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!"
Now he is pointing at the opposing center and shouting to the referee: "A walk! He walked!" Grimacing, he says, "Oh, my Lord! No walks on him, no charges on him, no three seconds on him. Nothing at all! When are you gonna call one, ref?"
Now forward Terry Williams, alone on the left side, takes a pass at the end of a fast break. He has an easy layup, but the crowd behind the bench shouts for him to dunk. Williams goes up, tries to stuff it, but the ball bounces off the rim and away. VBK is up, down, up, raging. Of all insults to The Game, his pure and beloved game, this perfect Mona Lisa hanging in the Louvre of his life, the most contemptible is hot-dogging.
"He abhors that," says VBK's youngest daughter, Kaatje, 30, watching Williams' act in the Picayune gym. VBK turns and snarls, kicks the floor, then spins into his chair with his back to the basket. Dean Shaw, his 22-year-old assistant, has his head buried in his hands.
Later, in the locker room, Williams is contrite. "Sorry about that, Coach," he says. VBK says, "I think you learned a lesson, but you want to play for those dopey people sitting behind us, go ahead." Then he fumbles with his watch-band, which had snapped as he smashed and pounded his fists on the bench during the game.
Later: "Movement, passing, working as a team," VBK says somewhat wistfully, as if talking of an old love. "It's such a nice game when it's played right."
If Butch van Breda Kolff's life has a theme, a thread that binds together the whole tapestry, it is no doubt his deep, abiding affection for the game. And, so it follows, the game must be played right—as he was taught it, as he learned to teach it and as he still perceives it today. There is that theme and, to a lesser extent, another one: his need to be faithful to himself—to do things his own way, without interference—and his incapacity to yield to higher authority when he believes it wrong.
"I'm compelled to do what I think is right," he said one evening at his home in Picayune. "I can't capitulate. That's why I'm here."
Last March VBK was living in Bay St. Louis, a small Mississippi town on the Gulf Coast, in a home he purchased while he was coach of the Jazz. He had heard about the coaching job at Picayune, which is located about 30 miles north of Bay St. Louis, and he picked up the telephone. It wasn't the easiest call to make, but for two years no one had called him, and he was restless, rudderless and bored. Moreover, the winter just ending had been the longest of his life. He had turned 60 on Oct. 28, 1982, and it appeared that his grand odyssey, his tortuous, colorful, boisterous coaching career—30 seasons, 10 teams, 666 wins, 475 losses—had finally run aground.
Canals and bayous interlace Bay St. Louis, and VBK was living alone in a two-bedroom house that stands above the flood line on 10-foot stilts. If this gave him a commanding view of his neighbors' lawns and a vantage point from which to take an unobstructed look at his past, it afforded no vision of the future. He had been out of work for a year and hadn't a clue where he was going. "No one calls, and you don't know who to call," he says. "I didn't want to seem like I was begging. All my life I've worked. I thought something would turn up. It didn't. It was just a bad time. I had to do something. But what did I want to do? I did nothing. It seemed like I was just waiting for my clothes to get dirty."
Occasionally he would visit Kaatje and her husband, Gene Zimmermann, a country club golf pro, at their place on Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana. His wife, Florence, whom he had left in 1977 because he wanted to be alone, would join them at times for dinner. (Their son, Jan, 32, played basketball at Vanderbilt and spent nine seasons with four teams in the ABA and NBA and is now playing pro ball in Italy. Florence and Butch have two other daughters, Karen and Kristina, 34-year-old twins, the former married and living in Baltimore, the latter married and living in California.) Most every day, though, VBK would leave his castle on stilts and walk his Chihuahua, Loco, two miles down Pass Christian Beach and back, or he'd take a stroll to Trapani's Knock-Knock Bar, his favorite locus of libation, and have a few beers at happy hour while playing hand shuffleboard with the other patrons.
