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Basketball's Eclectic Basket Case
Franz Lidz
March 04, 1991
Is CBA coach Charley Rosen a mellow flower child or an out-of-control madman? Depends on who's winning
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March 04, 1991

Basketball's Eclectic Basket Case

Is CBA coach Charley Rosen a mellow flower child or an out-of-control madman? Depends on who's winning

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"You're right," says Charley. He drifts into dreamy reverie. "It flashed a lovely purple whenever Crosby, Stills and Nash sang Guinnevere."

Once settled in Woodstock, the Rosens started raising a family. Charley named their son, Darrell Marlowe, after a former NBA journeyman basketball player (Darrall Imhoff) and a 16th-century English poet and playwright. "I have no idea why anyone would want to name a kid for Imhoff," confesses Charley, expressing an embarrassment that may explain why he didn't get the spelling quite right. "But Marlowe was supremely talented, a terrific writer and more than a little crazy. He fooled around with alchemy and all kinds of nutsy things." Susan drew the line when Charley wanted to name their daughter Layla. "Susan wasn't into Derek and the Dominos," Charley says. They settled on Alexandra Jade.

Another sideline was born one day when Rosen retrieved that forsaken thesis, but not to finish it. Short on paper, he wrote a biography of former Boston Celtic Dave Cowens on the backs of the pages. What was left of Pseudo-Dionysius, he tossed down an incinerator.

The Cowens bio was one of more than half a dozen books that Rosen, who at 6'8" was once called the world's tallest author, wrote between 1975 and '81. Not all of them were published, but the last one—Players and Pretenders—was. It chronicled his misadventures as coach of tiny Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, not far from Woodstock. In the book Rosen sounds like a Zen master at an endlessly turning prayer wheel, droning on to his disciples about playing basketball as a "Zen exercise seeking the spiritual radiance of the game." But even during those serene, low-pressure years at Bard, Rosen's own contemplative calm would disintegrate at the opening buzzer. He'd brave whiplash as he flung back his head in mad abandon, eyes flipping in their sockets like cherries in a slot machine. At one official he barked: "I just want to say you're the worst ref I've ever seen."

"That's fine," said the ref, "because you're the worst team I've ever seen."

The ref had a point: Despite the flamboyant moves of forward Lance Lavender, the Running Red Devils were 1-16 against such powerhouses as Vassar and the Albany College of Pharmacy. In the middle of one game, a drama teacher dragged Rosen's 5'9" power forward off the floor to rehearse As You Like It.

Rosen's initiation to the CBA came in 1983. His buddy Phil Jackson was named coach at Albany and asked Rosen to come along. The cost-conscious league barred assistant coaches from traveling, so Rosen's loophole was to be certified as a trainer. "He taped ankles," says Jackson, who now coaches the Chicago Bulls in the NBA. "Lots of ugly ankles."

The taping sessions lasted until 1986, when Rosen got the head job at Savannah. Despite his spiritual approach, the Spirits finished 20-28. Rosen rolled on to Rockford, where his Lightning was 37-17 and reached the division final. The team made the championship series in '88-89, but were swept by Tulsa in four games. Then came last season and the infamous swing at Whittaker in Cedar Rapids. Rosen says Whittaker had run up the score. "What I did was indefensible," Rosen concedes. "I got caught up in all that macho b.s.—that basketball is life and death. The episode forced me to deal with my dark side. I quit Rockford before they could fire me."

He draws a long breath. "The game becomes a measure of your value as a human being," he says. "You win, you're worthwhile. Lose, you're worthless. Maybe as a kid I never had a sense of being a winner. I was big, and littler kids always tried to beat me up. When you grow up big, you can't get lost or hide." He pulls at his whiskers. "I should have outgrown this stuff by now. Maybe I'm psychotic. I doubt it, though. I think I'm perfectly sane, perfectly normal." He smiles the smile of a triple ax murderer and lets loose his dangerous-sounding laugh.

"Charley's got an inimitable, Bronx subway style," says Jackson. "He doesn't just stick his foot in the door—he pushes right to the middle of the car. Fortunately, he's also got a great sense of humor."

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