I don't care what our record is," bellows the coach to his rapt players before one of the last practices of the season, "we're going to give it our all and go out on a winning streak."
It's a good thing he doesn't care, since the team has only won two games in two seasons. But you can't tell from the fresh faces of the teenagers who make up the Rogers boys' varsity basketball squad. Sure, everybody wants to win, but it's clear that there's a thrill in just playing the game when your coach is one of the best basketball players ever to come out of the Inland Northwest.
"The momentum that will create for next year will be huge," continues Craig Ehlo, former WSU star and veteran of 14 NBA seasons. "So no slacking off, right? Seniors, you'll go out as winners, and that's how you'll be remembered. Okay, let's bring it in..."
The team gathers around its coach, hoping some of his hoop magic will rub off on them and that those elusive victories will start coming. With raised hands and lowered heads, practice begins with a deep, loud "Break!"
n the cramped coach's office a few minutes before practice, I ask the same question he's been hearing for two seasons -- Why? Most ex-NBA players prefer life either in the fast lane or someplace tropical. One of his most recent teammates, Nate McMillan, is now the head coach of the Seattle Supersonics, so why, when his options are certainly wide open, has Ehlo decided to coach not only high school basketball, but also the worst team in the city?
"I get that question all the time, especially from the kids," says Ehlo, leaning his 6'7" frame back in the chair, flipping his keys around in his hand. "You know, 'Coach, you've got 100 million bucks, why do you want to coach us?' Well, I don't have 100 million bucks, but I have been lucky, and I want to give something back. This is the biggest statement that I can make: I don't have to be here, but I am.
"I remember something Pete Babcock told me," Ehlo adds. "He was the GM when I played in Atlanta, and he had been a high school teacher and coach. He said, 'Anything you can do to help the youth today, do it.'"
Wallace Williams has been the principal at Rogers for 14 years, and he thinks Ehlo's commitment offers a subtle message not only for the kids, but also for the grown-ups in the community who could do more to help enrich kids' lives.
"He's not doing this to feel successful or to win -- he's already done that," says Williams, also a former WSU athlete. "He's truly doing it for the students and to get them to achieve and inspire them to do more. And because of who he is, there's a purity in his motives, and the students sense that."
Ehlo's choosing to coach high school basketball does make a statement, but choosing to coach at Rogers underlines it in red ink. Long considered the city's toughest school, Williams says the reputation is undeserved and frustrating to fight against. Ehlo's presence shows the student body -- and the city -- that Rogers should be proud of itself.
"This is a great school with great students," says Ehlo, whose late father-in-law, Ron Webb, coached at Rogers in the late-1960s.
Williams says Ehlo has brought a renewed sense of pride to the entire school, which became the city's third public high school when it opened back in 1932. John Rogers was the first Populist Party Governor of Washington, and his I'm-for-the-little-guy rhetoric must have resonated in the working class Hillyard area, which for years was filled with hardworking families employed by the railroad. Today, the railroad is gone, but the hardworking families remain. Kids at Rogers often don't have the resources to go to basketball camps all summer like many GSL players; some can't even make Saturday morning practice because they have jobs.
But Rogers has a long tradition of producing citizens who made the most out of what they had, which is just what Ehlo hopes to do with the team. Winning, he says, has nothing to do with where you live, but it starts with believing in yourself and building a team spirit out of shared responsibility and respect.
Ehlo talks about what his own high school coach -- Joe Michalka -- meant to him back in Lubbock, Texas ("home of Buddy Holly," he points out proudly).
"I admired my coach tremendously," says Ehlo with a Texas drawl that seems to have softened from his years outside the Lone Star State. "He taught us how to respect each other, and he taught me a lot about other things in life, too, but he did it through basketball. You didn't let your teammates down, and if you did, there was a consequence."
But Ehlo also remembers the coach's two young daughters, who were always around the gym. When they came up to their dad, practice stopped, and the message of always making time for family was not lost on Ehlo.
"Even if it was just five minutes, those were five precious minutes."
Such considerations played into his decision to move to Spokane after his NBA career ended. He met his wife Jani while at WSU, and throughout living in four major cities, they decided her hometown would be the place they would raise their three kids. "It was fun, those 14 years, but it was causing stress," says Ehlo. "I like the simplicity of Spokane, of being able to get around."
But now his family is even bigger, as any coach comes to view his or her team with the kind of commitment usually reserved for family members. And Ehlo is committed to making the Rogers Pirates winners. To get there, he is stressing the fundamentals of basketball that made him such a solid, all-around player. But it turns out to be quite an undertaking, as one close observer says.
