Let the lower lights be burning!
Send a gleam across the wave!
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman
You may rescue, you may save.
So put the hymn book away already. Find something tangible. Do it the way he did it. Come down a winding road through the east side of the quiet in Winston-Salem, N.C. Turn left to enter the small campus of Winston-Salem State University—founded, 1892; student population, some 2,500. Off to the right, below old Whitaker Gymnasium, is the entrance to the C.E. Gaines Center. On the downslope behind the modest facade are Gaines Gymnasium, the football practice fields, the offices of a few of the varsity coaches, and the warm, untidy rooms of the men's basketball coach, Clarence E. (Bighouse) Gaines. Gaines is in—a miracle unto itself. He is a self-proclaimed gypsy, a rolling stone, a man who isn't quite comfortable without a place to go, a distant horn to obey, a buzzer to beat somewhere. Gaines says he is a man who knows life is temporary, and so then are youth, jobs to do, "must-win" games, and places called home.
But Gaines's shingle is still up. Self-proclaimed gypsies don't usually wait around for people to name buildings after them. Gaines has spent enough time along this tributary of Tobacco Road over the past 45 years to marry Clara Berry in 1950 and help raise two children of his own, Lisa and Clarence Jr.—not to mention the 400 or so children who belong to somebody else. He has survived everything from Jim Crow to cyclones to integration to the Akron Zips. Only the players were constant. They didn't make many like Cleo Hill and Vernon Earl Monroe, though. Hill was called the best player never to have his due in the NBA; Monroe was called Magic, and Earl the Pearl, and Black Jesus. In the end they were just another couple of the players Gaines calls his "six-two guys," give or take a little. There are always more of those.
"Hard to win with those six-two guys," Gaines says calmly.
As a matter of fact, Gaines's Rams of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association were 15 up and 12 down last season. They have lost 395 games during his tenure. They have also won 806 games. Gaines has won more college basketball games than any coach in U.S. history who is not named Adolph Rupp. Only he and Rupp have won 800.
"Could've won a thousand, had he been all into winning," says equipment manager Fernandez Griffin. "He took the athlete who needed a second chance. He'd tell the players, 'Learn one thing here that will help you live well.' They'd say, 'Coach, what about winning?' He'd say, 'That too.' "
Gaines is settled in like a mountain behind foothills of paperwork on his desk, beneath a groaning shelf of books and files. He is wearing a warmup suit made of black satiny material. A lot of black satiny material. He looks as if he needs a nap, but the phones won't stop ringing and folks keep dropping by. The morning varsity practice started at 6 a.m. The evening practice will begin at 6 p.m. "Keeps the boys from drag-assing around," says Gaines. "Can't seem to get the spacing right, though. Don't know if it's me or them."
The football coach wants to talk. E.C. (Pete) Richardson is a native of Ohio and a former Buffalo Bills defensive back. His team went 8-2 last season and at one time was ranked as high as No. 5 in the NCAA Division II poll and No. 1 in the Sheridan Poll, of colleges that are historically and predominantly black. The Rams lost two of their last three games, but still, it was a good season, one meriting the felicitations of the athletic director.
"Damn right it does," Gaines grunts. "The AD was six- and-18 in '89."
Nobody ever said Gaines was Clair Bee, though he did take in Bee's clinic back in '48, in Murray, Ky. He took in Rupp's clinic, too, back in '49, in Carbondale, Ill. "Nobody said much to me. I'm a man of color. I don't like that word black. People play with the connotations of that. But I was six-five, 265—295 now. Big in any color," Gaines says. "Somebody at Rupp's clinic asked me if I was the janitor. It wasn't Rupp. They didn't ask twice. I learned something, too."
What was that?
"Whatever it was, it's out of style now. If you understand math and the kids have skills, you can figure out the rest. People. That's coaching."
It must have been rewarding to make the Hall of Fame.
