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Butch van Breda Kolff is on his feet again, springing from chair to courtside, his brown eyes round with amazement and indignation, his mouth agape, his hands flying over his head. And here comes that voice—a rich bass that doesn't originate from a place so shallow as his throat, but rather seems to rise like some great fish hooked deep within him.
"Don't let 'em penetrate the middle!" the voice cries out. "Remember what I said? No! Ahhhhh.... What did I tell ya!" He stalks back to his chair, hitches up a pant leg, sits down in a huff and turns away, pained and incredulous.
It's early January 1984, and Willem Hendrik (Butch) van Breda Kolff, known also as VBK, is at courtside in a small gymnasium in Picayune, Miss. Van Breda Kolff is the boys' varsity basketball coach at Picayune Memorial High School these days. Oh yes, that van Breda Kolff, the very same VBK who once captained the New York Knicks; who coached at Lafayette, Hofstra and Princeton, where he had Bill Bradley and won four Ivy League titles in five years, making the Final Four in 1965. He's the same VBK who coached Elgin Baylor and Jerry West and, later, Wilt Chamberlain on the Los Angeles Lakers, reaching the NBA finals in 1968 and '69; Dave Bing and Bob Lanier on the Detroit Pistons; Connie Hawkins on the Phoenix Suns; Johnny Neumann on the ABA Memphis Tarns; Pistol Pete Maravich on the New Orleans Jazz.
He's the same van Breda Kolff who then spent two years coaching the University of New Orleans and almost two more coaching the New Orleans Pride of the now-defunct Women's Professional Basketball League; who subsequently lapsed into obscurity, working in the tugboat business around the Gulf of Mexico, then getting lost and found again, at age 61, in Mississippi.
Besides coaching, van Breda Kolff teaches world history to three classes at Picayune, a total of 85 students, about 30 of whom he says are flunking. He owns a small house out in the country, where he lives alone. At night he cooks hot dogs in his microwave. He builds fires in the fireplace. He sits in an easy chair, sips a few beers, watches reruns of M*A*S*H and is usually in bed by 10.
He coaches a basketball team with five black starters—center Pat Collins, forwards Ryan Hatten and Scott Graham and guards Bernard Stubbs and Jerry Ellis—all of whom live in fatherless homes and look up to van Breda Kolff as a kind of surrogate dad. They call him "Coach Butch." When they whine in practice, he pulls a handkerchief from his pocket and dabs his eyes, sniffles and then roars, "You're nothing but a bunch of babies. Quit crying and grow up!" Then he is Coach Butch again, and nearly at the top of his leather lungs.
"Come on!" VBK yells. "We've got to get movement going.... Take a look! See where everybody is.... Calm down! Take the good shot!"
During a game against Hattiesburg's Oak Grove High, Collins and Hatten are racing downcourt on a fast break, two-on-one. At the last moment the defender commits to Hatten, who fires a quick pass under the basket to Collins, who grabs it and scores an easy layup.
"That's a good pass!" VBK shouts, managing a quick smile. "That's it...now get back. Don't let 'em penetrate the middle. Pick that man up!"
Down in the corner, no one picks up the man with the ball. "That guy can shoot!" VBK warns, even as the shot is falling through the net. VBK is up again, in agony, his face contorted. He shakes his head hard. "Goddam it! Get out on him!"