"It can be frustrating," laughs Lorenzo Hall, Ehlo's assistant this year. Hall has been an assistant coach at Washington State and Eastern, but was left in the lurch with the last-minute departure of Steve Aggers at EWU last year. Missing out on a year in the college ranks has been Rogers' gain, as Hall, a friend of Ehlo's, has brought a similar focus on the fundamentals to the team. He says he is amazed that someone like Ehlo has the patience to stick with it at the high school level -- kind of like Dale Earnhardt teaching driver's ed to 15-year-olds.
"The kids have gotten a lot better, I can tell you that," says Hall. "Craig may be a little too easy on them at times, but he's got what it takes to become a great coach. Having played at that level, he knows what it takes to win. But he's also got the patience to work at this level."
"I think the kids thought they'd be instant winners with me here," adds Ehlo. "But I can't put on the uniform and play for them. They're gonna have to do that."
But one big turnaround has been the level of excitement to lace up the sneakers. Last year, Ehlo had to scour the halls for kids to play. This year, they actually had tryouts. "To get them to come to practice every day, that's been the real accomplishment," says Ehlo of the past two seasons.
Word on the street is that the younger kids coming up are more fundamentally sound and could provide the foundation for future success. Another key to that is Chris Berend, the closest thing the team has to a star.
"I see myself in Chris sometimes," says Ehlo. "Chris could be all-GSL. He scores about 11 points a game, but he could get 18."
Berend's shot looks smooth out on the practice floor, but the word is he's more passionate about restoring his '69 Mustang than taking his game to the next level. Hall calls him "Softy," beckoning him over to the sideline, and after his blushing subsides, Berend says he likes his new coach, pointing out that Ehlo is getting him to be more aggressive by taking the ball to the basket.
"When we play bad, he makes you want to do a lot better the next week,"says Berend. "It's really cool that an ex-NBA player would coach us."
hen people say Ehlo's been there, they're not kidding. As an NBA player, Ehlo was right in the middle of some epic battles during the NBA's best years. Flash back to the game he will never forget in the spring of 1989. Ehlo is the shooting guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and it's the final game in a first-round playoff series. There's only six seconds left, and the Cavs are down by one point. Ehlo makes the inbound pass, gets it right back, catching the defense by surprise, and knocks it down for the lead. It remains one of the most pressure-packed shots of his career. With only three seconds left, it appears that Cleveland would advance to tangle with the likes of the Larry Bird-led Celtics or the Isiah Thomas-led Pistons.
Only trouble was there was a guy by the name of Michael Jordan on the other team, and leaving him three seconds turned out to be just enough. Jordan's 16-footer over a leaping Ehlo erased the heroics of a moment before and became one of the NBA's most famous shots -- for years, Jordan called it his favorite shot, although it fell to number two after his game-winning shot over Utah's Byron Russell in 1998 that won the NBA Finals.
Although Jordan's Bulls lost to the Pistons after beating the Cavs that year, it was the beginning of what would become an NBA dynasty in Chicago, leading Ehlo to joke, "I figure they owe me, like, three of those rings."
But there's no bitterness, as a grin breaks out on Ehlo's face when I bring up "the shot." In fact, playing Jordan is his favorite NBA memory -- and the first thing most people ask him about.
"It was awesome -- he was the premier player in the league. Coach [Lenny Wilkens at Cleveland] wouldn't double team Jordan, so it was just me. I got to play him six times a year, and sometimes five times in the playoffs -- there was nothing better in all of basketball for me than playing against him."
Ehlo often provided Jordan his best competition in those years, although MJ routinely won the scoring battle. Ehlo once did get 26 points against him.
But the fact that he was there to play Jordan at all is an epic story of perseverance in itself -- although he calls it a case of being in the right place at the right time. Ehlo was a third round draft pick of Houston in 1983. The odds of making it from that far back in the pack are calculated at 1 in 99 -- in fact, the NBA doesn't even have a third round in its draft anymore. An injury his rookie year kept him out of the lineup, and Houston ultimately let him go. Then, Cleveland came knocking, and his best year as a pro was as a Cav, in 1989-90, when he scored 13.6 points per game and made 42 percent of his three-pointers.
One of the most influential coaches in his life was Lenny Wilkens, who coached him for 10 years at Cleveland and Atlanta. Ehlo's coaching style may owe the most to Wilkens' quiet reliance on respect. "With Lenny, respect is a two-way street," says Ehlo. "If you want me to give it to you, you've got to give it to me."
Ehlo says Wilkens would go so far as to trade players who didn't fit into his system -- something he doesn't think happens enough in today's me-first NBA.
"It's just a corporate game now," says Ehlo, who played in nearly 900 games and scored about 7,500 points. "It's very well marketed to corporations, but it's pathetic to watch."