"Well, there's the University Hall of Fame here, the Morgan State Hall of Fame, the CIAA Hall of Fame, the Helms Hall of Fame, through the NAIA. And Bob Douglas, who founded the New York Rens, has one in New York. Most people, though, mean the Naismith Hall of Fame, in Springfield [Mass.], the National Hall of Fame."
The one that got your initials wrong on the ring?
"Doesn't matter. They fixed it."
How does it feel to be a legend?
"Legend? Hate the word. After you've been around for so long, it's like you're on the mailing list. Legend makes me think of tombstones. Graveyards. Most of my friends are dead. Some of my players are dead."
Ha-ha—ah...was that a joke?
"Depends on who's telling it."
Of all the places you've been....
"You mean like Abidjan, Taipei, Bahrain, Singapore, Bangkok, Tunis, Munich, London, or like Greensboro, Durham, Richmond, Charlotte on game night places?"
All of them. Was there a favorite place?
"Well, guess I've got to take you to this one particular place. Bobby Knight's got his place. Dean Smith's got his place. John Thompson's got his place. Come on. I'll drive the van and show you one of mine."
This turns out to be Mama Chris's place, a greasy spoon a few miles from campus where you can get a plate of hot food slammed in front of you without much trouble—a place quite unbecoming a legend. Gaines finds a table as if he had been born there.
"It's rare for a person from the era of segregation to become politically active in the mainstream, go across cultural and economic and racial barriers. But Gaines did that," says John Thompson, the coach at Georgetown. "I first heard of him byword of mouth, on the playground. Later, I read about Adolph Rupp."
Mama Chris is not in, but many of her regulars are: construction and factory workers at Hanes, or RJR Nabisco, or any of the many factories tucked away in the surrounding hills; retirees; the disabled and unemployed; and an occasional ne'er-do-well. As Gaines picks over a light plate of greens and onions and listens as a man explains how he's getting his act together, a thin woman enters. Unhappily, she is drunk or getting there. She peers at Gaines: "Ain't you Gaines?..."
The diners laugh among themselves while cleaning their plates and emptying their glasses. Ain't he Gaines? Ain't he Gaines? Who else?
Gaines drives five minutes to Mama Chris's house. She is a Ram booster. Her living room befits her age and carriage, save for the autographed picture of Tim Newsome, the ex-Dallas Cowboy, and the sea of scarlet, Winston-Salem's main school color.
"Gaine!" says Mama Chris, dropping the final consonant.
"Mama Chris. Are we going to have a good year?"
"By now, every year's a good year. Sit down, Gaine," says Mama Chris. "This lady—you know her, don't you—is making a dress for me." The lady, a generation older than Gaines and Mama Chris, smiles sweetly and rocks. She appears to be no older than Gaines, who is 67 but looks 10 years younger. Gaines points to an out-of-town visitor. "I carried him by the original grease joint," he says. "Red put some pinto beans, okra, greens and short ribs on him. He's supposed to be one of these sophisticated writers. But he didn't leave nothing on that plate, Mama Chris."
Mama Chris laughs, then says, "Gaine, you look sleepy."
Gaines says, "Ahhhh," then settles a lot of black satiny material onto the couch, rests his head on a pillow and puts his feet up. Mama Chris laughs again. "Ask him anything now, sugar. A man will tell you the truth when he's sleepy."
What's the secret to winning basketball games?
His eyes are closed, his breathing deep. With great relish, he puckers up and enunciates the one word flawlessly. The Great Truth of coaching....
Gaines has come home now, across the road from what was a comforting stand of oaks, pines and maples before the trees were uprooted like toothpicks by a spring tornado. "Took trees right up out of the ground, like they'd never been there," says Gaines. "They'd been there my whole time here."
He is awake and in a sober mood now, even at times like these, times when he doesn't have the best teams and the best players. Not even a Cleo Hill and a Vernon Earl Monroe. "I've hurt too many feelings," he says. "Had too many good players. Fact is, I never did have a player who was as bad a player as I was." Soon he is sitting on his own couch and growing sleepy again. Clara Gaines has walked in with her mother, Emma Berry, 92 and looking 20 years younger. Later, Clara spreads a lifetime of photographs over a table and smiles. Gaines's eyelids have dropped with a nearly audible thud.
