High School Basketball

In victory or defeat, players prepare for life lessons

Sixteen high schools will participate in the Kentucky Boys High School State Basketball Tournament in Lexington this week. And cheers to them for the victories that got them here.

But I was reminded as I was researching my new biography of former coach Jock Sutherland that the greatest lessons from high school basketball and any other sport often come out of defeat.

I rode with Sutherland to meet many of his former players. On one of those trips, as I was driving north on Paris Pike, he pulled out a faded envelope that he had received from Jimmy Edwards on May 12, 1967.

Edwards was a senior center on Sutherland's 1962-63 Harrison County High team. He was a fine athlete, but lacked confidence. The coach often had to chide him not to be afraid to shoot the ball.

The team was one of the coach's best ever, a team many thought had a chance to win the state title. Harrison County took a 27-2 record into the 10th Region semifinal game against Bourbon County. But star senior guard Ronnie Whitson lost a contact lens before the contest and Harrison County lost by a point when Edwards' tap-in at the final buzzer fell off the rim.

Edwards sat alone on the floor in silence as the Bourbon County players celebrated their victory. They also won the regional title game, their ticket to Lexington.

Sutherland didn't know then that Edwards had a difficult relationship with his father. And Edwards never told his coach how much he appreciated what he had learned from him, never told him how much it meant that Sutherland was there to comfort him when his mother was killed in a car accident his senior season.

Four years later, Army Specialist 4th Class Jim Edwards, on a tour in Vietnam, was elated when he received a letter from his former coach. The emotions he seldom expressed in high school suddenly came pouring out. He wrote back from a foxhole while his squad was out on maneuvers:

"Coach Sutherland: "I was really glad to hear from you. ... You told me about where you were at ... I will give you an idea where I am. We are on Operation Manhattan, in the Bali Woods. We are supposed to have Charlie surrounded. It may be just the opposite. We have made light contact, but I expect heavier contact in the hours ahead.

"I read your letter very carefully. It brought back many memories. ... I am a squad leader now. This is a very dangerous game we are playing. A big responsibility has been laid upon my shoulders. I don't only have to look out for myself, but the members of my squad .... If something goes wrong with them, I will feel responsible.

"I've done some foolish and childish things before, but I have grown up a little bit now. I've always have had a problem with lack of confidence. I've found out that I had a little more inside than I thought I had ...

"I have approximately 120 days left here. I hope that I will make it. I have been very lucky so far. There is so much I want to say but there isn't much time. You have been more than a coach and a friend. I admire you more than any person in the world. You have done so much for me. I don't want to disappoint you. I'm going to come through for you for a change.

"Well, I guess I had better sign out. Don't worry, I'm not going to shoot like a scared stick."

As we continued our drive that day, Sutherland folded the letter and placed it back in the envelope.

"Do you see why I've kept this all these years?" he asked.

I didn't have to answer.

I hope all of the students who are celebrating this week understand that, too.

Stuart Warner, a former Herald-Leader sports editor is author of JOCK: A Coach's Story. The Lexington native teaches journalism at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.