He walked and daydreamed about who might call and where he might go. "I fantasized about a lot of things," he says. "Who's going to call you up. The job you're gonna do for them." One fantasy took him to the San Diego Clippers, another was rescuing the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers. "Taking a loser and making a winner out of them," he says. "Win a lot of games." Still another had him coaching the San Antonio Spurs. "I thought I could do something for them. They've got some talent. All you've got to do is make them play some defense." He dreamed about working as a scout, as an assistant coach, anything. He dreamed the Lakers would call and offer him a job. Or the Knicks. Or Princeton again. "I liked Princeton. I liked the town," he says.
In fact, VBK had approached Princeton in the autumn of 1982 and had asked if there were something he could do there, perhaps run the intramural program—"teach the students how to play golf, tennis, things they can do when they're 50." They said they'd be in touch, but never called.
"I can't understand it," he says now. "I guess it's my fault. But I wouldn't change it.... I made my own bed, I've got to lie in it." He was still lying in it when he heard of the opening at Picayune High. So he got Calvin Triplett, the Picayune athletic director, on the phone and introduced himself. "I understand the head coaching job is open," VBK said. Triplett said it was.
"Do you have any experience?" Triplett asked.
"Eighteen years in college and 10 in the pros," VBK told him.
There was a pause as Triplett suddenly realized who he was speaking to. "Oh, I'm sorry," he said. "You have had some experience."
And at last the coach had what he'd been looking for—a basketball team to coach. Of course, he knew what people would be saying when they heard he was coaching high school kids: "Oh, he shouldn't be doing that. He's too good a coach." He'd heard things like that before, when he signed on with the Pride. At a reunion at Princeton, a former Tiger player told him he was wasting himself. "How can you possibly do that?" the player asked him.
"Like it was somehow demeaning to me," VBK recalls. "I told him, 'Look, the girls want to win as much as the guys. There's a court and 10 people playing on it—that's it."
So, too, at Picayune. The man who once flew first-class with his players to New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco now goes by bus to Poplarville, Gulfport, Moss Point and Hattiesburg. The man who once coached Bradley, Baylor and West now focuses his attention on teen-agers named Collins, Ellis and Stubbs. Doesn't he have any pride?
"But what are we doing?" he asks while mixing up a batch of macaroni and cheese, hot dogs and cooked hamburger meat one January night. "Tell me! What am I doing? I mean, what's the term for what I'm doing? I'm coaching. What's important? The level of competition? The level of talent? Or the level of money you make? Why are people talking about my pride? Should I be ashamed of taking this much money [He is making about $20,000 a year at Picayune]? Should my pride be hurt because it's high school and not the pros? If I went from pro to college, is that all right, or is that a step down?
"I don't see the difference. Oh, sure, there is a difference. But there isn't any difference to the player. The game is important. The winning and losing is important. Playing well is important. What is it, ego? I've got an ego, like everybody else, but it doesn't go into that area. It doesn't bother me to ride in an old school bus, all drafty up front, and sit there when you're used to first class on an airplane. It doesn't bother me to drive a little pickup truck when I've had the nicer cars that they lend you when you're working for a pro team. That just doesn't bother me.
"Our guys like to win. Everybody likes to win. Everybody wants to play well. Everybody! What's the level got to do with it? I want to see a team look good. Don't you think I like it when I get a team that isn't very good and they don't play very well and, little by little, they start to look like a ball club? What am I supposed to say, 'Oh, that's only a high school team'? Maybe I get my kicks that way, watching a team come around."
Van Breda Kolff first played basketball as a child in Montclair, N.J., where he grew up the son of a well-to-do Dutch-born stockbroker, Jan van Breda Kolff. Father walked briskly, carried a gold-headed cane and divided the family's time between America and the Netherlands, where the young VBK went to school for a spell.
Butch enrolled at Princeton and came into the orbit of Franklin (Cappy) Cappon, the basketball coach, as a defense-oriented forward before flunking out in his sophomore year. "He was stern, but also a twinkle-in-the-eye kind of guy," says VBK. "He'd cuss you out, but he was a beloved guy. A hell of a man. He was so organized. Nothing fancy."
After a 42-month stint in the Marines—he rose to sergeant and served in the Pacific—VBK played again, briefly, for Cappon at Princeton. He flunked out again in one semester, failing geology. "Schisms and shizums," he says. "Oh, God! The only thing I remember now is there are old rivers and young rivers. A young river moves very fast, runs deep, cuts right through; as it gets older, it starts to meander and the banks get shallower and it branches off a little over here and a little over there."