Gaines, what about Cleo and Earl?
"I treated them like great musicians," he says, "like the artists they were. Then I treated them like kids because that's all they were when I had them. Cleo was completely scientific. I'm talking scientific. There was no phase of the game he didn't have in hand. Earl was innovative, creative. Blessed."
To understand Bighouse Gaines the coach, you have to understand that he was becoming a legend long before Hill ('57-61) and Monroe ('63-67) ever showed up. Gaines was 18 and the year was 1941 when he left Paducah, Ky., for college, holding acceptance letters from three schools that would have him: Howard, Morgan State and Lincoln of Pennsylvania. He was already a worldly young man. The only child of Olivia and Lester Gaines, he grew up Methodist on the banks of the Ohio River in a city that was a way station between Chicago and the spreading South. People came through Paducah, and because his parents managed, and later owned, the Metropolitan House—nothing luxurious, but it was clean and was one of the only places between Memphis and Chicago where blacks could get room and board—Clarence had seen Marian Anderson and Ella Fitzgerald sing, and he had eaten with the bands of Chick Webb and Cab Calloway and had listened to the sidemen improvise. These were talented people. Talented people were always going somewhere else. Paducah was just a pit stop.
Lester was a quiet sort, at various times a chef, a fisherman, a carpenter, a hunter and a herder of other peoples' livestock. Olivia was a strong woman who had played some basketball herself. When her son was young, she often asked him what it felt like to lose. He took pains not to learn much about it. A star in football and basketball at Lincoln High, he played in the W-41 league—other high schools from the dark sides of places like Hopkinsville, Earlington and Morganfield, coal mining towns all.
Young Clarence spent his summers in Newark with his mother's brother, Lawrence Bolen, a trucker and union shop steward. Bolen would put his large nephew on the sightseeing side of the cab and drive to places all along the East Coast. Working as a bellhop and night watchman, Clarence spent spring evenings at the Palmer House Hotel in Paducah, where another uncle was also a bellhop. Traveling businessmen, white men, would ask him for the phone numbers of the friendly girls. Gaines carried a list supplied by his uncle. The girls got two dollars for their time; Gaines got one, which matched the one he earned for being the night watchman. "We were fresh out of the Depression," says Gaines. "My family was lucky. We had a four-room wood-frame house. We finally got enough money to underpin it. Outdoor toilet. No telephone. Old-fashioned icebox. Kerosene lamps. We went to a radio like a party. Most of the kids were successful later. Most got the hell out of there."
Gaines hitched a ride out of town with Buster Lee, a reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier. His choice of colleges was limited for reasons that had nothing to do with test scores. Gaines first went to Howard, in Washington, D.C. He was told that the school had just fired its football coach, Harry Payne, and wasn't really all that interested in the sport. Youth not needing much encouragement, Gaines caught a ride to Baltimore, to Morgan State, the powerhouse team of the CIAA, a grouping of 14 small colleges founded in 1912. It was there that he met the school's business manager, a fellow named Jimmy Carter, who told him he was as big as a house and thereby coined the nickname that remains to this day. "I never did make it to Lincoln," he says.
The next time Gaines saw Washington, D.C., he was a mammoth yet agile tackle leading a runner named Cal Irvin through the 7 hole as Morgan State beat Florida A&M 50-0 in the 1943 Capital Classic. Two years later, bachelor's degree in hand and with some vague notion about becoming a dentist one day, Gaines gypsied down to Winston-Salem at the recommendation of his college football coach, Eddie Hirt, to take a job as an assistant to basketball coach Brutus Wilson. On the way, Gaines stopped at the Slaughter Hotel, the only place on the highway between Washington and Winston-Salem where a black man might get a home-cooked meal. When he reached his destination, Gaines found Winston-Salem Teachers College, a school of 500 women and 75 men training to become schoolteachers. Gaines didn't plan to stay very long. Gypsies never stay long.
