Charley Rosen is an unpeggable hybrid, equal parts amiable wise man and raging madman. A Chaucer scholar, he has written six books on basketball—novels, meditations, a history, a biography. Bronx-born, he lives now in rural upstate New York and coaches the Oklahoma City Cavalry in the Continental Basketball Association. A sometimes mellow Deadhead, he must often struggle to curb a flaring, mysterious anger. He has been reprimanded for fighting hecklers in the stands and ejected for cursing out officials. He knows most refs' thumbs better than their faces.
Rosen has been through three CBA teams in five seasons. "I always land on my feet," he says. Except when he lands in jail, as he did last winter while coaching the Rockford (Ill.) Lightning. He took a swing at Cedar Rapids coach George Whittaker after a game, and local police threw him into a cell. Rosen's eight-game suspension was the longest in CBA history. "Another incident like that and Charley will be banished from the league for life," says Cavalry owner Chip Land.
Rosen has earned a reputation as being something of a maniac. "And not just your everyday maniac," says Land. "Everybody thinks he's a dangerous maniac."
Then why did Land hire him in May as the expansion team's first coach?
"I knew he'd play to packed houses. Everybody hates him."
"Just everybody in the living world."
Just everybody who was in Oklahoma City's Myriad Convention Center on Jan. 23 saw Charley go cuckoo during his halftime 50th-birthday party. The Cavalry trailed Wichita Falls by three just before halftime when a ref blew his whistle—and Rosen his top. "Double technical?" brayed Rosen. "What kind of coward calls a double technical?"
The buzzer sounded. The players and refs ambled off the court. Cheerleaders ambled on. Rosen remained in place, screaming loudly.
By the time the cheerleaders led him to center court for the birthday honors, he had calmed down slightly. One cheerleader handed him balloons, another, a three-foot-long cake. The refs came by for slices. "I had a flash of heaving the cake into their faces," Rosen says. "It was big enough." Instead, he expressed his feelings toward them vocally, in terms of intimate anatomical parts unmentionable here. As Rosen roiled and started to shake yet again with rage, the cake wobbled and smashed on the floor.
Rosen laughs devilishly at the memory of the splattered angel food. "I'm an idealist," he says. "I believe righteousness will eventually triumph. That's what the Bible says. Unfortunately, there were no refs around when the Bible was written. Basically, they screwed up the universe. They never played the game, so they have no feel for it. They don't have the guts to be cops or the brains to be lawyers. They're just little guys with big whistles."
Despite his occasionally angry attitude, Rosen is, at heart, an aging flower child. His head no longer spills over with a vast outcropping of frizzed vegetation, as it used to, but he remains unbuttoned, untucked. A graying beard now dusts his chin, much as salt rims a margarita glass. He abhors cant, bombast, phonies and fakes just as much as he does zone defenses. "I hate politicians," he says with a gritty urban snarl. "I never vote. Never. It only encourages them."
About the only movie Rosen likes is Woodstock, which is where he lives in the off-season. He values honesty, intelligence and the music of the Grateful Dead. If he invites you over to his ramshackle apartment to listen to Dead tapes, then you've passed some very stringent, very idiosyncratic test of character. "The Dead have been together a quarter century, and they're still trying different combinations, evolving, learning," he says. "I hope I have that kind of imagination and enthusiasm, to keep going and keep it fun for my players."
Rosen loves hoops with the single-mindedness that some aging men have for young women. "It's constant movement," he says. "Each move results from another move and leads to yet another. It's the truest form of sport." He has an old-fashioned belief in the game as something noble and pure. "Ballet with defense," he called it in his 1979 manifesto, God, Man and Basketball Jones. "Basketball is a blur of acrobatic giants, perilous abandon, and ram-slam-in-your-mother's-eyes dunk shots. And for even the most casual fan, basketball can be a dribbling, leaping, flowing salvation."