Not only does he say that the slowed-down tempo and isolation game allowed by the NBA ruins the flow, but he also says it gives rise to a one-on-one style that, while flashy, is at odds with the way the game is meant to be played.
"I see its effects in the kids and how they play now," he says.
But there may never have been a Craig Ehlo for Cleveland to pick up if another coach, George Raveling, hadn't come along first. Then the coach at WSU, Raveling made a recruiting trip to Texas to watch a junior college prospect play. But on that day, the prospect he went to watch got torched by a tall, skinny kid from Lubbock.
"It was almost a sin to consider walking off that Texas soil," recalls Ehlo. "But Coach Raveling, now he always had poems for everything, so one day [when he was recruiting me] he came up to me and said, 'I can help you, and I've got a poem for you: "Basketball's my game, and the NBA's my aim" -- and I'll get you there.' I liked that. Plus, I always watched UCLA as a kid, and I wanted to get the chance to play them, so I went to Pullman."
In his two years there, the Cougars had a great stretch, especially in Ehlo's senior year, when he burned the Huskies for 37 in his final regular season game. The team then beat Weber State in the Big Dance, and finished 23-7, losing to Ralph Sampson's Virginia team on its way to the Sweet 16.
That's a lot of good basketball, and he's hoping to parlay it into a living legacy through the Pirates -- a tall order, considering their on-court shortcomings. But it's like the storybook setup -- you can't really appreciate the joy of victory unless you've experienced the agony of defeat.
hat better setting for sparking a season-ending comeback than at Ferris? The Saxons -- with their state championships and legendary coach Wayne Gillman -- are the Duke Blue Devils of the GSL (although both Shadle Park and Mt. Spokane are tough this year, too). If you want to make headlines and turn around a program, just beat the Saxons on their home floor.
When you walk in the door from the frigid Friday night air, the blast of warmth, the booming music and the hubbub of parents chatting and kids goofing off confirms the purity of experience that high school basketball offers to somebody like Ehlo. There are no luxury skyboxes or rich, annoying people mugging for the cameras at courtside. Seats are $5, which pays for the refs with a little left over.
Out at center court, as his players warm up, Ehlo crouches down to chat with his daughter Erica and her friend. He gives his daughter a hug, and she hurries off into the crowd -- replaying, without perhaps realizing it, the very scene he shared with me the day before about his old coach taking time out to spend with family.
It's Senior Night at Ferris, and cheerleaders are thanked and parents are honored as the seniors prepare to play their last home game. These memories are the kind that are burned into the brain, and the players will hold them dear for the years that are to come. In this room on this night, team sports as a rite of passage is no psychobabble -- it's in the air.
All the while, the lowly Pirates watch quietly from their bench. Next comes the ceremony to announce Eric Benzel as one of the top 1,600 high school players in the nation, as chosen by McDonald's. This gets their attention, and the Rogers players crane their necks to see the Ferris star receive a framed certificate and a cool leather jacket.
In Craig Ehlo's world, you'd be sitting there thinking how fun it would be to rain on their little Senior Night parade and come away with a big win, but the Pirates appear a little starstruck right out of the gate, as they commit two turnovers to start the game. Ferris seems intent on blowing them out of the building early, but a barrage of threes comes up empty, and Rogers hangs in there. Chris Berend commits a foul, but comes back with a smooth three-pointer. But as the pace picks up, and Ferris rotates in their starters for the seniors, Rogers can't keep up. Still, there are some signs that success is getting closer. A great, no-look dish in the paint is a little too good for the recipient and they lose it out of bounds. A great block is picked up by Ferris's big man Sean Mallon and put back in with ease. A scramble for a loose ball is called a foul on Rogers when it looks to be a jump. Ehlo argues the call with the referee, but his pleas are no more successful than his arguments in the NBA were. So close but yet so far.
As the half draws to a close, the wheels come off for Rogers. The Saxons' perimeter game starts paying off, as the threes start dropping, and Rogers falls behind 47-25 en route to a 97-49 pasting. Still, Ehlo finds at least one positive -- Berend has 22 points, making six three-pointers in the game. And he'll be back next year. But most of all, he wants his players to remember the experience and the emotions they felt -- envy for the tradition at Ferris, joy over those few moments when it all came together for them and the ball went in just the way they practiced and angry resolve over losing so badly. He wants them to use these memories to build their own character and the character of the program.
"I told them before the game to look around and take it all in," says Ehlo gesturing toward the crowded stands and the championship banners on the walls. "This is the way it should be, and it can be for us, too."
& & & lt;i & raig Ehlo's Rogers Pirates look to end the season with a win against North Central, at 3:45 pm today at the Spokane Arena. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &