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OLD DAYS AND CHANGED WAYS
Alex Hannum
November 25, 1968
In his 20-year journey up from the likes of Oshkosh, the new coach of the Oakland Oaks has proved he can mold champions. Concluding his story, he gives his formula for success and details his plans
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November 25, 1968

Old Days And Changed Ways

In his 20-year journey up from the likes of Oshkosh, the new coach of the Oakland Oaks has proved he can mold champions. Concluding his story, he gives his formula for success and details his plans

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When Chollet took over that night, he imitated Cervi perfectly, naming the lineup (mostly his buddies, not the regulars) and then finishing up: "annnd Chollet." Cervi was boiling inside, but I've got to give it to him, he didn't go back on his word. We won the game, too, and as a final insult Chollet did not send Cervi in until the last 30 seconds or so—about the usual time Cervi sent in Leroy.

Afterward, Leroy got to thinking about his accomplishments of the evening. He stormed back to the hotel and up to Al's room, where he told him point-blank he was going to beat him up and throw him out the window. Cervi stared back at Chollet, tensed for a moment but at last moved away as some of us came between them. Al knew that if he lost, Leroy was going to toss him out the window.

Cervi's hands were in a constant state of motion and repair, because his advice to his players—which he followed in the extreme—was to use your hands at all times on the court. You got to be hitting someone. His other major exhortation was for us to play what I, a fancy college man, had always known as backboards. To Cervi they were bangboards. "Hit the bangboards, hit the bangboards, hit the bangboards," he would scream at us.

Sometimes, in the old Coliseum in Syracuse, that was not so easy to manage, since the fans would jiggle the guy wires and shake the bangboards back and forth. The place was also so smoky you often had real trouble seeing through the haze. Opponents were not helped either by the fact that someone would change the lights at halftime, so that there was always a bright light shining in a visitor's face when he was shooting free throws. A fan called, appropriately, "The Strangler" sat behind the opponent's bench and could be reliably counted on to start squeezing the life out of a visitor in the event of a fight. Bob Cousy missed so many games in town we used to say he was coming down with "the Syracuse flu." The fact is, nobody, nobody wanted to play in Syracuse. We were 36-2 at home that first year I was there, 1949-50.

I may be foolishly nostalgic but I miss the trains. We would climb on them at night. Usually the owner had gone out to a good delicatessen and bought a bunch of sandwiches for us, because the diner would be closed by the time we got on. Besides, with $5 a day in meal money, we couldn't afford diners. With the sandwiches it was all a big picnic, and we played cards and talked the game into the night. Sadly, that kind of camaraderie is gone now from the pros, a victim of progress.

The shortest train trip from either Syracuse or Rochester was five hours, on the Empire State to New York City. That's just about the same time as the longest air trip now, yet we still hear all the talk about how debilitating travel is for the modern players. Don't tell me it's harder flying five hours across the country than it is going five hours on a train from Syracuse to New York.

Oh, this really tells it. When I was coaching the Warriors, a rookie showed up in his new car at the airport and turned the car over to valet parking, because the Warriors paid the bills. He sat in his assigned seat, a pretty girl handed him a magazine, the movie went on and then it was time for a steak dinner. I'll never forget, the kid took one look at the tray and frowned. "Look at that," he said. "The potatoes are overdone." I wanted to throw him off the plane.

Travel is one of the two factors that have most affected the pro game. Airplanes are just not conducive to group interaction, although I did notice last year that when we chartered flights for the 76ers some of the old train atmosphere reappeared.

The other factor is the entrance of Negroes into the game. No matter how friendly whites and blacks may be on the court, they usually go off in different directions after the game. It is more difficult now to get everyone together to relax and laugh. The two years I was with the 76ers, we had two great Halloween costume parties for just the players and their wives. The Hal Greers gave the first one, and last year Chamberlain was the host at his apartment. But you have to struggle to get this sort of team gathering. Last year, when we traveled to the Coast, I wanted to have a team dinner, just us—laughs and shop-talk. I had to order two of the players to come, declaring that it was an official club function. You defeat the whole purpose of a gathering when you have to do that.

At least indirectly, this dissipation of team unity has adversely affected my coaching, because unlike most professional coaches who try to remain aloof from their players, I want to stay friendly and sociable with mine. I want to go out and laugh and drink and argue with them after a game.

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