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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Part I of an Interview with Dr. Charles "Chic" Hess, Author of "Prof Blood and the Wonder Teams"

"Life comes to you in a moment...each moment of your life can be perceived by you only if you are equipped imaginatively, equipped to dramatize your own role in it--to see yourself as a protagonist confronted by adversary circumstances"--Jerzy Kosinski

The greatest basketball coach you've never heard of led Passaic (New Jersey) High School to 159 straight victories from 1919-1925. Ernest Blood--better known as Professor Blood or simply Prof--was an innovator who valued the pass over the dribble and who developed a feeder system in the lower grade levels so that his high school squad had a steady supply of enthusiastic, top level talent. Blood won seven state championships at Passaic from 1915-1925 and he could have enjoyed a much longer run of success there but he ran afoul of shortsighted school administrators who were apparently jealous of his popularity. Blood resigned his post at Passaic and then coached at St. Benedict's Preparatory School (in Newark, New Jersey) for 23 seasons, leading them to five prep school state titles. Blood also coached at Clarkson University and the U.S. Military Academy.

Blood was inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1960 but his life story and accomplishments are not widely known. Enter Philadelphia native Dr. Charles "Chic" Hess, a veteran high school and junior college coach who first learned about Blood by reading about the 159 game winning streak in little filler blurbs in the local newspapers. Hess had always wanted to know more about the fantastically successful coach with the eye-catching name, so when he began working on his doctorate in his forties he also started assembling information about Blood's life and times. This turned into a 16 year project that culminated with Hess writing a 455 page book titled "Prof Blood and the Wonder Teams: The True Story of Basketball's First Great Coach." Published in 2003 and currently available for $29.95 plus $5 shipping and handling, Hess' biography of Blood is truly a labor of love, a thoroughly detailed account of Passaic's epic winning streak and the behind the scenes school politics that ultimately ended Blood's time at the school.

Dr. Hess is a very successful coach in his own right. His 1978 Lebanon (Pennsylvania) high school squad, anchored by future NBA first round draft pick Sam Bowie, made it to the 1978 Class AAA State Finals. Hess won three coach of the year awards in Pennsylvania, captured two NAIA District 29 Coach of the Year awards for his work at Brigham Young University-Hawaii and then earned the 1991 NABC Coach of the Year Award at Arizona Western College (NJCAA).

I recently spoke with Dr. Hess for more than an hour about a variety of subjects ranging from his own humble start in the sport to the time he spent coaching Sam Bowie to his fascination with Prof Blood. Before I could even ask a question, Hess enthusiastically described his passionate interest in Prof Blood's story:

Hess: "This may sound corny but it got to the point that I felt it became my obligation to inform the basketball community that this really took place, because the story had been lost. No one knew what I knew. It sounds egotistical but it’s true. No one knew what I knew. I talked to a number of 90 year old people and they would say to me, 'How do you know that?' and I would say, 'Well, I researched it and I’m getting all of this information.' Some of the stuff is from behind the scenes—like the records from the high school—and I was very privileged to get my hands on those old memos that were written and letters of recommendation and stuff. I just took this subject and expounded on it so the history of this is made known to everybody, for a number of reasons. This is human nature, the psychology and sociology of sports. Not only that, but how he as a coach built winning teams with feeder programs and a philosophy and being ahead of the game with anatomy and physiology of exercise and how training methods and motor learning and all of the things that go into developing skills—he made a science of it, early (in basketball history)."

Friedman: "How did you first learn about Prof Blood?"

Hess: "I got my start in the city of Philadelphia. I’m from southwest Philadelphia, where basketball is the only game besides street touch football, hoseball, stickball and all those games that city kids play. When I was in high school, we moved right outside into the suburbs, into Levittown, and I remember seeing little things in the newspaper (about Prof Blood). Back then, whenever a newspaper story ended and they had another inch or two to fill they some put trivia in there about something and I remember reading about Professor Blood, coach of the Passaic Wonder Teams—and at the time I didn’t know where Passaic, New Jersey was—who won 159 games in a row. I remember thinking, 'What is this? This is incredible. Back in the 20s? Who the hell is Professor Blood?' That stuck with me and from time to time I remember seeing bits and pieces about him. When I went to school to get my doctorate I used to live in libraries doing research and just to maintain my sanity I started looking up this topic and I started to find out more and more. Back then, they used to put people’s addresses in the newspaper, just as a matter of course. So I wrote to all of these former players and I got a response from some of them; I wrote to about 25 former Wonder Team players and I got a response from three or four of them—their sons or daughters responded. They eventually gave me some information. As the story grew, I became more and more fascinated with it. I was still heavily into coaching and I wanted to learn the secrets to winning but then (I became fascinated with) the story itself and the problems that he developed, that came with the winning, and I couldn’t figure out what it was. Eventually, I had to take two and a half weeks, fly back to New Jersey and I locked myself in the Passaic City Library. In fact, they used to let me in and stay there even when the place was closed. I went through the microfiche of all the old newspapers and I got two or three versions of each game from the perspectives of different writers. I thought that I had enough but the following summer I had to go back and do it again—and each time I went I had to extend my stay because I wasn’t finished yet getting everything that I needed.

