Henry Bibby darts around the football trophies on his way to
lunch on a Thursday afternoon in September. His office is at one
end of Heritage Hall. The parking lot, where his leased white
Mercedes awaits, is at the other. The wide lobby is a daily
obstacle course for him. Around the football trophies. They sit
in their glass cases, row after row, gold and impressive,
tributes to past successes at the University of Southern
The four Heisman Trophies are in front, in a line. Here is the
Heisman for Mike Garrett and there is the one for Marcus Allen
and here the one for Charles White and, yes, of course, there
the one for O.J. Simpson. That last one is a replica. The
original was stolen a few months before his murder trial, but
this one looks the same as the others. Four miniature running
"When you take recruits through here, do you tell them that
that's a basketball the little guy is carrying?" Bibby is asked.
"We're going to put some of our own trophies in here," says the
new men's basketball coach, not really laughing at the joke.
"That's what I tell them."
November 15, 1996
Bibby is 46 years old and heading, at last, into the grand
challenge he has been seeking for so long. This is his chance.
He would like to make USC a basketball school. Forget the famous
tailbacks; think point guards. Forget the Rose Bowl; think Final
Four. A man who has been looking for opportunity has landed at a
school desperate for a savior. A basketball evangelist walks
among longtime infidels.
He looks different now, a close-cropped head and some wrinkles
replacing the cotton-candy Afro and the smooth face that was
part of the UCLA team picture for three successive NCAA
championships on the other side of this city in the early '70s.
He has done some living, been to some places, seen a lot of
things. He was named interim coach at USC in the middle of last
season, inheriting the job when Charlie Parker was abruptly
fired. In chaos, the team limped home with an 0-9 finish. Bibby
was given the full-time job and a five-year contract in March.
The real beginning is now.
Everything has been done in a hurry. By the end of last season,
the Trojans' active roster included only four scholarship
players. Late to the recruiting trail, Bibby picked up five
junior college transfers and gave scholarships to three
freshmen. There is a foundation player in 6'6" senior forward
Rodrick Rhodes, a transfer from Kentucky who is now eligible
after sitting out last season, but the rest is a name-tag
jumble. How well will all these new kids work together? How much
time will it take?
"Everything is so new, you can't tell," says Bibby. "We could be
30-0. We could be 0-30. We could be anywhere in between, though
I hope it's a lot closer to the first one. What we're doing now
is trying for a quick fix. In the future there'll be more of a
mixture, not so many junior college kids.
"I do know what you need to be successful: You need some stars.
You need at least one, two kids who are going to play in the
NBA. Look at the Final Four last year. Every team had them.
Kentucky had four kids who went to the NBA. Mississippi State
had two. Massachusetts had Marcus Camby. Syracuse had John
Wallace. You have to have stars. Those are the kids we have to
Bibby dreams of a day when five high school stars from the gyms
and playgrounds of Southern California will come together at USC
to do amazing things together. He calls them the Miracle Five.
Forget football. The old L.A. Sports Arena, where these days
2,500 people show up--on a good night--will be filled with
cardinal and gold. The Miracle Five. Find those stars. That is
the blueprint he will follow when there is time for
organization. That is the vision.
The irony is obvious. If only he had one of those stars now....
If only he had, say, the kid who was rated the top high school
point guard in the country by the Bob Gibbons All Star Sports
Report, the second-best player in the country by Blue Chip
Illustrated, the No. 5 player in the country in the 1995
If only he had....
"Did you try to sign your son at all?" Bibby is asked.
"I called Mike once when I got the job," he replies. "I wanted
him to know there was a scholarship here if he wanted it. I knew
he wouldn't come."
The grand challenge has not arrived without a price.
The son remembers mostly that his father was gone. Never around.
There were always questions, comparisons of the point guard son
with the point guard father, but no one was ever there to help
with the answers. He has an early memory of one-on-one games in
the driveway, his father pushing him in the back playing
defense, hand-checking, saying that wasn't a foul, not at all.
But that has receded. The biggest memory is no memory.
"My mother is the one who raised me," Mike Bibby says. "She is
the one who deserves the credit."
Three times the Arizona high school player of the year, perhaps
the best high school player in the history of the state, the
6'2", 180-pound Mike Bibby, now a freshman at Arizona, developed
his abilities by playing with his two older brothers, Dane and
Hank, and his friends in high school and at summer camps. In
Mike's entire high school career, his father saw him play only a
couple of games during a tournament in Las Vegas and one game in
"I asked him to come," says Virginia Bibby, Mike's mother and
Henry's wife (Virginia and Henry are in the process of getting a
divorce). "I told him he was missing something, missing a lot. I
tried to work that guilt thing, about the kids. He just never
came. Even the one time he did see Mike play in Arizona, he
wasn't here for that reason. He was here on other business."
There is no simple explanation for what happened between father
and son. Pieces seem to have fallen off the relationship, one by
one, through the years, until there was very little left. Lack
of use brought rust. Rust brought inflexibility. Attitudes
became hard. Distances became insurmountable.
