When I was selected to coach Antigua's national basketball team in the 1982 Caricom Tournament, there was a little less hoopla than when Bobby Knight was chosen to coach the 1984 U.S. Olympic basketball team. Knight was picked by a committee of experts because he is the best; I was chosen by the island's officials probably because I love calypso music.
I haven't coached two national championship teams, devised strategies that have universally affected the game, and I'm not on Puerto Rico's most-wanted list—that's Bobby. I was just a 38-year-old Division II coach for Oakland University in Oakland, Mich. But the Antiguans had a passing acquaintance with me—our team had traveled there on a Christmas tour in 1979. They wanted an American they knew, so I was offered the job.
No pay went with it, but it was a deal I couldn't refuse: $640 air fare and room and board for the entire three weeks. Inasmuch as the average weekly Antiguan wage is around $60, I knew they were serious about their basketball.
I flew off to Antigua on Aug. 1 in 1982 to mold their 12 best players into a team that would whip the likes of the Bahamas, Dominica, Trinidad, Suriname, and Jamaica, the defending Caricom champion. Though I tried to shake him loose in Detroit, Bobby's ghost got on Eastern Flight 963 as my mental stowaway.
Antigua is a three-hour flight from Miami. It's about twice as big as Manhattan and has 365 beaches—one for every day of the year. There are 75,000 citizens. The Antiguans invented calypso music, and dancing to its sweet rhythms is the national pastime for young and old.
I lived with my host, Lucaso Brumant, in the capital city of St. John's. He's a slightly built, fully bearded official in the government's Department of Sports and Games and occasionally a referee who's Mr. Basketball on the island.
I had just 14 days to prepare my team for the tournament that was to be played in Kingston, Jamaica. The mean age of my players was 21. They worked as longshoremen, musicians, cabinetmakers and mechanics, among other occupations. I'd never coached a guy who wore a diamond earring. Richie Francis, one of my best players, did. "Bum," an older but effective guard, liked to smoke before, during and after practice. Grantly Samuels, a human cement mixer, wore a baseball cap with the bill turned up when he played. Canya, a Rastafarian, had dreadlocks four years long.
Tekal Gomes, who must have been 6'10", was always an hour late for practice. Nya, one of my favorites, sometimes played barefoot. If he wore shoes, he wouldn't wear socks. The Christian brothers, Andy and Mark, were known more for their soccer than basketball talents, but their popularity on the island made them indispensable. Bobby Joseph was always 30 minutes early for practice and a delight to coach. Wyllie Abbott, a soft-spoken bank clerk, was to surprise everyone by becoming a star in Jamaica.
They wanted so much to bring honor to Antigua. It was easy for me to get caught up in this nationalism; I just had to do a great job of coaching. The two weeks I had to install a simple team system was less than half the time I was used to in college. I felt the pressure, especially since their play resembled a kindergarten recess. We practiced outdoors under lights on low-grade asphalt courts with crater-sized potholes. Cow dung on the courts was a constant problem. Sometimes we just played around it.
I decided to put in a 1-2-2 zone defense, a 1-3-1 half-court trap, a zone offense and a man-to-man defense. The players were eager to learn and began to share the ball more and do some guarding. Soon we were ahead of schedule.