"By '47 I was teacher, 'laywer,' 'judge,' football coach, basketball coach, ticket manager, trainer and what passed for athletic director—eight jobs for one salary," Gaines says. "I looked at myself. What would I look like hovering over a bunch of eight-year-olds, or an open mouth? I was born to coach young men."
Dr. Kenneth Williams lived not far from the Gaineses in Winston-Salem before he died last year. He was president of the college between 1961 and 1972, then the chancellor until 1977, and had been an instructor there since 1939, except for four years in the service, from 1943 to 1946. "The college was so small then," he said. "Small number of men. We hardly had intramurals. The football was only of a sort. Gaines had a reputation as a football player. No one knew much about his basketball. This was supposed to be temporary. But the college discovered he had a great deal to offer. He discovered he could do something with the fellows. He began to win. That led to relationships. He set up a network of former players as recruiters up and down the East Coast. The salvation of his program became these fellows he coached."
Gaines paid his coaching dues, winning 80 games and losing 55 between the 1946-47 and '51-52 seasons, mostly with guys on the GI bill who would leave after graduation for better lives in the North and Midwest. They stayed in touch, though. And soon they were sending Gaines players like Jack DeFares, Carl Green and Charlie Riley, New Yorkers all. Joe Nichols and Bernard Terry came in from the Midwest. Oris Hill, a 6'7" magician, arrived from Illinois. There was 6'5" Tommy Reynolds, who had the good wrists and a dead shot from 25 feet. And George Foree, from Carbondale, Ill. And John Leon Whitley, from Philadelphia, a consolation prize that fell into Gaines's considerable lap when he went North for a guard named John Chaney, now the coach at Temple. "That was a time of experimenting for me," says Gaines. "Ever hear of the psychology of colors? I had a beige room, a blue room, a green room and a red room for pregame meetings. If we really needed it, we went to the red room. I got the guards and the penetrators from the Northeast, the shooters from the Midwest."
With those players, Gaines's Rams won 93 games and lost but 27 between 1953-54 and '56-57. Then in 1957-58, the Rams were a flat 13-12, and people began to feel that Gaines was on the decline. It was a nice career, though. Well done. Clara, who gave birth to Lisa in 1953, had become pregnant with Clarence Jr. It might have been time to move on. But where? "Without selling your manhood, you could make it in Winston-Salem," says Gaines. "I went to many other places. But I always ended up coming right back here."
The CIAA was cooking by now, and the league's coaches and their players had become legends, at least on their small campuses on their sides of small towns throughout the South. Only word of mouth took them elsewhere. John McLendon at North Carolina College in Durham—he had Sam Jones, the future Celtic and NBA All-Star. Mark Cardwell at West Virginia State had Earl Lloyd, who would later perform with the Detroit Pistons. Virginia Union had Jumpin' Jackie Jackson, who never reached the NBA. Over at Elizabeth City, Bobby Vaughn would later have Mike Gale, soon to become a member of the San Antonio Spurs. Globetrotter great Curly Neal was at Johnson C. Smith College in Charlotte. Gaines's old friend Cal, 25 miles away at North Carolina A&T in Greensboro, had Alvin Attles, a star player, an NBA-champion coach and now president and assistant general manager of the Golden State Warriors. And the country was talking about what Lennie Rosenbluth and Co. at North Carolina had done against Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain in the 1957 NCAA tournament.
In the CIAA, people were wondering whether Bighouse could still do it without players of this caliber. Gaines often wondered what he could have done if, say, a Wilt Chamberlain had come along. Someone like Wilt came along rarely enough. Never to Winston-Salem. Not a chance.
Then along came Cleo Hill.
"I had wanted to play for Bighouse," says Attles, who came South from New Jersey. "But he had enough guards. So I went to A&T. Then I heard Cleo was going to Winston-Salem. Cleo was from Newark, like I was. So I knew. He was probably the greatest high school player I'd ever seen. Just a shade over six feet tall, he jumped out of the gym and literally had every shot in the book—with either hand. The way I remember it, there was nothing he couldn't do."
