Van Breda Kolff Still Does It His Way at Age 65
After all those games coached, more than 1,200, at Princeton (he had Bill Bradley), the Lakers (he had West, Baylor and Wilt), the New Orleans Jazz (he had Pistol Pete), to say nothing of Picayune (Miss.) Memorial High School at the age of 60 after he was so long gone that he had been forgotten if not presumed dead by some, he’s still at it, on the bench, off the bench, on his knees, falling prone to the floor.
“Whaddya mean the foul’s on us?” At 65, he should know better.
But Willem Hendrik (Butch) van Breda Kolff knows only one thing--ball, hoops, how to coach it. Of course it’s always had to be his way, which he calls “the right way.” Van Breda Kolff--VBK--always has had to be right.
Being right has caused so many goodbyes, led him to be a traveling man. He’s been to so many places, some places he’s said goodbye twice.
As an undergraduate, he flunked out of Princeton and, after serving in the Marines, flunked out a second time. He graduated from New York University in 1950, and played guard for the New York Knicks from 1946 to ’50. Then came coaching, an explosive, peripatetic career. He’s drawn technicals, thrown chairs in more places than anyone will ever count.
He’s coached Lafayette, Hofstra, Princeton, the Lakers (hired by Jack Kent Cooke, and in two bittersweet seasons made the NBA finals twice, once coming within two points of the NBA title), Detroit Pistons, Phoenix Suns (he lasted seven games), Memphis Tams of the old ABA (hired by Charles O. Finley), the Jazz, the University of New Orleans, the New Orleans Pride of the Women’s Professional Basketball League and then--where’d he go?
To a little house on stilts on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. He got what he thought he wanted--a little boat and some water. He wanted to be alone. It almost killed him.
He signed on at Picayune Memorial High (a career in reverse, from almost world champion to Picayune), then back to Lafayette, then --would you believe it?--to Hofstra a second time. Could Princeton be next again?
So when a bus from Hempstead, N.Y., pulled through the gate at the Naval Academy the other night, the first man to step off--ahead a team smaller than many high school teams, but ready (more or less) to take on Navy--was the one, the only, Butch van Breda Kolff. Veteran of 36 seasons, 13 teams and a 404-181 college record, a hefty winning percentage of .696.
The Flying Dutchmen of Hofstra were being led, aptly enough, by the genuine flying Dutchman, the son of a Dutch-born stockbroker who wanted his kid to go to Princeton only to have the kid make his fame there years later.
His hair was gray and, for him, cut unusually short. Tall and hunch-shouldered, he wore a white sweater with thin horizontal stripes, and gray slacks. As he walked into an almost empty field house, he wondered in a deep, raspy voice, “Have they got all the lights on in here?”
Even Florence showed up to watch. Talk about devoted wives.
She’d been with him through obscurity, the glory years of Princeton, the almost-NBA title in Los Angeles, then Detroit, to New Orleans, which was her husband’s kind of town. He liked to go “out,” drink beer, smoke cigars and, well, he sort of resigned on her there. But they never legally separated, and she never stopped loving him, nor he her. They’ve never fallen out of touch.
In the summers at the Jersey Shore, where VBK has a place, they have family reunions with their four children (Jan, the only son, played in the NBA and is assistant coach at Princeton).
Last week Florence was up from her home in New Orleans for a holiday reunion at the home of one of their daughters, in Baltimore. As a bonus, she could see her beloved Butch in action once more. He may quit a lot, but she doesn’t think he’ll ever retire.
“I would predict,” she said, seated in the first row of bleachers behind him, “that they would carry him off the court. He’s not going to go on a fishing boat. Or watching Oprah Winfrey.”
No. No. Van Breda Kolff insists it’s going to be otherwise. He loves the water and says he wants to end up in Florida, in a quiet place (a familiar story), “not on the ocean, but on a little canal somewhere, with a little boat.”
He would like a small job on the side, “maybe in ecology, like testing the water, making sure it’s pure.” He figures, perhaps, his old jump-shooter, Bill Bradley, will make it to the White House before too long and give him that little job testing the waters. “He should have run this year,” grumbled VBK.
Van Breda Kolff calls himself a “purist” of the game, and it’s what’s driven him. (It’s driven some others to distraction.) He thrives on taking bad teams and making them good with his unselfish game of movement and hitting the open man, always being tough on defense and making up for lack of height with jumping ability or, short of that, knowing where to be at the right time. Of course no one had that sense better than Bradley; what van Breda Kolff liked most about him was “not how good he was but how good he made his teammates.”