There was no meandering when he left Princeton. The course was set. He got his degree in physical education at NYU while playing as a guard with the Knicks under legendary coach Joe Lapchick. He ran the offense, passing the ball around, then scrambling back on defense. "Pick guys up and get loose balls," says VBK. "Every team needs a slob."
And in a basketball sense, at least, VBK never stopped being a slob, not even when he got his first head coaching job at Lafayette in 1951. He coached that small Easton, Pa. school to a 68-34 record in four seasons and in the last one led the Leopards to the National Invitation Tournament with a 23-2 record. They were small, and they got beat in the first round, but it was a club fashioned after VBK's heart.
"They played the game right," he says. "They looked for each other."
During his first year at Lafayette he learned one lesson well, one that he would carry with him all the way to Picayune. One day, during practice, the play got sloppy, and he did something he hadn't done before. "When I started out," he says, "it was with the idea of always encouraging guys. If a player made a mistake, I said, 'Don't worry about it; we'll get it next time.' I guess I got that from the pros. I didn't want to get on guys because I'd been a player myself, and we'd always tried to help each other."
As a ball bounced over to him that day at Lafayette, he kicked it into the rafters—at Princeton he had been an excellent soccer player, and he could kick for height and distance. "It rattled around up there and dust came down," he says. And little Pete Carril, his 5'6" guard and team leader, who in 1967 would succeed VBK as Princeton's coach, told him, "That's the best thing you've done so far." So VBK figured he'd stop forgiving mistakes.
To Hofstra on Long Island, where he coached from 1955 to '62, he brought his irrepressible voice and his insistence on playing the game right. There were half-times when players ran for the toilet stalls to escape the coach's wrath. VBK would look under the doors and see the feet. "You're all in there, aren't ya?" he'd roar. "I know where the hell you are. We're not starting the half until you come out of there!" Meekly, they'd emerge.
Steve Balber, then a 5'11" playmaker for the Flying Dutchmen, who now runs a computer-marketing firm in New York City, says there were much better players than he sitting on the bench, but they didn't fit in the way VBK wanted them to. "So they didn't play," Balber says. "You play Butch's way, or you don't play. He didn't want me to shoot. Once I was all alone and went up for a little popper at the foul line. I heard him yell from the bench—an indescribable noise—and the ball rolled down my elbow, and I kicked it out-of-bounds. He took me out of the game."
At Hofstra VBK had a 6'7" bean sprout named Henry Schwab, who was supposed to rebound. "He weighed about eight pounds," Balber says. Hofstra was playing Drexel, and at halftime, in exasperation, VBK fetched Schwab and shook him until some thought poor Henry's Adam's apple would pop out. "For four years," VBK complained, "you haven't grabbed one goddam rebound!"
Schwab jumped up, like a marine ready to go over the top, and said, "Don't worry, Sir, I'll grab them all!" In the second half he rebounded like a man possessed. "Ten rebounds in the second half," Balber says. "We carried him off. We were in awe of Butch."
But winning wasn't in itself enough to satisfy the coach. Hofstra won one game by seven points, but only after it had been ahead by 18, the margin having been whittled away through sloppy and careless play. In the locker room VBK launched into a screaming philippic. One small voice protested, "But Coach, we won by seven...."
The response was quintessential VBK: "You didn't do it right! You didn't win it right!"
Princeton hired VBK as coach in 1962. In his seven years at Hofstra he had achieved a commendable 136-43 record, but now he was a Tiger again, the heir to all that Cappon had left behind when he died of a heart attack the year before (J.L. McCandless had served as the Tigers' interim coach). Among the bequests was Bradley.
"The beauty of Bradley, particularly in college but even in the pros, was that he could score 42 points and you'd think he was unselfish," VBK says. "The rest of the players were perfectly happy to work their butts off on defense, doing all the things you want them to do—and they'd take the shot if they had it, because he'd want them to take the shot—but they'd rather have him shoot. Yet they knew they couldn't win that way.
