Try telling him a story you've heard—say, about how he supposedly watched a Utah practice in the fall of 1965 and then used the Runnin' Utes' fast break to subdue them in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament the following spring, thus earning the right to play Kentucky—and he'll correct you, sharpen the tale: "We were playing Utah in football, so I went up to Salt Lake. [Utes basketball coach] Jack Gardner ran a five-on-two fast break drill that I saw backward. I made it a defensive drill, with two guys getting back to stop a break. It's a drill we still do darn near every day in practice. Remember, I played for the finest defensive coach who ever walked."
Stories have their use. They are deflective. They lead the listener to something else, someone else, somewhere else, sometime else. Say, 1949. Mr. Iba. Stillwater, Okla. An A&M practice. "Back then it wasn't supposed to be fun, see," Haskins will say. "Over Christmas break he'd have us go nine to noon, two to five and seven to 10. And seven to 10 would be three one-hour scrimmages. No water. No sitting. One night by the end the skin on the ball of my foot had come off. School president was at that practice, and he asked me if I was tired when I came off the floor.
" 'No, sir,' I told him.
" 'Sure shouldn't be,' he says back.' 'Cause you haven't done a damn thing all day.' "
Thus he weaves more diverting scenes on the tapestry of his basketball life, so many distracting stitches that you can scarcely make out the fundamental fibers. That's the thing about sitting at Haskins's knee, which is to say at his jowls and torso and hands: You've come to Rome to hear Caesar on Caesar. But Caesar wants to play Gibbon, so you get story after story about Rome in which Caesar figures only glancingly. "Funny, he holds Iba in such regard, to such legendary status," says Majerus. "Now he's there himself, and he doesn't realize it. If he wasn't in our league and in our time zone, he'd have been in the Hall of Fame 20 years ago."
Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson starred on Haskins's first Texas Western team in 1961-62, and it pains him to watch his old coach in his dotage. "I don't know all the things happening there, because he's not one to complain," Richardson says, "but you can look at him and tell. The way he's going out, it's the s—-tiest way I know."
Today Haskins is the Bear, but Iba called the kid from Enid something much less magisterial: Rope, for his slender form and the coif surmounting it that seemed to be made of coir. In 1955, three years out of A&M, Haskins alighted at the high school in Benjamin, a town of about 250 in the Cedar Breaks country of west Texas. "I went into coaching because I didn't know how to do anything else," he says. "Being some guy in Peoria at a desk, punching a time clock—I knew I didn't want to do that. It was like I'd grabbed a lifeline and pulled myself out of the water."
It scarcely mattered that terra firma was strewn with tumble-weed. Don and his bride, Mary, pulled up in front of what was to be their new home to find a rattlesnake coiled on the porch. It was in Benjamin that Haskins learned to call coyotes. "Government trapper taught me," he says. "You get hid, see, and then you take a duck call apart so you got an open flute, and you blow on it to make it sound like a rabbit squealin'. Bobcats, hawks, coyotes—all sorts of varmints appear.
"Didn't like to shoot 'em much. Just call 'em. Gotta do something in those little towns I coached in."
After stopovers at high schools in the Texas outposts of Hedley and Dumas, he arrived in El Paso. It wasn't inertia that kept him there for 38 years so much as a preference for the familiar, for relating to people one-to-one, which indicates a strain of shyness. Haskins prepares his team as well as any coach for the big game, yet public ceremony paralyzes him. "My grandkids are enjoying me being nervous," he told the crowd at the dinner prior to his enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. "They get to eat my steak." Several days before that, at the dedication of the Don Haskins Center, Mary turned to embrace him in front of more than 12,000 people. He didn't much more than shake her hand.