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Having beckoned Mike Grubbs, a senior guard, to his side after Grubbs missed a bounce pass that should have led to an easy basket, McCollum gave a brief lecture on concentration. Then he interrupted himself with: If you can't be a highway, be a trail,/ If you can't be a sun, be a star,/ If you can't be the best, be the best man you are.
McCollum explained that he loved basketball, but he loved teaching even more. "If you do it right, coaching is teaching," he said. "If you don't, it's a crime against youth."
When one of McCollum's two top players, senior Andy Kolesar, a tall, muscular guard, lunged in the wrong direction for a pass that ended up behind him, McCollum intoned: You can pitch a no-hit ballgame,/ Pass and run with easy grace,/ But it's just another loss if a teammate's out of place.
McCollum himself had played baseball and basketball as a high school student in Fairfield, three miles from Hamilton. He came out of World War II with a knee wound that gave him a permanent limp. Though he also had diabetes, he did well enough as a semi-pro pitcher that the Dodgers offered him a contract with a Class B farm team. "Which wasn't that hard to turn down," he said, "because all I had was control, and I knew it even if they didn't." McCollum became Taft's basketball coach in 1960, the year after the school opened. He's as different from the screaming drill sergeant coaches as Casey Stengel was from Vince Lombardi. But when his other top player, a rangy forward named Scott Grevey, loafed after a loose ball, McCollum enfolded him in an anthology of bromides. Good, better, best./ Never let it rest./ Until your good is better, and your better best.
"I wondered which one I'd get. Sorry, Coach," said Grevey, both of whose older brothers had been coached by McCollum. The eldest, Kevin, now starts for the Washington Bullets. Scott had been around McCollum's parables most of his life. "We'll get them for you on Friday night, Coach. I promise," he said.
Located on the West Side, in Hamilton's newer residential area, Taft had a student body composed of the children of the town's first families and its upper middle class as well as some of its poor just up from Appalachia.
"You know, people have given us the stigma that we prepare for college," said Taft Principal Hank Miller. "This isn't entirely so." Taft would send 33% of that year's graduates to four-year colleges, as opposed to Garfield's 17%. With a principal who considered it a "stigma" to have a reputation for being a college preparatory school, it seemed entirely possible that Taft's 33% could be whittled away without too much difficulty.
Across town at Garfield's last practice before the Taft game, Coach Don Gillespie's problem was completely different from McCollum's at Taft. Where McCollum had to make sure his team (2-1) would be sufficiently inspired against the crosstown rivals they were supposed to beat easily, Gillespie had to find out if he could field a team at all. His top player, a graceful guard named Robbie Hodge, had been in a Volkswagen accident the week before that had left him with a whiplash. Two of his starters had been lost because of suspensions; one had been a truant, the other told a teacher to kiss his ass. Gillespie, 35, was Hamilton's first black head coach and had played football for McCollum in high school. He was very fond of his old coach, but he didn't think the genial way McCollum handled players would work at Garfield. "The homes my fellows come from," Gillespie said, "they simply don't hear anything softer than a holler."
On the court, Hodge moved with ease and confidence among his taller teammates, showing no effects of the accident. At 5'9", he was the shortest member of the squad, but he could outjump everyone else, including a 6'3" forward. Most of the players were black, but Hodge, a white senior, managed to be the star and everyone's friend at the same time. Gillespie would shake his head and say, "Taft averages three inches taller among the starters. All we've got are quick hands and fast legs. If we can't hang on to the ball we're dead." When Hodge or his most talented teammate, a 5'11" black forward named Calvin Chapman, tired of the rest of the squad's mistakes and began to play tricks with the ball, Gillespie shouted. "Hodge and Chapman, I warned you, no more razzle-dazzle! Drop for 10!"
He would yell to keep order, but behind his loud voice Gillespie wasn't stern. Where McCollum was fatherly, Gillespie was brotherly. He also worked as a probation officer and was co-owner of a carpet business. And besides coaching boys' basketball and girls' track, Gillespie taught vocational training and was chairman of the Occupational Work Experience Department at Garfield. With all his duties and outside jobs, Gillespie had still found time to move his family out of Hamilton to Forest Park, a Cincinnati suburb. Even though his ties to Hamilton were so strong that he and his family attended church there each Sunday, he moved because he wanted his children to go to an integrated school. In fact Garfield was integrated, with 37% black students, but Hamilton's feeder schools—both elementary and junior high—were predominantly white or black. If he stayed in Hamilton, Gillespie's children could attend all-black schools for the first nine years of their education or else be the token blacks in the upper-middle-class schools on the West Side.