The jerk factor is always around – every team, every sport – that annoying imperfection called a “character flaw.”
The 1976-1977 Philadelphia 76ers with George McGinnis, Dr. J, Joe Bryant, Caldwell Jones, Harvey Catchings, Darryl Dawkins, Henry Bibby, Doug Collins, Mike Dunleavy and World B. Free was considered the most talented team in the NBA (some would say “ever”) but, as everyone south of Castle Rock knows, the Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas-led Portland Trailblazers were 1977 NBA champs. The difference was a team vs. a collection of individuals including characters with flaws.
Recent revelations about UCLA bring this phenomenon to light again. Reeves Nelson was first team all-conference during games but a first-class horse’s behind in practice. Intentionally re-injuring a recovering teammate in practice, ignoring or mouthing off (including profanity) at assistant coaches, and throwing basketballs into the stands and calmly ordering the team manager to “Fetch” are incidents indicative of someone who is not just antisocial but sadistic. This in concert with several other pampered, inflated egos, resulting in the recent UCLA version of the 1976-1977 Philadelphia 76ers.
Washington has had some problem children too. Take the worst case, Venoy Overton, for example. The enormous difference is when Overton was playing under Coach Lorenzo Romar, Romar kept Overton on a very short leash, especially after Overton stepped out of line the “first” (actually, the second – the police told neither Overton nor the U of W during the first Overton investigation) time. Overton even graduated (American Ethnic Studies). Although he can be smart, when Overton made a conscious choice to be real stupid, it was after basketball and graduation. When Overton played, he was one of the most intense players on the floor – one of Washington’s two best defensive playes – and it’s a shame he screwed the pooch because he actually did have borderline NBA – at least CBA – potential that if cultivated, might have led somewhere. But, as Forrest Gump’s momma said…
There has been quite a bit of stupid in Westwood during the past few years; the culprits are both players and coaches, particularly the head coach who had not been exercising responsible authority over his team. A former Washington football lineman once remarked that although former Washington Head Football Coach Don James was relatively small, he quietly exuded power to the point of intimidation. An effective head coach must be a person of authority. Lorenzo Romar fits that description. Unfortunately, after considerable counseling, once Overton was off the leash he greatly disappointed Coach Romar and Overton fans.
But it happens: as anyone familiar with recidivism will testify, the Venoy Overtons of the world can flummox the best of counselors. It’s not that Coach Romar is naïve. He’s from Compton and had seen it all by the time he graduated from high school. And now he’s head basketball coach at a great university; he’s a man of strong spiritual conviction with a wonderful family. Lorenzo is the Venoy-not, evidence that early difficult circumstances do not dictate a lifetime of losing. If Romar from Compton could rise to the top, Overton from Seattle could have at least come halfway.
Coach Romar knows he has to win games – and he wants to win games – in order to be a successful basketball coach but, within Romar’s perception of “success,” being a winning coach enhances opportunities to effect favorable changes in the lives of players, like Overton, and their families. He spent a lot of extra time with Overton and was, again, greatly disappointed. His time spent with Overton is evidence, however, that whereas the apex in basketball life for some coaches and most fans is strictly winning basketball games, Coach Romar’s priorities obviously go beyond that – as further evidenced by the Lorenzo Romar Foundation, a 501(c)(3), nonprofit organization, the purpose of which is strengthening families, in particular the prevention of domestic violence, and provision of educational assistance for disadvantaged youth.
It’s not a chicken-and-egg situation; difficult neighborhoods have become that way because of conventional family nucleus deterioration. If a family does not provide support, greatly needed structure, a sense of unity and, in the more difficult neighborhoods, protection, ‘hood gangs will. Gangs sell “family.” Many young men join gangs to get that sense of belonging. Alternatively, if an unprotected non-member does not want to belong, the gangs – which include ex-cons and future cons – can readily make life so difficult that the non-member eventually has no other option than to join. The Romar Foundation was started in 2006 to dam and divert that flood. Check out the Foundation on the internet and contribute if you can.
In his nine full seasons at Washington, Coach Romar has taken his team to the Dance six times, and the Sweet 16 three times. Washington just became Pac-12 Champion again. Yet some people complain the team can’t get past the Sweet 16, evidence some people will complain about anything. As I wrote in the Wilt Chamberlain article, Washington has the physical talent; the players need maturation and focus, and need to come together as a team. On Thursday, Coach Romar said he was impressed with the team’s focus and attitude in practice. Wilt would approve.
On the other hand, there has been speculation that 1) Romar will be the first in line for 2) the expected UCLA vacancy, and that 3) he will take it! Speculation knows no bounds on the internet. The UCLA mystique from the John Wooden era hangs around – ask Josh Smith (in view of the problems at UCLA, the best thing Josh Smith could do for the development of Josh Smith is a 2012-2013 redshirt year at Washington if it were acceptable to Washington) – but the Wizard of Westwood, bless him, hadn’t coached since 1975, and passed away on June 4, 2010, while Lorenzo Romar, approaching his mid-50s, is very much alive and building a vibrant, dominant program at Washington on a foundation of discipline and team play. His affinity with his players extends beyond graduation, and that loyalty is being returned. Isaiah Thomas was at the Washington State game (remarkable because the weather was terrible and, as a destination location, Pullman isn’t Cabo San Lucas) loudly displaying his Washington bias. When this was mentioned to Romar, he said he wasn’t too surprised; other former Huskies, also in the pros, show up from time to time in far away places. John Wooden inspired loyalty. There is no reason to believe Coach Romar will not also continue to inspire it.
With respect to principle, Lorenzo Romar probably comes closer to John Wooden than any UCLA coach since Wooden. While other successful coaches (take your pick) in basketball and other college sports bend the rules and stretch the truth, it is not a stretch to suggest Coach Romar’s personal standards exceed NCAA standards, leading to his respect and popularity in the basketball community. A while back, opposition players voted him the opposing coach they’d most like to play for. His personal character and principles preclude the most basic of human character flaws: betrayal (if someone steals from you, slanders you, lies to you, or physically harms you, what is that little match that first lights the fire of anger; was Judas Iscariot a coincidence or was that reflective of something far greater?). Betrayal may seem like a harsh word to use but it is the initial sensation Husky fans would have, and justifiably so. But Lorenzo Romar has been good for Washington and Washington has been good for Lorenzo Romar – for nine years that street has run both ways. Coupled with Romar’s integrity and loyalty, if the choice is his, he’ll be Washington’s head coach for a very long time.
Venoy Overton was an anomaly, and the coaching staff went the extra mile to get Venoy pointed in the right direction. Venoy just didn’t want to go there. Otherwise, Washington fans, some fair weather but most diehard, have every reason to be proud of Lorenzo Romar the basketball coach and Lorenzo Romar the person – in part because it is impossible to know where one begins and the other ends. He’s always Lorenzo Romar, and Lorenzo Romar does not compromise his principles.
Win or lose, the problems of UCLA – the lack of discipline, direction and accountability; the jerks, the character flaws – will not be the problems of Washington, and for that Washington fans have Lorenzo Romar to thank.