Editor’s Note: This is a special guest column at The Auburn Journal by Kevin Cummings, who played varsity basketball for the Placer Hillmen from 1970 to 1972. (Further note: republished here at Thailand Footprint because The Auburn Journal website is not accessible from Thailand and because it was a source of inspiration for this blog- originally published 12/26/12).
I had last seen coach Tom Barry in 1989, when he was the vice principal at Del Oro High School. When I spotted him in the Del Oro High parking lot at that time, I had some apprehension that comes with the plan to make an unannounced visit to your old varsity basketball coach.
“Mr. Barry!” I yelled.
He turned, recognized me immediately, smiled, and said, “Kevin, how are you? Come into my office. Let’s talk.” (This was the only time I had ever looked forward to a trip to the vice principal’s office.)
I am Kevin Cummings, and I had the good fortune to be the starting 6-foot-6 center for two Tom Barry-coached varsity basketball seasons from 1970 to 1972, including the 1971-72 team season, that went 26-3. The Auburn Journal, during the 1997 centennial celebration of Placer High, named that team as having been, arguably, the best basketball team in the 100-year history of the school. (I like that word, arguably, as it allows for other possibilities.)
The team featured familiar Auburn names: Larry Prewitt at power forward, Alton Caesar at shooting forward, Marty Evers at defensive guard and one of Placer High’s all-time greats, junior point guard Jim Hardey. In two varsity seasons, the five of us would never know what it felt like to lose a game at storied Earl Crabbe Gym. The reason for that was coach Barry.
When I entered Mr. Barry’s office in 1989, there was a huge picture behind his desk depicting a game-ending celebration of our 1970-71 team victory over Roseville High that had secured another league title for Barry and the Hillmen. At one point in the 1970s, Mr. Barry coached the Placer Hillmen to six straight league championships. Ours was a great visit in 1989. It went all too quickly, however, and we vowed to do it again soon.
Soon has a way of flying by all too fast. At some point you realize that your time, like everyone else’s, is limited, and you want to let the people who mattered in your life know that they mattered. So it was that, on Sept. 15, 2012, during a trip to Auburn, I called Tom Barry. He was delighted to hear from me and gave me directions to his house. That visit would be different from the one in 1989. This time I had come to repay a debt — a debt of gratitude.
When I pulled up in front of Mr. Barry’s beautiful home, he came to greet my wife and me. As I got out of the car, we both smiled broadly. We shook hands warmly. I said, “Chic told me I could call you Tom now. But I am not sure it is going to be that easy.” I had always called him Mr. Barry during practice. Always. I had earlier in the day seen Chic Wallgren, Tom’s assistant coach and my junior varsity basketball coach. Without men like Chic and Tom, my adult world would have been far less rich — and I am not speaking in monetary terms.
If you are not familiar with Tom Barry, I would describe him as part Bill Walsh, part Arnold Palmer — not the kind of coach you would pour Gatorade on, and yet very comfortable in his own skin. He was John Wooden-like in his approach to the game, but only out of coincidence, not by imitation. To Mr. Barry, no one player was ever more important than the team. Mr. Barry did not command respect. Respect toward him came easily.
What I brought Mr. Barry that day was a two-foot long by 10-inch high ceramic art piece of a Converse Chuck Taylor white high-top basketball shoe — the type of shoe we had played in for Tom. It had been, arguably, my most prized possession, given to me by my mother for Christmas in 1970. It had been the centerpiece at the basketball awards dinner held in 1972, and had traveled everywhere I had gone for 42 years. It now has a new home — a home in which it belongs.
We traded lots of stories, laughs and smiles that day — stories from the past of events that helped get us to the present. Tom is 75 years old now and looks tan and terrific. The lessons he taught and I learned we still remember, fondly, after all these years. He told me I could visit him and the shoe any time. I plan to.
If you have a coach or teacher who taught you lessons in life that stuck with you and whom you have not talked to or seen in a while, think about picking up the phone and making a call. Repay those debts of gratitude. You will be the richer for it, and so will your mentor.
On that there can be no argument.
Kevin Cummings is now president of DepoSums.com He lives in Santa Cruz.