When I came back to Hawaii and put it all together a picture was forming in my mind of what was going on. Then, from time to time I’d still have questions and I’d have write to the librarians in New Jersey and ask them different things. I’d say that I knew where to find the information but that I didn’t have it—like the photocopies of the newspapers I took, maybe I missed part of the article (when copying it). They’d send me what I needed. I think that there is not a heck of a lot that I missed. A story unfolded and I had to tell the story, because I figured what good is it now that I know it and I’m satisfied—this should be shared with the basketball community. There would be people who would be interested--and not just in New Jersey--and who would find this story beneficial, philosophy-wise, for coaches. That is why I think that this should be mandatory reading for all coaches, male, female, all levels. This actually took place and these are some of the things that can happen.

I coached at a high school where we had Sam Bowie and we won a lot of games. We went five years without losing a home game; that is the only streak of note that we had. We created a monster. People were lining up outside of the school at 3 o’clock when I’m going home—the school day’s over but I had to come back for a game—but they’re lining up to get in the game because our 3500 seat gymnasium wouldn’t hold any more than that. It just builds and builds and builds and then you have a monster on your hands. Of course, there are some people who don’t want you to win and then when the administration changed the hate was starting to be put on me about different picayune things. So, I could relate to this story very much and that is why I felt compelled to tell it; writing the book was a labor of love and I used as many pages as it took to tell the story."

Friedman: "The labor of love aspect that you mentioned very much comes through, not just in how you are talking about it but the way that you wrote the book—the thoroughness of it and the passion with which you describe several of the situations that Prof Blood went through. You mentioned that part of your initial interest stemmed from the fact that Prof Blood had been so successful and at the time you started your research you were still coaching. What aspects of Prof Blood’s methodology did you apply to your own coaching? Obviously, some of the rules were different in his era compared to the modern era, so you could not directly apply everything, but what things did you learn from your research that you applied to your coaching?"

Hess: "I could relate to Prof. We are physical educators. That was my profession. That’s why I went to college; initially I played for Howie Landa at Mercer County Community College but I went to college to play basketball and then after junior college was over I went to East Stroudsburg. I was an average student because all I wanted to do was graduate, get a teaching job and coach. That’s all, but I spent umpteen hours in the library reading books that were of interest to me as a coach, things about how to teach and how individuals learn, whether it be physiology of exercise, how to develop strength so that you can jump higher, studies on shooting, the best ways of shooting—I mean, I was totally, totally submerged in those things and I saw in Prof someone who came along 60-70 years before me as a coach and who was fascinated by the same things. As much as the profession was known, he was right there on the cutting edge learning it as it was just starting to take place. I just fell in love with the guy. That is exactly what you are supposed to do (to train to be a coach)—understand the body, know how the body works, know how to train the body so you can play at an optimum level.

The feeder system—I always believed in that: develop the younger kids so that you have a never ending supply of players. Prof was doing that long before they were doing it in baseball. Branch Rickey was often called the father of the farm system, because he started all of those minor league baseball teams and then his major league team reaped the benefits from it because they had a pool of players to pick from; they didn’t have to scrounge around for players because they were developing players. Develop your own! I did that, in all the schools I was at. My players talk about what I did for them, always developing the younger players, the farm system of kids coming up.

Wherever I was, I attacked the problem of coaching holistically. I just wasn’t a defensive coach or an offensive coach. I was into it totally. Every day was either a game day or a practice day. That was it for 365 days a year, year after year after year. I couldn’t get enough of it. Here I am, 65 years old, and obviously other things have taken me away from it but I hope to get back into it next year. I’ll be retired and all I’ll be able to do is just coach basketball. Like, get the hell off of my cloud, I’m having fun. That’s what I learned from Prof, a reaffirming of what I already had learned as a coach but there he was doing it on the cutting edge when it all started."