After high school Attles and Hill had played together in Newark against a team of older, rougher players, semi-pros called the Ironbound Dukes. "They hadn't lost a game in a long time," says Attles. "We came in against them, a bunch of kids, and Cleo just took over. He hit 41, got all the rebounds, blocked everybody's shot. After the game the older guys were looking at him with murder in their hearts. They did this for a living, sort of, and here this kid was, on a lark, and he laid them open. Cleo was laughing. But those men weren't."
"I had done just enough work to get by at South Side High," says Hill now. "I was already known as a ballplayer. Abe Saperstein had already contacted me, promising a spot on the Globetrotters. Well, they had remedial courses at Winston-Salem, and I needed them. Gaines made it known I'd have to do the work. He brought in Jim Brown to talk about education. I swore Jim was talking to me alone. So, in that kind of environment, with my kind of game, I suppose I flourished a little."
So much so that during Hill's senior season, an All-Atlantic Coast Conference playmaking guard from Bones McKinney's Wake Forest team over on the west side of Winston-Salem decided he wanted to see Hill play. It never entered the young Billy Packer's mind that he was going behind a curtain. So he came to Whitaker Gymnasium in 1960 to watch a Rams game and found himself the only white person in the arena.
"I had hitchhiked across town," says Packer, who is now CBS's principal college basketball commentator. "I wasn't even thinking about east Winston-Salem being a place where I wasn't supposed to be. I guess when you're young, you don't think that way. That was the first time I saw Bighouse. I wasn't hard to pick out. He said, 'Son, you better come sit on the bench with me.' So I did. I watched. Cleo Hill remains one of the greatest college players I've ever seen. We got the exposure in the ACC, even though Cleo was far better than I had ever thought about being. As for Bighouse, he was a great man then and still is."
"Before I knew it, Billy was bringing his boys from Wake Forest by every Sunday for a scrimmage," says Gaines. "No, there was never any fear in that little guard."
After leading the Rams to a 26-5 record and the CIAA tournament title in 1961, Cleo Hill became the No. 1 draft choice of the NBA St. Louis Hawks, owned by Ben Kerner, a bilious sort who chewed on paper his sycophants handed him as he watched Clyde Lovellette, Cliff Hagan and Bob Pettit, his three stars. Hagan and Pettit had led the Hawks to the 1957-58 NBA title. Four years later, Kerner wanted to keep his Big Three productive and win—in that order.
Marty Blake, now acknowledged as a swami when it comes to NBA talent, was then the Hawk business manager. "Cleo Hill was one of the greatest players I've ever drafted," he says. "I saw him jump center, at six-one, against a seven-footer from Tennessee State. He won the tap easily. He could jump and shoot any shot with either hand. He was ahead of his time. He came to us when we were slow and he wasn't. He'd be a sensation now."
"Oh, he was a sensation then," says Paul Seymour, the Hawk coach when Hill arrived. "The first day of practice, he caught Lovellette's hook shot in midair and came down with it. He was sort of naive, but a good kid, a super guy who should have been a great pro. Heck, he would have been a star if they hadn't fired me. That's the only sore spot I have with the NBA, what happened to Cleo Hill."
The Hawks were undergoing a transformation. Lenny Wilkens, the current coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, was a brilliant young guard then, but he was in the Army and available for spot duty only. St. Louis needed someone to play in his stead. Hill averaged over 18 points per game in the 1961 exhibition season, not even playing half of most games, laughing, scoring, blocking shots. The Big Three weren't laughing. Neither was Kerner. "He thought everyone would be pleased that he had such a wonderful game," says Seymour. Everyone wasn't. A guard, Al Ferrari, complained that the rook was taking shots from the old pros. Seymour took Hill under his wing. He and Hill would stay after the Hawks' practices and shoot two-handed set shots for hours on end. Seymour had a deadly set shot, and somehow Hill kept up with the older man. Seymour told Ferrari to come in early, as Hill needed to work on his defense against an old pro, one-on-one. Ferrari didn't get off a shot. Hill scored at will.
