The Armory

15 10 2010

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have intentionally been driving up and down different streets during our time here in Princeton hoping to recall some memories of my childhood and teenage years.  Well, yesterday as I was driving south on Hart Street and I passed by an old, refurbished brick building that served as the National Guard Armory during my years as a Princeton resident.

Saint Joseph school had a gymnasium back in 1961 (I was in the 6th grade) but it was converted into a church complete with sanctuary, confessionals and pews.  Therefore, the Saint Joe Wildcats basketball team had to practice and play elsewhere.  That is where the Armory comes into the story. At 4 o’clock one afternoon each week–I don’t remember which day–the 5th-6th grade team and the 7th-8th grade team would practice on the basketball court in the Armory that also served as the assembly area for the monthly National Guard drills.  Besides being the location of our practices, the Armory also served as our home court at least once a week.  We usually played two games a week; one at home and one on the road.

Coaches for our basketball team were men from the parish who were willing to volunteer their time with varying degrees of expertise in the fundamentals of the game and of coaching.  As I look back, I guess we were fairly lucky in that all of our coaches during my four years of playing for Saint Joe had, in their glory days, at least played high school basketball.  Those who have grown up in Indiana understand that playing high school basketball in this state gives a person a better than average understanding of the game.  One of our coaches even played college basketball for Loyola.

All of these coaches had their own styles but the one I remembered when I drove by the old Armory the other day was my 6th grade coach, Eddie Thies.  Eddie was a skinny redhead whose family owned the local movie theater.  Although I never knew for sure, Eddie couldn’t have been much older than 25, so he was still a big kid himself.  I never heard how Eddie came to be the coach that year but he took the job very seriously.  To say Eddie was passionate about basketball would be an understatement.  When Eddie was instructing during practices he would scream and holler in a Bob Knight-esque manner.  When he was coaching on the sidelines during the games in a business suit and tie, his enthusiasm was similar to Tom Crean’s style. Eddie wanted to win and could not tolerate anyone he thought did not share his same level of commitment to winning.

As a result of a particularly poor showing against a local school, Baldwin Heights, we knew the next practice was going to be difficult, to say the least.  As we reluctantly meandered up the steps from the basement level dressing rooms/showers of the old Armory and spread out onto the court, Eddie was standing at center court dribbling a basketball ferociously with two hands. Each of us knew not to do anything that might draw attention to us as individuals.

After what seemed like an eternity of nothing but the echo of the bouncing basketball echoing off the metal rafters, Eddie finally stopped and glared at us–we knew the shit was going to hit the fan.  As he started his litany of mistakes and errors in judgement committed by the team in the last game he was gaining momentum as his face grew red and sweat broke out on his forehead.  Once he finished his general indictment of the entire team, he turned his wrath on the guards for taking poor shots.  I breathed a sigh of relief–I played forward. However, I knew it was only a short reprieve because we also did a very poor job of blocking out and rebounding.  Those of us on the front line would be the next target of his ire.

Apparently, language was no longer effective in communicating Eddie’s disapproval of the guards’ shot selection and he decided that a demonstration was in order.  He started dribbling the ball down the court screaming that the guards just threw up the ball up from anywhere on the court.  At about the top of the key, on a full run, Eddie heaved the ball towards the stratosphere with both hands.  If this narrative is ever converted to a movie, this where the film editor will shift to slow motion.  As the ball left Eddie’s hands it soared up into the dusty I-beams that held up the metal roof; he screamed that he was just showing us what he saw in the game.

By now you probably have guessed how Eddie’s bombastic and exaggerated “shot” ended its improbably trajectory.  After launching the ball, Eddie turned his attention and condemnation back to the team.  During the entire reaming that the team endured, I doubt that any of us ever made eye contact with Eddie–I know I didn’t. Once we had the courage to look at something other than the laces on our chucks, we gazed skyward.  All of our eyes were transfixed on the ball as it careened off the metal roof, some 30+ feet above the court, bounced off several girders like a pinball and dropped perfectly through the basket–nothing but string music.  Eddie was catching his breath between sentences when the sound of the swish filled the vacuum of sound in the gym.

I have never fought a laugh so hard in my life and believe me, I am very irreverent about a lot of things.  However, I knew, as did my teammates, that living long enough to see the next sunrise depended on remaining dead-panned.

Eddie’s rage went to a whole new level once he realized the ball had passed through the hoop behind him.

All that could be heard in the Armory was the mocking sound of the basketball bouncing on the hardwood as it eventually came to rest on the opposite end line.

“Don’t you dare say a goddamned word!–50 laps–no talking”

All of us knew that running the laps was getting off easy.

Regardless, Eddie was still one of my favorite coaches.  So many of his antics have made me chuckle over the years.  I also learned that if you are going to compete, compete to win or stay home.

Wherever you are, Eddie Thies–Thanks!





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