At practice in Oklahoma City, this true believer dribbles, leaps and flows around the court in an AIR DEAD T-shirt. Rosen's Cavalry numbers nine players, so at shootarounds he's the 10th man. During this particular session, he calls 2-B, an out-of-bounds play. Cavalry guard Kelsey Weems takes the inbounds pass but misses the shot.
Rosen lowers his head, presses his fingertips together in contemplation and says, "Or not 2-B."
He boned up on the Bard while playing college ball at Hunter in New York City. In his sophomore year, Rosen began delivering a lot more than soliloquies. He remembers distinctly the day he learned to dish it out. Home team Brooklyn College was winning big in garbage time when its best player, Ed Savage, started trashing Rosen's teammates.
"Cool it!" said Rosen.
"Screw you!" said Savage.
Rosen asked his coach for advice. "Get him," said the coach.
"I said,'Get him!' "
So Rosen got Savage, elbowing him in the chops and knocking him out. Rosen needed a police escort to get out of the gym. "Nothing to be proud of," he says, "but I didn't understand how to play."
Writing, he thought he understood. "I wanted to be an artist, a professional genius," he says. "Very pretentious." He fit his career as a scribe around a myriad of other pursuits: He was a semipro in the defunct Eastern Basketball League, a Nautilus instructor, an English professor at Hofstra, a pitching prospect for the New York Yankees and, meanwhile, a free-lancer for magazines as diverse as Crawdaddy and Sport.
Sportswriters, he never had much use for. He calls them Media Muppets and says they can't see past the stat sheets. "Most media people swear that nothing is as safe as a percentage," he wrote in Basketball Jones, "and nothing is as objective as a number."
Rosen's vivid, vigorous candor is reflected in his prose. For instance, while he's a pretty good storyteller and has an eye for the ironic, he finds writing magazine profiles like this one downright disingenuous. "You spend two days with a person, representing their life, their being," he says. "It's all fiction. You can be married to someone for 20 years and not know them." Rewriting, he says, only compounds the deception. "Every time you do another draft, you get farther away from reality."
Teaching English lit was as far from reality as Rosen ever hopes to get. "The experience disenchanted me," he says. "I was told I related to my students too much." After leaving Hofstra in 1970 he pursued a Ph.D. in medieval studies at nearby St. John's, and nearly got it. But while revising his dissertation—Pseudo-Dionysius and the Allegory in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales—he decided once and for all that he didn't want to grow up to be an uppity academic with ashes in his mouth and bloodspots in his weary eyes. He and his wife, Susan, packed up their Deadabilia and trucked to Woodstock.
"Charley wore a dashiki and love beads," says Susan.
"But I never had a lava lamp," says Charley.
"You did attach a light box to our stereo."
"You're right," says Charley. He drifts into dreamy reverie. "It flashed a lovely purple whenever Crosby, Stills and Nash sang Guinnevere."
Once settled in Woodstock, the Rosens started raising a family. Charley named their son, Darrell Marlowe, after a former NBA journeyman basketball player (Darrall Imhoff) and a 16th-century English poet and playwright. "I have no idea why anyone would want to name a kid for Imhoff," confesses Charley, expressing an embarrassment that may explain why he didn't get the spelling quite right. "But Marlowe was supremely talented, a terrific writer and more than a little crazy. He fooled around with alchemy and all kinds of nutsy things." Susan drew the line when Charley wanted to name their daughter Layla. "Susan wasn't into Derek and the Dominos," Charley says. They settled on Alexandra Jade.
Another sideline was born one day when Rosen retrieved that forsaken thesis, but not to finish it. Short on paper, he wrote a biography of former Boston Celtic Dave Cowens on the backs of the pages. What was left of Pseudo-Dionysius, he tossed down an incinerator.
The Cowens bio was one of more than half a dozen books that Rosen, who at 6'8" was once called the world's tallest author, wrote between 1975 and '81. Not all of them were published, but the last one—Players and Pretenders—was. It chronicled his misadventures as coach of tiny Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, not far from Woodstock. In the book Rosen sounds like a Zen master at an endlessly turning prayer wheel, droning on to his disciples about playing basketball as a "Zen exercise seeking the spiritual radiance of the game." But even during those serene, low-pressure years at Bard, Rosen's own contemplative calm would disintegrate at the opening buzzer. He'd brave whiplash as he flung back his head in mad abandon, eyes flipping in their sockets like cherries in a slot machine. At one official he barked: "I just want to say you're the worst ref I've ever seen."
"That's fine," said the ref, "because you're the worst team I've ever seen."
The ref had a point: Despite the flamboyant moves of forward Lance Lavender, the Running Red Devils were 1-16 against such powerhouses as Vassar and the Albany College of Pharmacy. In the middle of one game, a drama teacher dragged Rosen's 5'9" power forward off the floor to rehearse As You Like It.
Rosen's initiation to the CBA came in 1983. His buddy Phil Jackson was named coach at Albany and asked Rosen to come along. The cost-conscious league barred assistant coaches from traveling, so Rosen's loophole was to be certified as a trainer. "He taped ankles," says Jackson, who now coaches the Chicago Bulls in the NBA. "Lots of ugly ankles."
The taping sessions lasted until 1986, when Rosen got the head job at Savannah. Despite his spiritual approach, the Spirits finished 20-28. Rosen rolled on to Rockford, where his Lightning was 37-17 and reached the division final. The team made the championship series in '88-89, but were swept by Tulsa in four games. Then came last season and the infamous swing at Whittaker in Cedar Rapids. Rosen says Whittaker had run up the score. "What I did was indefensible," Rosen concedes. "I got caught up in all that macho b.s.—that basketball is life and death. The episode forced me to deal with my dark side. I quit Rockford before they could fire me."
He draws a long breath. "The game becomes a measure of your value as a human being," he says. "You win, you're worthwhile. Lose, you're worthless. Maybe as a kid I never had a sense of being a winner. I was big, and littler kids always tried to beat me up. When you grow up big, you can't get lost or hide." He pulls at his whiskers. "I should have outgrown this stuff by now. Maybe I'm psychotic. I doubt it, though. I think I'm perfectly sane, perfectly normal." He smiles the smile of a triple ax murderer and lets loose his dangerous-sounding laugh.
"Charley's got an inimitable, Bronx subway style," says Jackson. "He doesn't just stick his foot in the door—he pushes right to the middle of the car. Fortunately, he's also got a great sense of humor."
Which is a quality that has served Rosen well in this sometimes laughable league. "CBA really stands for Cockroach Basketball Association," he says. "Somehow it endures through pestilence, warfare, whatever."
Coaching the cockroaches can be a futile, thankless task. "Last season I lost starters to the NBA, European leagues and drug rehab," Rosen says. "The whole personality of the team changed every few days. How can you run a set offense when everybody's a stranger?"
Like the brusque but knowledgeable coach Gene Hackman played in Hoosiers, Rosen must drive, discipline, mold his bunch of undermotivated bush leaguers into something resembling a team. He tries to foster team play while nurturing individual potential. But first he's got to convince his Cavalry that they can't shoot their way into the NBA. "Guys on winning teams get looked at," he tells them. "Guys who know how to play get looked at. Scorers are a dime a dozen—you've got to be a role player."
Teaching is Rosen's greatest strength, but it may not be enough to keep him employed. While the CBA bills itself as an instructional league, coaches with losing records have been getting axed with regularity this year. And the Cavalry's record for the season, which ends in mid-March, will surely be a losing one—in spades.
Still, even with his future at stake, Rosen won't hide his stars from NBA scouts. He's one of the few CBA coaches who send tapes to NBA teams, and his players love him for this. They also appreciate that Rosen is always scrounging for side benefits—free meals, free sneakers—to help them get by on an average weekly salary of $550 per athlete.
"Charley's teams have great esprit de corps," says Jackson. "His players rally around him when he's in trouble."
Rosen can't seem to stay out of it, so they rally a lot. He hopes all this rallying starts translating into winning, and soon, because he finds Oklahoma O.K. "I like this place because it's a frontier," he says. "On the frontier, everybody starts out with no past."