"The way we played was ideal for Bradley. It was a movement game, an intelligent game with movement. We hit centers and cut off. Guys always doing something. Keep the defense thinking. Bradley gets it and you're open. Zoop! The ball's yours. Everybody keeps alive. He was a great passer, and that makes everybody else good passers. They start looking around. It just rubs off. So nice! You get one guy who's unselfish and likes to pass, next thing you know, other guys are saying, 'Hey, this isn't bad at all.' Amazing!"
In Bradley's sophomore year, VBK's first as the Princeton coach, the Tigers were up by 11 at halftime against Rutgers. In the second half Rutgers cut the lead to five and Bradley had four fouls. "People don't know what a great righty hook shot he had," VBK says. "I mean, great! He threw in a tough baseline hook, the ball just missing the backboard. Boom! Then we went back up 11.1 took him out. Baseline hook shot, the hardest shot in basketball!"
After the game, VBK teased Bradley. "I knew you had a righty hook, but your lefty hook isn't worth crap."
The season soon ended. The next fall, at practice one afternoon, Bradley noticed the coach watching him. So Bill gave him a little show, swishing in lefty hooks. "He'd been working on it all summer," VBK says. "Just tell him something and walk away, and next thing you know, it's all taken care of. Like a little kid."
That little kid led his senior team—which included Gary Walters, Bob Haarlow and Ed Hummer—past nationally ranked Providence 109-69, and on to the '65 Final Four, where the Tigers lost to Michigan and beat Wichita State 118-82 for third place, a game in which Bradley scored 58 points, then an NCAA tournament record.
All told, VBK was 103-31 at Princeton. In his last year—two years after Bradley had left—the team was 25-3 and ranked fifth in the nation, which was unheard of—and still is—for an Ivy League team. With an overall record of 307-108, VBK was lured to the pros, and it was only natural, given VBK's restless nature, that he should leave the groves of academe and head for Los Angeles.
VBK had never been the flavor of the month at Princeton, anyway. Oh, they liked him—tolerably—and liked his winning teams. But he was so outspoken and demonstrative—always underdressed for the occasion, a lover of strong language and stronger beer—that he simply didn't blend in. He spent his leisure time in the campus' outback bars among the blue-collar townsmen. He liked Princeton, but he never was an Ivy Leaguer.
Laker owner Jack Kent Cooke offered him Baylor and West and twice the salary he was getting at Princeton, but Florence wasn't thrilled. "From college to the cold, cruel world," she says. "I cried a river all the way to Los Angeles."
Of course, VBK brought his concept of the game with him—it was the same game, after all—and he ran the hell out of the Lakers in that first training camp. After one session, VBK walked into the locker room and overheard West saying, "If that s.o.b. runs us like that again, I'm gonna...."
"You're gonna what?" van Breda Kolff interrupted.
"Oh," West said. "Uh, s.o.b.... Sweet Old Bill."
The rough side of VBK's tongue won him a $250 fine for abuse of officials and criticism of the league that very first year. "He was a player's coach," says former Laker guard Gail Goodrich. "No b.s. Tell it like it is. If you don't agree with him, that's too bad. That's the way he's going to do it."
His manner was as down-to-earth as the game he espoused. Former West Virginia star Rod Hundley, who was broadcasting Laker games at the time, recalls a summer day when VBK, outfitted in cut-offs, sneakers and a T shirt, with a cigar in his mouth, encountered Cooke, the impeccably dressed multimillionaire owner, in the team's offices. Cooke looked his coach up and down and blurted, "My God, Bill!" To which a puzzled VBK replied, "What's the matter, Cooker?" He ate the way he dressed. "Hard-boiled eggs and hot dogs," says Hundley. "That's all he gives a damn about. Grab a hot dog and let's go to a bar and have fun. Like shaving, eating's a waste of time for Butch; he'd like to dispense with it."
Even at play, in the leisure of a pickup game in an L.A. YMCA gym, VBK was ever the coach declaiming that this is, you know, a team game. Hundley would go along with Butch to play at the Y, where, Hundley recalls, the coach would bark orders at teammates, instinctively and incessantly. "What're you doing shooting everything?" he would shout to grown men playing for fun. "Block out on the boards! Come on. Give up the ball. There's other guys here besides you. Pick and roll!"