Mike was two when Henry moved the family from Philadelphia to
Phoenix in 1980. He was playing for his fourth NBA team, the San
Diego Clippers, and nearing the end of his nine-year NBA career,
which included a world title in 1973 with the New York Knicks.
He would move along to the CBA, spending a year as a player and
assistant coach under Cazzie Russell in Lancaster, Pa., and
winning a championship. But the CBA was a transition. In 1982 he
took a job as an assistant coach at Arizona State. Coaching was
what he wanted to do; it was all he knew how to do. Even when he
was playing beside Sidney Wicks and Bill Walton at UCLA, winning
those titles, he had thought of himself as a coach in training
rather than as a future NBA star. The time in the NBA was a
bonus, the result of hard work and hustle and a solid jump shot.
And the CBA was a transition. Arizona State was a career.
It did not go well. The Pac-10 accused Arizona State, under
coach Bob Weinhauer, of recruiting violations. The conference
ruled that the school could not recruit two particular
California high school players and took away a scholarship. In
1985, three years after he had started there, Bibby resigned. In
college basketball he was dead.
"I guess it's an unwritten rule," says one college coach. "If
there's any kind of scandal around you, you have to go somewhere
else in the basketball world. It takes time to get back into the
For Bibby, somewhere else was the CBA. Again. In 1985 he became
head coach of the Baltimore Lightning, while the family stayed
in Phoenix. The separation began. Again. There had already been
strains in the marriage, and now there was distance once more.
The distance became greater as the seasons passed, one after
another. Baltimore became Savannah and Savannah became Tulsa and
Tulsa became Oklahoma City, a string of CBA stops. Summers were
spent in other places: in the USBL, then Puerto Rico, then
Venezuela. Bibby's infrequent returns to Phoenix dwindled until
he didn't return at all.
"This happens in our game to some guys," says Mike Thibault of
the Omaha Racers, who coached against Bibby in the CBA. "You can
get wrapped up in it. If you don't stop sometimes, take a summer
off, you live a life that's a frenzy. In that situation, the
game is your marriage. Everything else sort of falls off the
Bibby became the itinerant coach, the consummate basketball
wanderer. "I could have stayed in Phoenix, but what would I have
done? What else could I do?" he says. His possessions were
scaled down to clothes, a bed and a television. The bed and the
TV were cheap, so they could be left behind when he moved on.
Cars were leased. Apartments rented. He applied for jobs in the
NBA and at colleges--it seemed to him as if he applied for every
job out there--but he always wound up in the CBA or the USBL or
He became known as a coach for tough ballplayers. He took the
head cases and the bad attitudes and tried to change them. If
they didn't change, they were gone. He went through players in a
hurry, looking for the ones he wanted. Once, in Oklahoma City,
he cut several of his players in one week during the middle of a
CBA season. He rode buses, drove vans, taped ankles.
Bibby spent $2,000 of his own money to transport his team, the
Jersey Jammers of the USBL, to a game in Florida after a mix-up
at the airport. One summer in Jersey City he lived in an attic
without air conditioning. He won a CBA title in Tulsa. When he
was coaching the Springfield (Mass.) Fame, he was named USBL
coach of the year. He kept waiting for the call from somebody
somewhere for the big job. He almost never went back to Phoenix.
"I had to provide for my family," Bibby says. "What else could I
do? Did I want to be in Venezuela, where they didn't speak
English, where there was no TV, where there was nothing to do
within five miles? I don't think so. But it was the only way I
could take care of my family."
"I asked him to come back, to see the kids," says Virginia. "I
said that our problems were separate. Our marriage...it was very
hard, even before he left Phoenix. I just wanted him to see the
kids. He never showed up. The things he did were very selfish.
Henry thinks about himself. That's it."
"I was doing what I wanted to do for a job," says Henry. "How
many people can say that? That was my life. I was out there
making the money and sending it home."
During all this time, Bibby's youngest son was developing into a
wonderful player. Dane, now 27 and a singer, and Hank, a
21-year-old undergraduate at USC, were more interested in other
sports, but Mike had gifts for basketball that his father never
had. The game was natural, easy for him. While the father was a
huff-and-puff sort of player, a hard worker who seemed to will
himself from a small town in North Carolina to a prominent place
on some of the best teams in college and professional history,
the son was a glider, smooth in all respects. He had an innate
ability to pass. Yet when he had to, he could score points in
bunches. As a sixth-grader, he won a summer basketball
three-point shootout at a camp for high school kids. He was a
"Mike took us to places we'd never been," says Shadow Mountain
High coach Jerry Conner. "After he was state player of the year
as a sophomore, invitations just started rolling in to play in
all of these tournaments. In Mike's senior year, we played in
St. Louis, won a great game against Centralia [Ill.]. We played
in Las Vegas, where we had a big win over Oak Hill Academy,
something I thought we'd never do. We played in the Beach Ball
Classic in Myrtle Beach. In-state, we really didn't have any
close games. He averaged 34 points. We won the state tournament."