Friedman: "It’s been said of Larry Brown—and I think that he has even said this himself—that in certain respects he almost enjoys coaching practice more than he enjoys coaching games, because the practice situation is really a teaching situation, a situation in which he can help players to improve. Whereas in a game situation, his job is almost done in a sense because he’s already prepared the players and either they are up to the task or not. From your standpoint with all of your experiences as a coach, did you have a similar attitude, where you almost enjoyed coaching practice more than coaching games, or did you really get into the competitive aspect of trying to win the game and enjoying the game while the game was going on? Or was it some combination of both for you?"

Hess: "I’ve heard or read a couple different times Larry Brown expressing those thoughts and I agree with him 100%. You can’t lose a game in practice, so to speak, and that’s where I can help my players. That is where I can leave my mark. This is where I am teaching you now and, basically, with very, very few exceptions, the game will be won or lost in practice by what the kids allow you to do and what you are can get into their heads. That’s why it was such a big thing with Allen Iverson when he said it was only practice. S---, I can relate to Larry Brown—being a 76er fan—you want to strangle the kid, because he is handicapping the brilliant mind of Larry Brown if you don’t let him get across what he needs to get across in practice. I thought Larry Brown adjusted rather well to a hopeless situation with Allen Iverson by making the best of the situation and then getting the hell out of there. That was frustrating for him but I think he got the very most out of that situation. He realized that he could not change him, so he squeezed the lemon and got as much as he could out of him but he did not stick around to put up with him for the rest of his career because that would have driven him nuts."

Friedman: "The two of them obviously had different approaches. The one thing that I would say slightly in Iverson’s defense is that I don’t know that he was objecting so much that he did not want to practice but rather the idea of why this entire press conference is being devoted to this subject. I think that the press conference had been called in reference to something else and his frustration—which became a great sound bite that is still played today—is why are we only talking about this when there are so many other things to talk about. That is another issue.

Since you have experience both playing in college and coaching, did you have that same perspective when you were a player? Did you look at practice as a learning situation? Or at the time that you were a player did you have more of an attitude—not that you were against practice—of enjoying the competitive aspect of a game more versus the practice situation?"

Hess: "Basketball is basketball. I just loved being on the court. I knew practice was necessary. Before the season and after the season, I was playing more basketball than I did in the two hours that we had for practice but it was structured and the coach was in charge. I can’t say that I liked the games more than practice, because we had good coaches. I had John Clark, who left my high school and coached in Division I and then coached in the ABA with the Pittsburgh Pipers. So I had good coaches and I liked it all. As a coach, there is no doubt about it: practice is what I lived for, because that is where I could leave my mark. We’re going to go out and win games not because we’re better than the other team but because we’re going to play as a team. Basketball, to me, is a team game. I know Larry Brown would feel that way. It’s a team game and five guys playing together as a team are very difficult to beat."

Friedman: "When you say that, it reminds me of an old clip of George Allen, the Redskins coach. He had his whole team around him before a game in the 1970s and he said, '40 guys together can’t lose.' That is kind of like the spirit you are talking about in terms of basketball—obviously, he was referring to his whole roster because you don’t have 40 guys on the field at one time. To an extent, having five guys playing together can overcome a talent deficit."

Hess: "Especially in high school, when there’s no (shot) clock. That’s a big difference. We can debate the benefits of the clock and the effect that it has had on the game but, in high school, coaching can prevail (over superior talent)."

Friedman: "Sure, because you can control the game, if your players are listening to you, possession by possession. You can control the length of the possessions and how the possessions go. It really is more of a coaches’ game in that regard."

Hess: "I remember looking at the other team and thinking that they have 10 or 11 really good players and I only had four and a half or five, so it was a good thing that I didn’t have to play against their second team, because I will control the game and I will take their bench out of the game because we will be on offense 65-70% of the time. You do whatever you have to do to win. I remember when I was a high school coach, some of the (college) coaches would come around and I would say that I wanted to be a college coach someday and they would tell me to stay right where I was; if you really enjoy teaching basketball, it’s more fun (at the high school level). I had to go out and taste it, so for like 12-13 years I coached different rinky-dink college teams and looking back, they were right: it’s more fun in high school."

Friedman: "Everyone has a different perspective on that. Some people are lifers at various different levels, while other people coach at a certain level for a period of time but to them that is a stepping stone and their goal is always to coach in college, then to coach at a bigger college and then to go to the NBA. I guess it really just depends on what parts of the game you enjoy the most."

Part II of my interview with Dr. Hess will look at some similarities between Prof Blood's coaching philosophy and the coaching philosophies of modern NBA and collegiate coaches like Paul Westhead, George Karl and Mike D'Antoni.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:42 AM

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