"He's playing with complete strangers," Huntley says, "doesn't even know who he's talking to, and it was like he was coaching the Lakers."
But it wasn't VBK's courtside manner, or his attire or his life-style, that brought him down in Los Angeles. It was Wilt. When VBK went to the Lakers, he took over a team that had been 36-45 under Fred Schaus the year before. In his first year, with essentially the same team, VBK was 52-30 and made the NBA finals, losing to Boston. That July, with VBK's blessing, the Lakers traded guard Archie Clark, reserve forward Jerry Chambers and center Darrall Imhoff, a working, passing "slob" whom VBK favored, to Philadelphia for Chamberlain. From the start, coach and superstar were at loggerheads over just what Wilt's role on the team would be.
In their first meeting, VBK says, he told Chamberlain he wanted him to block more shots, to which Wilt replied, "I block more shots than anybody," which was probably true, although the NBA didn't count blocks in those days. And then, with what seems now to have been an almost comic lack of tact, VBK said, "But I want you to do it like Russell." "Wilt got upset," says VBK. No kidding. Celtic center Bill Russell was Wilt's bitterest adversary on the court. VBK reminded Chamberlain that when Russell blocked shots, he would almost always keep the ball in play, while Wilt enjoyed sending opponents' shots into the stands. "We can't get yours," VBK told him. "You hit them in the seats. It's their ball."
The two proud men remained in conflict the entire season. "Wilt's philosophy was that he should be playing where he could score the most points, which was therefore what was best for the team," VBK says, "instead of a philosophy of 'What can I do, and what would be best for other members of the team?' He might be hindering three other players, but that wasn't in his mind. You couldn't tell him anything."
In his 1973 autobiography, Wilt, written with David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times, Chamberlain had this to say about VBK: "Butch van Breda Kolff, the worst coach I've ever had."
For van Breda Kolff, 1968-69 was a season of near-ceaseless torment despite the fact that the Lakers were on a 55-victory pace. They didn't win them right. "Horrible, frustrating," he says. In the very last game of that season, the seventh of the championship series against Boston, Chamberlain took himself out of the game because of a knee injury with 5:19 to go and Boston ahead 103-96. VBK replaced him with Mel Counts, and L.A. cut the lead to 103-102 with 3:07 left. Suddenly, Wilt was signaling the coach to put him back in—he had gotten well in a hurry—but VBK didn't budge. With Counts, the coach says, the Lakers were playing better than they had all game with Wilt. Finally, to a still-signaling Chamberlain, VBK said, "We don't need you."
The Lakers lost by two, 108-106, with Wilt on the bench. It was probably the single most controversial courtside decision ever made by a professional basketball coach. Had he put Wilt in, VBK would have been off the hook, win or lose, and had he won, the Lakers would have been world champions and he the toast of L.A. But he gambled and lost. On that fateful decision his career turned. "I didn't see any foreseeable future there," says VBK, who resigned on May 19. "No regrets," he says. "Nah."
After 18 years of steady progress, VBK was adrift, and for the next 14 years he banged into this reef and that buoy from Detroit to New Orleans. After L.A. he spent two full years with the Pistons, coaching them to what was then the best record in the team's history (45-37) his second year, but he resigned 10 games into his third season when he could no longer take the heckling of two black fans who sat behind him and needled him relentlessly. "You dumb Dutchman," they would say. Whenever he put a white player in, they'd yell: "Hey, there he goes again.... Don't put your son in!"
He spent the winter of 1971 at his place on the Jersey shore with Florence and the next fall took over as coach of the Phoenix Suns. There he clashed with the team's star, Hawkins, and the general manager, Jerry Colangelo, who fired him after just seven games and took over as coach himself. "Jerry really wanted to be the coach," VBK says. "Funny thing is, I really think I could have done something with that club if he had left me alone and let me do what I wanted to do."