"A lot of them resented the way Seymour treated me," says Hill. "He was like a big brother to me. Once, this guy named Ed Conlin wanted to start some trouble and Paul came off the bench and started fighting him. The other players just looked and asked me if I was his son or something."
Hill had a no-cut contract that season with the Hawks. Gaines and some of the veteran players around the NBA persuaded him to stick it out. "Being able to play, and not playing, is one thing," says Hill. "Getting paid is another."
Hill went back to the Hawks' training camp the following season and faced competition from two guards, Charlie (Chico) Vaughn and John Barnhill. On the first day, Hill snuffed Vaughn's patented pin-with-the-off-arm hook shot, then scored on Barnhill at will. Vaughn and Barnhill later admitted that they were shocked when Hill was the first player released by new coach Harry Gallatin. "Harry told me I should go somewhere and teach the game to somebody," says Hill.
"Cleo just wasn't constructed," says Gaines, "to put up with hate."
All this was being played out behind a drawn curtain of history, but it was lifting. Just before Hill left Winston-Salem, a group of A&T students decided to protest the whites-only policies of the Greensboro lunch counters and ignited the sit-ins that became an integral part of the civil-rights movement of the 1960s. Williams, who was by now Winston-Salem's president, had gone to graduate school at Boston University with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Williams knew the storm was coming in the person of this gentle man. "Much racial conflict still hasn't been resolved," said Williams. "But back then...it was bitter conflict."
Through some of the most bitter years, 1959 to 1964, Gaines's teams went 114-26. But perhaps the most significant occurrence of this period came in 1963 when that old-player network—this time the recruiter was John Leon Whitley—delivered a skinny, 6'2" guard named Earl Monroe to Winston-Salem. In his first game, Monroe and his teammates faced the national champions of the NAIA, Pan American, which featured a behemoth named Luke Jackson under the boards. Gaines sent in young Monroe, who shot 0 for 8 from the field. Even the Pearl was once just a freshman. Gaines smiled at him and said, "Don't worry, son. They'll be singing your praises before you leave."
"He was just a shy young kid who needed a little dental work and a lot of encouragement," says Gaines. Said Williams, "When Monroe first came there was a lot of tension between the communities, black and white. But Earl sort of transcended all that. We played our first games at the Winston-Salem Coliseum while Earl was here. Both communities were drawn to the games, which was unusual. His success led to a certain pride in the institution. All during that time in the '60s, we had no instances of extreme violence here. I think Earl was the cause of that. I know he was the cause of a lot of won games."
In the summers, Monroe would take that magnetism to the playgrounds of New York City, where he made even the stoic young Lew Alcindor smile with his court-length bounce passes and flat tip-toe jumper. He was a whirling dervish who could invade the key with the ball on some kind of invisible strand. Later, Monroe bridged the gap between playground legend and Broadway star, performing for the Knicks on a stage called Madison Square Garden. As for Gaines, he was 99-18 while Monroe was at Winston-Salem, with an NCAA Division II national championship in 1967, the same year he lost the CIAA tournament final, 103-82, to North Carolina A&T. Monroe, who averaged 42.7 points that season, was seemingly oblivious to the storm around him. When the Rams went to Akron to play the Zips, the crowd cried for the niggers to go home. Monroe did—after he dropped 53 on Akron and Winston-Salem won 92-84. Then there was the CIAA tournament game in which Bobby Dandridge of Norfolk State—Sweet Bobby D—scored 20 points on the Rams. Monroe answered with 47. Winston-Salem won 117-113.
"Clarence Gaines was a father figure to me," says Monroe. "I went to school to play ball, but he turned that around in my first year. He let me know what I was there for, no matter how well I could play."
Monroe was the NBA Rookie of the Year with the Baltimore Bullets in 1968. When he made his inimitable spin move, not even the refs were sure what he was doing. Defenders were similarly mesmerized. When Monroe was traded to the Knicks—to the team with Walt (Clyde) Frazier in the backcourt, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley at forward, and the indomitable Willis Reed in the middle—many people questioned whether this showboat with the gimpy knees wouldn't undermine New York's selfless style of play. Two years later, when Monroe and the Knicks won the NBA title, the questions were answered.
