After scandal, Jerry Sichting takes reins at Martinsville (Ind.) High
This had all the makings of still another tawdry sports sex scandal, further proof that society is officially heading to hell in the HOV lane. Last week, Tim Wolf, the longtime boys' basketball coach at Martinsville (Ind.) High, was caught with his pants down. Literally. Police approached an idling car in Indianapolis' Eagle Creek Park, and found Wolf, 65, seated behind the wheel "in a state of nudity." Worse, his companion in the passenger seat was a 17-year-old Martinsville girl. Wolf was arrested for public indecency (the prosecutor is still investigating the case and charges have yet to be filed). Within hours he resigned.
In Martinsville (pop: 12,000) this was a source of deep shame, pain and sadness. The town sits halfway between Indianapolis and Bloomington, and residents have long felt a certain underdog status. Like so many Indiana towns, Martinsville, the hometown of John Wooden, takes pride in its high school basketball team. And this season was no different. The Artesians fielded a strong team -- one that had beaten both Bloomington schools -- filled with some of the brightest kids in the school. They were 15-2, and then, suddenly, their coach was gone, under almost unimaginably lewd circumstances.
Like most former Martinsville players, Jerry Sichting was sickened when he heard the news. Sichting was a persistent guard for the Artesians in the '70s -- when the coach was Sam Alford, whose son Steve later wore No. 12 in honor of Sichting, his boyhood hero. Sichting would go on to star at Purdue and then play in the NBA, where he was best known for his supporting role on the Boston Celtics teams of the '80s. And while he's been pinballed around basketball since retiring from the NBA -- working as a broadcaster, assistant coach and front office executive -- he's always kept close ties with his hometown. His father still lives there as do many of his friends. Earlier this season Sichting swung through Martinsville and watched his old team play a few games at the John R. Wooden Gymnasium. "It seemed like a fun team," he recalls. "No Division I players but top-notch kids."
The day the story of Wolf's arrest broke, Sichting was at his home in Minneapolis suburbs. His phone blew up with texts and calls from former classmates. He got some of the details from one former teammate still living in Martinsville and now a school system administrator. "What are you gonna do about the team?" Sichting asked innocently. "Who's going to be on the bench now?"
"No idea," the friend replied. "You want to come down and coach these kids?"
Sichting, 55, had done plenty of coaching lately, but it was mostly in the NBA, never in high school. A year ago he was an assistant with the Golden State Warriors, angling for a head coaching job. Now he was going to coach a bunch of kids barely out of puberty? On the other hand ... "I thought about Martinsville and the basketball program, but mostly I thought of those seven seniors who worked hard and shouldn't have to go out this way," says Sichting. Then he laughs. "Basically I didn't come up with an excuse to say 'no' fast enough."
The friend floated the idea of hiring Sichting to the school's athletic director, who called school board members. By Tuesday morning, Sichting was formally asked to coach the team for the remainder of the season. With his wife's blessing, Sichting accepted. By Tuesday afternoon he was back in the gym of his old high school.
Before meeting with his new players, Sichting sat down with Martinsville assistant coach T.J. Wolf, son of Tim Wolf. Sichting's son had once played Little League with T.J. Wolf and Sichting had known the kid for most of his life. Now, his message was simple.
As if the team needed still more adversity, Martinsville's starting point guard had broken his hand in the previous game. So apart from learning the team's offense and acquainting himself with the personnel, Sichting also had to figure out how to integrate a new point guard. When he finally gathered the team, again, he kept the message basic. Though, he says, he didn't know the details about Wolf's arrest, he was there if anyone wanted to talk. But mostly he just he just wanted to be sure they finished playing as well as possible under the circumstances.
Last Friday night marked Sichting's first game as Martinsville's coach. Hoping to win the Mid-State Conference championship outright, the Artesians played at nearby Whiteland. In a show of civic solidarity, a convoy of fans drove to the game. Sam Alford was in the stands as well. As senior C.J. Cazee told the
As nervous as the players were, they had nothing on Sichting. Right before the game, it dawned on him that he knew nothing about protocol. "When do we go onto the court, when is the national anthem played and when do they announce the starting lineup?" he asked a local reporter. He leaned on T.J. Wolf to explain how many timeouts he was awarded, how he needed to shake the opposing coach's hand before the game and exchange a lineup card.
With 10 seconds remaining, the game was tied 53-53 and the entire gym stood. Martinsville had the ball, and it's here that we cue the sports movie music. In keeping with the new coach's directive to be aggressive, Cazee drove to the basket. His lay-up bounced off the rim but forward Noah Davis -- a sophomore making his first start -- tipped in the miss right before the buzzer. Martinsville won the conference. Jerry Sicthing moved to 1-0. The coach's summation, with vintage Indiana understatement: "That was a pretty neat experience. Mostly, I was happy for the kids."
The next night Martinsville won decisively at home. The crowd was there as much to much honor the new coach and a resilient team as to watch the game. If Tim Wolf was still the subject of plenty of conversations in the bleachers and breakfast joints, at least there was a happier parallel narrative as well.
Living with his father in his boyhood home, Sichting -- a year removed from scouting Kobe and LeBron -- now watching film of teenagers, prepping for that big game Tuesday night against Avon High. (In appreciation of the town's support during those dark hours last week, the school is opening the gates for the game, no charge.) Says Sichting: "They have one kid going to Notre Dame and a real quick point guard and ..." Then, recognizing the happy absurdity of it all, he stops himself. "If you'd told me a week ago [we'd be having this conversation], I wouldn't have believed it either."
Larry Bird recently appeared on Bill Simmons' excellent podcast and reminisced about his old Celtics teams. A quarter-century after the fact, Bird still rhapsodized about Sichting. That 6-foot-1 pest knocked down open jumpers. On defense, he frustrated the heck out of other, more skilled players, not least, Isiah Thomas. It was Sichting, of course, who took a cheap shot from 7-4 Ralph Sampson. (Sichting, memorably, responded that he didn't know if it was a "punch or a mosquito.") We tend to roll our eyes when we hear about athletes who "play hard" and "have a winning attitude" and "are good teammates." But every now and then we get a reminder that this whole spots-builds-character business might have some validity after all.
A week from now, the Indiana state tournament begins. Even at 17-2, Martinsville doesn't expect to figure in the 4A title picture. When Martinsville's strange season ends, Sichting likely will return to Minneapolis. He won't completely rule out staying in his hometown, but really, he wants to pursue another NBA job. "That's still the goal," he says. "I feel like I still have one more comeback in me."
As for this interim gig, he scoffs at the notion that he's restoring honor to his old school or that he's emerged as some kind of small town hero. Embarrassed that he's getting this kind of attention, he tries to do what all natural coaches do and simplify the situation. "Here's the thing," he says. "These kids -- seniors, especially -- had something happen that was totally unanticipated. Now? They're smiling and playing basketball again and, really, that's all I wanted out of this."