers was cut in training camp. He left to start his 15-year coaching career, which he followed with a successful career as a top executive of the sports clothing industry.

At W&M, Chambers and his assistant made physical and mental practice before games so hard that playing the game was easy and fun.  This experience changed all of us and was a major part of our education as young men becoming mature  and responsible men. The lesson:  “speed up” so when you slow down you are “going faster” with ease than everyone else.”

The first time we beat WVA with its superstar Jerry West was special because it opened my eyes to the idea that anything was actually possible.  I experienced it!

I badly needed this positive insight at that time because I would be getting married soon at age 19 with children on the way.  West, a slim 6’ 3’’ 175 pounnd athlete whose silhouette would become the NBA logo, was a living icon even then and yet, he was just flesh and blood like each of us and vulnerable to life’s whims like everyone else. Or so we were tought and thought, that is, until we faced him in the flesh.

Just before the first WVA game started, Coach Chambers had to bring us back down to earth.  He pulled us off the court to the sideline from warming-up because we were mesmerized by Jerry West’s thundering dunks from high above the rim in the WVA warm-up routine.

In it players moved in a line keeping the ball bouncing high on the backboard with a single tip by each person until the last man in line, Jerry West, grabbed the ball with both hands and crashed it violently through the hoop at near his eye level!

Seeing our mouths drop at Wests’s dunks, Coach pulled us off the court. He gathered us together in a tight circle, and made each of us look him in the eye. He admonished us by name saying something slowly to each person like: “Now is not the time.  You can admire your opponent after you beat him.  Individual dunks are for show. Teamwork wins games. Focus on each other.  Got it.  Now go get it!” He held our gaze as WVA finished their warm-ups keeping us from looking at them, and then quickly sent us out back on the court “to own it” with a few shots before the tip off. It was our home game!

In this first win over WVA our brutish senior, All Conference center from New Jersey, Jeff Cohen (6’ 7’’ 240 pounds) dominated the paint. He led us with 34 points and 20 rebounds. He was supported by our slim but sturdy senior forward, Bev Vaughan (6’ 5’’ 190 pounds) who scored 25 points, many as assists from Cohen when WVA’s defense collapsed on Cohen in the paint.  I scored 6 points, as I recall, with one memorable scoring move (below) that told me “I belonged.”

I doubt if Jerry West much remembered his superstar individual performance on that night, but for me and my team that night was unforgettable. It was not that winning that night was so improbable by any reasonable measure; after the game not even a whiff of the “winning stuff” could be found by any of us in our gleeful celebration that made this win possible. (More about this intangible winning stuff when I complete the authenticity essay.)  Each player had a story that contributed to the win. This is what I remember:

Cohen not only protected the rim on defense but kept us in the game on offense with his scoring around the basket by drawing attention of other defenders that gave space and opportunity for the rest of us to contribute. He generously gave everyone credit for doing their part in this important team win.
My special moment was an improvised move I made on a much taller guy by pretending to launch a big sweeping hook shot out of desperation as I moved away from the basket, only to slide back suddenly under his raised arm at the last second toward the basket as he lunged at me trying to block my shot as I made a sweet uncontested layup. That move came unbidden out of nowhere and became a permanent part of my game after that.
Vaughan recounted how Cohen slipped him a pass in a scrum with West and others under the net for Vaughan to make an easy layup only to have it blocked by West at the last second by trapping Vaughan's ball on the backboard with both of his hands high above the rim. I saw it happen in amazement!  Vaughan said he was initially shocked but the ball fell back into his hands and he quickly put it back up and in before West could block it again.
Kenny Roberts, our 5’ 11’’ point guard had the job of guarding Jerry West, with help from everyone else. He had played for Coach Chambers on his State Championship team at Newport News high school, Virginia before coming to W&M. Kenny was a gifted ball handler, excellent defender and a ball hawk, but was no match for West. Roberts famously said of West, "Everybody guarded him, "but nobody guarded him."

Roberts knew Chambers longest and best. Chambers and his assistant coach, Agee, were tough taskmasters. But they were fair, and they managed the team in such a way that they commanded the respect of the players.

Coach kept us practicing at Christmas time each year. I remember that we’d get to go home the 24th and come back the morning of the 25th and practice during the holiday break, and even one time on New Year’s Eve.  Chambers even once scheduled a workout for midnight, and also once threw the best player off the team in his sophomore year (a blue chipper from Ohio) for not taking his “playing job” seriously.  (That’s when I realized that our play affected Coach Chamber’s salary, and that my preparation and play in games counted as my first serious adult “job.”)

Chambers was accomplished as a player in his own right — his No. 32 hangs in the rafters of Kaplan Arena — but he rarely mentioned those days when he was a coach. Only when coerced, Roberts recalled, did Chambers wow his Newport News high school team by standing under the basket, without a running start, and dunking. “You didn’t see that much in those days,” Roberts said in a recent interview.

Jerry West and his coach, Fred Schaus, left WVA after West graduated to join the Lakers, a team that had just moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles.  Coach, Bill Chambers, would stay at W&M through my 8 years while I finished getting my BS, MS, and PhD degrees along with having three beautiful healthy children–two girls and a boy.

Coach Chambers became my life mentor and “college dad” during this important time in my life. I will never forget his support, without judging me, when I had to tell him I was getting married, fearful that I might lose my scholarship.  I was essentially on my own then and barely making passing grades.

He asked me calmly and very matter of factly what the chances were that I would soon be a father. I looked  him in the eye and said  slowly “100% Coach.”  He said, “how can I help you;  I look forward to you staying in school and playing on the team.  You have a long promising life ahead of you  and we have some promising seasons coming up.”

A lifetime of potential worries poured out of me.  That moment became my “10” benchmark for measuring the level of all my future challenges, and none  has come close to it yet. I think this conversation lit a fire under me I was so thankful. My grades turned from C’s into A’s and my scoring and rebounding doubled to leading the team with a scoring average of 16  points and 7 rebounds per game.

Shortly after my first child, Joanna, was born he and his wife Betty showed up one evening in the Summer by surprise at our one-room upstairs apartment near campus.  He carried a large box of food and his wife carried a large box of baby supplies up the steps to visit and welcome my new family to the world. They chatted for a bit, wished us well and left.

I didn’t think he even knew where we lived.

2 thoughts on “Remembering Coach Bill Chambers

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