"Earl was from a different cut. He had a vision," says Attles. "He always knew what he was doing. People talked about the spin like it wasn't fundamental basketball. They don't realize that Earl always spun toward the basket. And when it was time for him to tone his game down—difficult to do at that level—so the Knicks could win, he did that. He did that with ease. You're just an extension out there of all the people who taught you. Earl was an extension of Gaines."
When Monroe's number 15 jersey was lifted into the Madison Square Garden rafters last year, Earl asked for only two coaches to attend—Red Holzman of the Knicks and Gaines.
"I classify Earl as a humanitarian and a diplomat," says Gaines. "He came along when segregation patterns were breaking. He helped break them. He opened minds. He was an artist."
Even as Gaines speaks between mouthfuls at a seafood restaurant on the west side of Winston-Salem, a white man, 60-ish, comes up to shake his hand. "Coach Gaines, good to see you," the man says.
"Welcome," says Gaines.
"Remember the old days?" asks the man. "Remember Monroe? Good gosh, was he something to see, Coach? He was like Muhammad Ali, that's what he was like."
Hill and Monroe were the alpha and omega of Gaines's career as a college basketball coach. A few of those in between and before and since haven't turned out as well. Carlos Terry, class of '78, made the Washington Bullets for a few years. But he became a victim of crack, the drug trade and himself, and ended up dead in an automobile accident in March 1989 in the streets of Prince George's County, Md. But then there were the members of the 1972-73 team that won Gaines's 500th game and went 16-0 through a CIAA regular season. There were Stinson Conley, now the women's coach at Winston-Salem; George Gibson, a minister in Philadelphia; Donald Helton, an insurance agent in Charlotte; and James Pegues, from Elm City, N.C. Monroe is a successful businessman, handsomely turned out, with a nice portfolio. And Hill? Did the foreshortening of his career ruin his life? Not if you know Gaines and the kind of steadiness he inspires. "The only regret I have," says Hill, "is that I'd like to have played with or against Michael Jordan. He plays my kind of game."
After Hill was through playing basketball—he dabbled in the American Basketball League and the Eastern League, the forerunner of the Continental Basketball Association—he became a coach; he has coached the team at Essex County Community College in Newark for 19 years and has been the athletic director for 14 years. His lifetime record is 386-106. "In 1973, me and Earl and Jack DeFares and some of the guys put together a little celebration for Gaines at the Playboy Club in McAfee, New Jersey," says Hill. "We called it A Night for Bighouse Gaines. I worried Gaines and McLendon for two days, milking all the knowledge I could.... Tom Paulin? The guard? Well, Tom Paulin belongs to me. I sent him down there. I coached him. Gaines even gave him my old number, 14. Wonder what old Tom Paulin is doing now?"
They all leave, eventually. Only the gypsy stays.
"Why has he stayed at Winston-Salem for so long?" asks Lisa Gaines McDonald, from her Minneapolis office, where she's the assistant director of marketing and planning for the University of Minnesota Hospital and Clinic. "Persistence. My father has a great endurance level. He's just kept going."
Back on campus, Clara walks briskly around the running track beneath the Gaines Center while, upstairs, Bighouse wrestles with the Valvano Rule, which was created in the wake of the recent academic and other embarrassments at North Carolina State, where Jim Valvano served as both athletic director and basketball coach until he resigned his AD duties in October 1989. Bighouse, Jeff Mullins at UNC-Charlotte and Jeff Capel at Fayetteville State of the CIAA were the only basketball coach-athletic directors threatened by the state ruling earlier this year, which barred one person from being both the athletic director and a head coach at a state school. This was a fine time to tell Gaines, after 44 years. This summer he gave up his athletic director's position to Al Roseboro.