That led to another winter at the shore, where he bought 15 rowboats and motors and started a rental business. In the fall of 73, Charles O. Finley hired him to coach his Memphis team in the ABA, but that only lasted a season, until Finley sold the team. From there VBK went to New Orleans, where the Jazz fans would yell "Showtime!" and send Maravich into his act: When the Jazz was comfortably ahead, Maravich would dribble behind his back and around three guys, tossing in exaggerated jumpers, and make the opponents look foolish. To the purist coach, this wasn't even basketball. Fearing that some enraged opponent would dive at Maravich, trying to hurt him, VBK would often pull the Pistol out before he got completely carried away.
"Why do you do that to another player? Why?" the coach would ask. "Because these dummies are yelling 'Showtime'? " In his second year, with Maravich toned down a bit, the Jazz were a more than respectable 38-44, but 26 games into his third season VBK got canned. Again his dismissal stemmed from a dispute with management. VBK was enormously popular in New Orleans, which is what Hundley calls "a red-beans-and-rice town. T shirts and cutoffs. That's New Orleans; that's Butch."
"He was more popular in New Orleans than anyplace," says Florence. "The city had a love affair with Butch. Everywhere he went, people would say 'Hi, Butch!' When he walked down the street, they honked their horns." When VBK left Florence and moved into an apartment after 32 years of marriage, he told her that he wanted to be alone, on his own. "I still love him, I still feel bad," says Florence, a successful real-estate broker. "It was like a death in the family. I still don't like to tell anyone I'm separated. I'm afraid they'll look at me like I'm a bad person because he's such a good person. When Butch walks into a room, the party starts. He's just that kind of guy. When I mention my name, people still say, 'You're the coach's wife!' "
After the Jazz fired him, VBK spent two years as coach and athletic director at the University of New Orleans, and he left only after he could no longer take the paperwork and 9-to-5 existence. He then lasted nearly two years with the Pride but, in another dispute with management, was fired in March of 1981. So he was out of coaching, or so it seemed, for good. For a year he dabbled in the tugboat trade, looking for oil-company contracts around the Gulf, but business was slow and he knew nothing about being a salesman. "It was a bad time, and I didn't know what I was talking about," he says. "I thought I could get in with my name. It got me in, but it didn't get me business."
So he quit. For another year he did nothing but walk the beaches and wait for the calls that never came and play out those fantasies in his head. "If there is a theme to Butch's life, it's, 'I'll do it my way,' " says Florence. "It cost him jobs, but he didn't care. All of Butch's frustrations came from people telling him he couldn't do it his way. I feel for him."
West, who feels he played "my best basketball" under VBK, says, "Butch is kind of tragic in some ways. I think he self-destructed. It's very difficult to see a guy who loves what he's doing so, have torment along with it. I think everyone is cut out to do certain things in this world, and he's cut out to be a basketball coach...."
The tendency to self-destruct, West says, grew out of VBK's inability to adjust the style of his game to the style of those playing it. "He's a purist," West says. "He liked basketball the simple, easy way, and he liked people that played hard all the time. When you have highly talented, highly paid players—and people enjoy coming out to watch these people play—I don't think you can harness their game. You have to let them play the way they want to play. The most efficient way. He had a good concept of the game. Some players simply didn't understand that."
VBK thinks as much of West as West does of him. Asked to pick an alltime team—van Breda Kolff preferred the designation "all-winning"—he put West and Len Wilkens in the backcourt, Baylor and Dave DeBusschere at forward and Russell at center. "I'd have picked Bill Walton at center," VBK says, "but his injuries kept him from playing at that level for too long."
For 16 years as a college coach, he had kids jumping through hoops for him. It wasn't until he hit the pros that VBK came a cropper. "Some athletes have enormous egos, and those egos are like Pac-Man," West says. "They eat up everyone around them, including players and coaches."
At Picayune, VBK is in another world altogether. When it dawned on VBK that he was, in effect, the new father of five, he said, "Oh, my God! I guess I should have them over for a cookout."
"He expects a lot out of you," says Collins. "Sometimes he still thinks he's in the pros. There's a lot of yelling, but you have to learn how to take criticism. He's not out to hurt nobody; it's his way of making his point."