"He's the best guard we've ever recruited," says Arizona coach
Lute Olson (who coached future NBA guards Steve Kerr, Khalid
Reeves and Damon Stoudamire in Tucson). "I don't know if I've
ever seen anyone pass like him. He puts the ball right there. He
is one of those kids--you almost have to beg him to score. In
high school it seemed as if he had a scoring button. If the team
needed points, he'd just push the button. The best compliment I
heard was from an ACC coach. We were watching him play at the
Nike camp, where he was just terrific, and the ACC coach said
Mike was great, but could I imagine how much greater he could be
if he could shoot. I told him Mike averaged 34 points a game. He
The success brought publicity. The headline about the son of a
former NBA player doing the same things his father had done was
a natural. The publicity brought questions. For a while, the son
maintained an awkward fiction. He simply said that his father
was away, working. The entire family maintained the fiction.
Eventually, another story emerged. Mike told it.
"I think it was sometime around the start of his junior year,"
Virginia says. "I heard Mike tell a reporter that his father had
no part in anything that had happened, that it was his mother
who raised him. His father was gone and no part of his life. It
surprised me. That was the first time I realized that Mike felt
the way he did, that he had seen as much as he had. Ever since
then, he has said the same thing. I think it's a relief for him.
Until then we had always protected Henry. I think it took a
weight off Mike's shoulders."
"Let Mike say what he wants to say," says Henry. "Mike just
doesn't understand. Someday, as he gets older, maybe he will."
For Mike, the choice of a college was easy. He had thought a
little about UCLA--another Bibby on the Pauley Pavilion
floor--but he did not feel at home on his trip there. He visited
Arizona with his mother and liked what he saw, the green campus
in the middle of the desert. He liked that it was just two hours
away from Phoenix. He liked McKale Center, the 14,428-seat arena
that is a perpetual sellout. He liked everything about Arizona
and verbally agreed, even before his senior season began, to
accept a scholarship there.
And now he is in Tucson, ready for his freshman season. "I can't
wait to get started with basketball," Mike says. "So far, school
is good. I'm adjusting to everything. Living in the dorms,
living with a roommate. The homework. It's different from high
school, where they'd give you an assignment and then check the
next day to see if you'd done it. Here, it's up to you."
He is expected to be a starter, the first freshman to start at
Arizona since Sean Elliott, now an NBA All-Star, in 1985-86.
Olson, while acknowledging that the two play different positions
and have different skills, says he thinks Bibby is a better
player than Kobe Bryant, the 18-year-old from suburban
Philadelphia who was the 13th pick in the NBA draft in June and
is now with the Los Angeles Lakers. Olson compares Bibby to
Jason Kidd of the Dallas Mavericks. Others compare Mike to his
"You didn't think twice when your father called?" the son is
asked. "When he said he had a scholarship at USC?"
The kid shakes his head from side to side. He thinks the answer
is obvious. He is here.
"Never," Mike says. "That was a joke more than anything. My
father is not part of my life."
"I was in a phone booth on the side of a road in Puerto Rico
when I learned that I had a job at USC as an assistant," Henry
Bibby says. "We were going from one city to another for a game.
I'd had dinner and decided to call to see what was happening.
I'd been close to another job as an assistant with the
Washington Bullets, but they gave it to someone else. I wanted
to see how this was going--and I got the job."
That was in the spring of 1995. There were some formalities (USC
had to assure the Pac-10 that it would monitor the recruiting
activities of its new man, that the irregularities at Arizona
State would not be repeated), but they were only formalities.
Bibby had certainly put in his time away from the basketball
mainstream: 10 years. He had certainly worked for this second
Bibby was hired to provide an experienced voice for Parker, who
had made the jump from interim coach to head coach the previous
March. When athletic director Mike Garrett decided to replace
Parker in the middle of the 1995-96 season, the experienced
voice was already sitting on the bench. He simply had to move
over about a foot this time. Bibby was not happy that Parker was
fired, but he was ready.
"I've coached maybe 600 games in my life," Bibby says. "I've won
over 300 of them, maybe 400, but winning isn't all that matters.
I think of myself as a teacher. I want to share my experiences
with these kids. There are things I know that I can tell them.
That's what it's all about. Sharing experiences."
If it works at USC, it works. If it doesn't work, well, that's
basketball. It is a precarious profession. Henry Bibby has done
his best to put this team together. He will do his best to put a
better team together next season. That is what he does. He will
probably always coach somewhere.
"I have a reputation for coaching the tough kid," Bibby says.
"Well, I think I can coach most kids. Everybody wants to be
loved. It's a question of holding the reins. Sometimes you have
to let them go, sometimes you have to pull them back. That's
Once again the irony is obvious. Everybody wants to be loved?
"Any regrets?" Bibby is asked. "About your son?"
"Sure I have regrets," he says. "His mother and I couldn't do
it, but that didn't stop my affection for my children. I love my
son dearly. I love my kids unconditionally. It's not a new story
today. It happens a lot. I'd like to have been there, but I
wasn't. I give his mother a lot of credit. She's done most of
the work. She's raised a great kid with his head on straight. I
just wish we didn't have to play against him twice a year."
January 16: Arizona at USC.
February 15: USC at Arizona.
The grand challenge awaits.