Kenneth Burns: Thanks for the inspiration, Coach Meyer

May. 24, 2014 @ 05:33 PM

Don Meyer died of cancer last Sunday. One of college basketball’s most successful coaches, he notched 923 wins over the course of his long career. He was 69.

He was an amazing man. I say that with authority, because I knew him. Our connection was basketball. That might surprise anyone who knows me, because I’m not that interested in sports, and I’m a very bad athlete. I’m pretty sure Meyer knew this about me. I know for certain that he was kind to me and made me feel good about myself. For that I’ll always be grateful.

Early on, Meyer coached at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., and he concluded his career at Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D. In between, he worked for many years at Lipscomb University in Nashville, my hometown. As part of his coaching duties, Meyer oversaw the youth basketball camps that took place each year on the campus. For three summers, starting at age 9, I went to Lipscomb basketball camp.

I tried to make it work. I ran the drills and practiced hard. But over three years, I was scoreless from the field – just as, during my one little league season, I went hitless. This was demoralizing. Worse than demoralizing. For an anxious little kid in a sports-obsessed culture, it was mortifying and deeply embarrassing.

I’m not sure why Meyer noticed me. Probably he had seen kids like me before, boys who, for whatever reason, were at his basketball camp but weren’t that interested in basketball. I think I was a somewhat precocious 9-year-old, and he may have perceived that. I knew from school that not being athletic opened me up to ridicule, and I learned to deflect it with humor. Meyer was, among other things, a screamingly funny guy. Maybe he appreciated my little jokes.

Meyer made me camp mascot. Evening meals in the big dining hall concluded with programs he led, and he regularly called me up to the dais to tell jokes and do shtick. These appearances went well. Meyer bestowed camp nicknames on me: George one year, as in George Burns, the comedian; Geese another year, as in Hubert “Geese” Ausbie, the Harlem Globetrotter. As I walked around the college, fellow campers greeted me warmly: “Geeeeese!”

I really appreciated the friendliness, and I appreciated Meyer for making me feel welcomed and liked despite my lack of skill on his basketball court. I have known coaches who made me feel bad for what I couldn’t do. Meyer identified my strengths and helped me develop them. He made me part of the team.

He was a lot of fun. When he addressed big groups of campers, he liked to tell jokes. Terrible jokes. The same terrible jokes, ritualistically, over and over. By the end of the week, we were telling the jokes along with him, chanting them in unison.

For laughs, he extolled the Rolo, the chocolate candy. Rolos were sold at campus concession stands, and he encouraged us to eat them. In his deadpan way, he used to hold up a tube of Rolos and speak passionately about their many virtues. The big basketball game that ended the camp each year was called the Rolo Classic. To this day, when I see Rolos, I think of Don Meyer.

He encouraged good manners. The concession stands sold Pepsi products, but he made it clear that we were not to order Pepsi. “What are you going to order???” he asked the campers. “Pepsi PLEASE!!!” we yelled back.

This reminds me of Meyer’s three basic rules, which his biographer Buster Olney cited in the remembrance he wrote for ESPN. Meyer told his players: 1. Everybody takes notes. 2. Everybody says please and thank you. 3. Everybody picks up trash. He taught us that respect and accountability matter, on and off the court.

When I was about 14, a few years after my last Lipscomb camp, I ran into Meyer. At first he didn’t seem to recognize me. “It’s me, Geese!” I said. “You kids are growing up too fast,” he replied, shaking his head.

That was the last time I saw him, but I’ve thought about him many times since then. He was a great basketball coach, and he inspired a kid who was hopeless at basketball.

Thanks, Coach.

Kenneth Burns is Community News Editor of The Mountain Press. Call 428-0748, ext. 212, or send email to Twitter: @KennethBurns.