Another of my mentors has passed away and, once again, there seems to be some serendipity at work. I hadn’t thought about him in many years but, oddly enough, only happened upon the news because the Asylum post (on re-living your youth) got me digging around about basketball practice. Even though I hadn’t thought of Coach Harter in ages I can remember many of the stories recounted in this outstanding article about his life like I’d heard them yesterday. In fact, I can still recite some of his quotes verbatim.
I’m certain most of you have never heard of Dick Harter. He spent most of his life as an assistant coach in the NBA who specialized in defense. But Harter once spent a period of time as the head coach of the Oregon Ducks, of whom I was a rabid fan. But it wasn’t because my family was from Oregon, or because my mom went there, but simply because of Harter’s teachings and the way they played basketball. When I became a coach (my first career) I primarily patterned my style after his. I had other influences, including my dad, Bobby Knight, John Wooden, and some of the others coaches I’d played for but Coach Harter was foremost among them. I can still remember how disappointed I was that he left Oregon before I went to college, meaning I’d never have a chance to try and play for him.
“The best coach I ever had,” says Ronnie Lee, the greatest Duck of them all and the embodiment of the spirit of the Kamikaze Kids who went on to play six seasons in the NBA. “He got everything out of me a coach could possibly get.”
“One of the fiercest competitors I’ve been around,” says Greg Ballard, who enjoyed a 12-year NBA career after starring for Harter’s Ducks. “My NBA coaches didn’t compare. I appreciate it so much, looking back. I’m so sorry that, in recent weeks, I wasn’t able to call Dick and tell him how much I loved him.”
At Oregon, Harter’s Kamikaze Kids were a thorn in mighty UCLA’s side. It seemed like every year Wooden’s team of eventually NBA Hall of Famers would have more trouble with the scrappy Ducks than in the NCAA tournament (some years they gave UCLA their only loss and broke their 98-game home winning streak). His teams played with an intensity I’ve rarely seen. His “attack on defense and rest on offense” style was something I always tried to get my teams to mimic. Our goal, I always told my players, was to be the team that everyone hated to play. We might not be the most talented group but we are going to make our opponents miserable. My basketball practices often looked more like football. This came 100% from Coach Harter.
“Toughest regimen I ever went through,” Ballard says. “Charge drills — giving up your body. Diving on the floor after loose balls. Slide drills with bricks in your hands. Climb the rope to the top of McArthur Court. Running ‘17s’ the width of the court. If you didn’t make it in a minute, you did it again.”
Often, that didn’t agree with the players’ stomachs.
“I don’t know of another program in the country where the managers had to have five-gallon paint buckets underneath each basket, so when guys puked, one was readily available,” Closs says.
“During practice, you didn’t like him that much,” Lee says. “He pushed you so hard. After you left Oregon, you finally appreciated it. He pulled everybody together, creating a bond you can’t shake. He’d say, ‘I don’t care what you think about anybody else. On the basketball court, you’re going to play as a team.’ “
Ron Lee, incidentally, was my favorite player. I had this picture (cut out of a Sports Illustrated) handing on my wall.
I still take life lessons from Harter to this day. I tried to get my teams to bond, become sort a family, and it’s still the type of relationship I try and cultivate, with friends, and colleagues. My old video/climbing store was like a family, so was The Castle/Allez magazine, and so is our Beachbody fitness staff (Denis in fact worked for the video store as an undergrad, where I also met Marcus Elliott). And this was all, in no small part, related to what I learned from Coach Harter.
“We were a collection of guys leaving our homes and coming from places all over the country to play for a coach who essentially was the head of our family,” he says. “Like any family, you share a lot of joy together. You share some pain together. Along the way you learn some lessons. It’s the latter that I’ll always remember Coach Harter for.”
“As you look back,” Lee says, “you realize the genius. If I were coaching today, I’d follow a lot of what he stressed. Diving for the ball, taking a charge, blocking out to get a rebound. Offense starts with defense. One little thing can cost you a game. I learned so much from him.”
“There were things you questioned in your mind,” Ballard says. “Some of the stuff we did didn’t seem to be related to basketball. But looking back, it was all related to mental toughness. It would translate to your toughness on the court.”
Special thanks to Kerry Eggers and the Portland Tribune.