"They're 90 percent better already," says assistant coach Shaw. "Butch told me, 'Look, you may not believe this, but they'll be a different team by the end of the season. Believe me.' They couldn't even shoot layups, couldn't shoot a left-handed layup at all. First week, that's all he had them doing—layups."
By December he had them running endless fast breaks, racing up and down the court in teams of three, passing and driving for layups. One afternoon he had each unit run four times up and down the court. If they missed a layup, they had to start all over, do another four, until they didn't miss. He bellowed at them for their sloppiness, their mistakes.
"Throw the ball to each other! Four more! Come on! Don't look at me when you miss; I'm not missing them! You're not running together...! We gotta go hard...! Concentrate!"
For weeks VBK lamented their lack of fire, finding in them a kind of hangdog apathy that drove him crazy. "If anything has bothered me, it's been the lack of competitiveness," he says. He pushed them with the old-school litany: "Hustle! Dive after loose balls! Be hungry for it! Be tough!" And he chided these rural Southerners for lacking the scratch-and-claw aggressiveness of urban kids.
"If you guys ever went to New York City to play on the playgrounds," he told them one day, "they wouldn't even want you on their teams. They'd have you sitting on the bench watching."
Slowly, the prodding and practicing began to take effect. "I learned patience," says Hatten. "He's taught discipline, keeping your composure, being yourself on the floor. When he first came, he told us he had coached the Jazz and the Lakers, that he had seen the best players in basketball. Whenever we tried a fancy layup he'd say, 'All these Dr. J's out here. Why don't you be yourself? Concentrate on the fundamentals—shooting, dribbling and passing. Learn how to play the game!' He feels so much emotion when he talks about it."
Picayune finished the regular season at 14-8, and this without a savvy point guard to run the team. When Picayune recently played Moss Point, which has a surplus of good guards, VBK jestingly told Moss Point coach Arthur Haynes, "I'll give you a guard and two forwards for one of your guards." To which Haynes replied, "You can't do that in high school, Butch. This isn't the NBA." Nonetheless, the Maroon Tide was drawing twice as many spectators to its little gym as last year. "Last year there were almost all blacks at the games," says one fan. Richard Griffin. "This year it's mixed. It's the greatest thing that's ever happened to Picayune."
"I'll tell you one thing," says W.D. Davis, a hometown fan. "He put Picayune on the map. He turned the program around. We're just hoping he stays."
Of that VBK isn't yet sure, although the team's improvement has encouraged him. "They seem to be getting to know more about the game," he says. "You have to have patience. The more I'm around them, the more I'm getting to like them. They're getting to know me a little better, and I'm getting to know them better. Before, it was strained and strange. Things are better now, that's all."
The students in his world history classes are another matter. VBK had never taught school before, and to become licensed he had to subject himself to the National Teacher Examination, which he passed with no preparation. To get ready for class he merely reads one or two days ahead of his students. He has found underachieving to be pervasive, and ignorance, illiteracy and apathy rampant. "They don't care," he says. "They take their D's and think there's nothing wrong with it. I could always motivate, but I don't seem to be able to motivate these kids."
"I can't say I'm happy here," he said one evening by the fire. "I like being alone, but it gets lonely out here a little bit. I don't have any friends. Any men friends. Older ones. Not a one. If I were at Princeton, I'd have three or four. Here, nobody. I didn't move here till last September, so I haven't had many evenings here when there was light. Once the time change comes and it gets warmer, then I don't think I'll be half as lonely. I can go to the yard, mow some grass, pick up stuff, wander around. I'll have birds around again."
Meanwhile, he's up at 5:30 every working morning. He makes coffee and sits and relaxes in the quiet. He leaves the house at 7:30 and gets to school by eight. School's out at three. Practice begins at 3:15 and is over by five. He stops at the supermarket on the way home and picks up beer and the fixings for dinner. He has no bar to really hang out in, not the way he used to, so he drives home alone in the dark. He eats, watches TV, sips the beer and dozes. If it's cold, he'll go to bed early, around nine, just to get under the warm covers. He often falls asleep watching the news.