"Not too much question about that," says Clara. "Like he said I tricked him into marrying me all those years ago? Well, he had a chance to get out of it if he wanted to. He didn't choose to. I came here from Pittsburgh in the late '40s to teach Latin. We married in 1950. We just never decided to leave. Winston-Salem sort of grows on you. He's never taken a day's sick leave. Says it doesn't feel like he's ever had a job. We've been plenty of places, but we like Winston-Salem. I think it's just as good as any other place. I think a place's value is in the friends you make, really."
To understand Gaines, you have to understand the difference between being a gypsy in spirit and being a gypsy in fact, between staying and leaving, between being helplessly buffeted by the winds of chance or being able to help forge fate.
"My father always encouraged independence," says Lisa, who was educated at the University of North Carolina. "And Lisa is a kindred spirit to my father," says her brother, Clarence Jr., 32, who went to William and Mary and is a scout with the Chicago Bulls. Clarence Jr. works with the Bulls in part because his father is an old acquaintance of Jerry Krause, Chicago's vice-president of basketball operations.
"My father has seen the world. He never seemed to think his job was work. The new college coaches don't have to teach. My father always has [taught various physical education courses]. When I grew up, I not only saw coaching plaques on the walls, I saw master's degrees [in physical education]. He let us know we had to go get our own. He's the only man I know who would be just as comfortable sharing beans with the homeless as at a presidential state dinner."
As a coach Gaines is a proponent of the iron-man theory. Rarely does he play more than six men. Fatigue is a state of mind. Once, when a van hauling the varsity to an away game broke down, Gaines asked Griffin, the equipment manager, to rent a car and get the starting five to the game on time. The rest would have to make their own way.
"Harsh? Oh, no, that wasn't harsh," says Clarence Jr. "Once, we went to Germany, to the '72 Olympics, to Munich. My father told me to go out and explore with a friend. I was about 13.1 don't know too many people who trust their children to go across the street at that age. Well, he sent me to Dachau. That had a profound effect on me."
"He showed me how to do comparative shopping when I was six," says Lisa. "I sort of have his gypsy spirit, and so do his grandsons Loran, who's nine, and Ryan, who's six. Loran already wants to travel. He wants to play for Poppa Gaines."
According to Clarence Jr., his father "has crossed all cultural, racial and economic boundaries." Maybe Gaines crossed them all because he knew they were largely imagined, anyway. When he was a boy in Paducah, his mother just about raised three young white children, the Johnsons—Dick, Mary Ann and Hollis Jr., now deceased—after their mother died. Olivia, Clarence's mother, died in 1982, six years after Lester. When Olivia died, Mary Ann Johnson Clark tearfully made the arrangements and comforted Gaines as Bighouse arrived in Paducah with a big, heavy heart. "The Johnsons are family, too," he says.
Not long ago, Gaines's recommendation sold Krause on a CIAA forward from Virginia Union named Charles Oakley. The Bulls, who have since traded him to the Knicks, pinched Oakley from the Cleveland Cavaliers in a 1985 draft-day trade of first-round picks, in exchange for Keith Lee. Oakley's college coach was named Dave Robbins. Robbins's teams have won three CIAA tournaments in the last eight years, and he has sent three players to the NBA. Robbins, by the way, is a white man.
You never know where the talented people are going to come from or where they're going to go. Robbins was an assistant to Gaines when, in 1988, Bighouse took a group of players—college underclassmen and a couple of recent high school graduates, Billy Owens and Shawn Kemp—to Taipei for an international competition. That's where Gaines taught Kemp, now the formidable second-year center-forward for the Seattle SuperSonics, and Felton Spencer, a rookie center with the Minnesota Timberwolves, the difference between a slide step and a cross step. The kids won the tournament, sure, but the important part for Gaines was watching Owens, now of Syracuse, evolve into a scientific player.
So maybe Billy Packer wasn't off course on that night back in 1960 when he went to the other end of town to learn more about the game he would one day analyze. Maybe Bighouse was bigger than even Fernandez Griffin thought those many long years ago. No, nothing much has ever happened in the quiet of the cast side of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, other than the fact that a big gypsy once came, and rarely left.