How to explain his latest move from Lafayette? “It’s just me, I guess,” he said. At Lafayette, while interviewing for the job in 1984, he thought maybe his heart was giving out on him. It was diagnosed as an irregular heartbeat. He went on with medicine and, often, a doctor sitting behind him at games. One night last January, he signaled the doctor and the two departed in midgame. He was hospitalized, his days of courtside histrionics in jeopardy. Yet he came back fast enough to complete the season-and say goodbye, leaving a good team to rebuild a 6-21 team.
The first time he was at Hofstra (he was 136-43 from 1955 to ’62), “I had my children with me, it was a great family thing. We went to Jones Beach every weekend. Now I’m alone.” He lives in an apartment by Hempstead Turnpike. On good days, he walks at Jones Beach. For his second coming, Hofstra has dropped all of its non-Division I opponents and loaded up. But to the suggestion that Hofstra is thinking big, van Breda Kolff only shook his head, laughed a little and groaned a guttural “ooooooooooohhhh.” Nothing, after all, is forever with VBK.
“I’ve always liked the game,” he said. “I’ve liked to teach it. Usually, I go to a place where the team hasn’t been doing well. You go out and hustle and try to recruit and get ‘em to play your style of ball and see ‘em come around and look good. That’s the satisfaction you get, the reward.”
His game? “I’m not a power-game man. You have to work hard and all that, and the rebounding, but I like to see the game played right. I don’t like all this inside pushing and shoving-boom, boom. I like playing clever, taking advantage of what the other team gives you. If they play you loose, shoot. If they don’t, you can do cuts, and backdoors, things like that. Pass. It makes it a thinking game, a passing game. That’s when it’s fun.”
With Chamberlain, he had no fun; he couldn’t see things working out “the right way.” In the seventh game of the 1969 championship series against Boston, Chamberlain took himself out with a little more than 5 minutes to play and Los Angeles down by 7 points. It was a knee injury.
When the Lakers rallied and Chamberlain said he was ready, VBK let him twist on the bench. He never put him back. The Lakers lost by 2. VBK resigned shortly after. That’s how close he came to winning it all.
He almost won it all in college, too. After going 69-34 at Lafayette and 136-43 at Hofstra, he returned to his native New Jersey, to Princeton. Bradley was a sophomore when VBK arrived: “We hit it off, as player and coach,” even though, VBK was anything but Princeton--no Ivy League decorum about him.
People ducked if he picked up a chair during a game. “But out on the court,” VBK said of Bradley, “that’s just the way I love to play it, the way he loved to play it.”
Van Breda Kolff and Bradley took Princeton to the Final Four in 1965, but even more remarkably, after Bradley had graduated, VBK led Princeton to a 25-3 season and the NCAA tournament in 1966-67. In the tournament, Princeton, with one starter out, lost to North Carolina in overtime.
In a way, Bradley had helped make it possible. “Those were players Bradley helped recruit. We could have played anybody that year. It was a heck of a nice team.”
But people were nagging him. A student writer wondered what would have happened if he hadn’t gotten a technical in that North Carolina game. “I said, ‘Beautiful.’ ” A man on Nassau Street stopped him after a trip when the team had beaten Brown and Yale, but just barely.
“Butch, what happened this weekend?”
“I think we won two.”
“Ah, you should have beaten those guys by 15.”
“Get out of my way, please.”
The Lakers called, and he accepted. He got along “really well, great” with Cooke. Florence hated to leave the campus, especially when somebody in “Tinseltown"--her word--didn’t know The Bard she’d heard spoken of so often in Princeton, didn’t know the Bard of Avon from a shooting guard. No, it wasn’t Princeton. But she adjusted by the second season, just when Chamberlain came along and VBK got out of joint and thought about moving again.
“I had to go for my own sanity,” he said, “and his, maybe, also.”
To Detroit, for two seasons and 10 games of a third. Then he moved once more.
“I don’t know what happened there,” he said. Then he remembered. “We had a weird year, my second year. We had improved a lot. But we didn’t finish the season on a good note. But we had a nice little club going the next year-we got Curtis Rowe. But there were a couple of guys behind me, yelling what a dummy I was. They were black, and every time I put a white player in I was putting in my ‘son.’ ‘There he goes, that dumb Dutchman, putting in his son,’ who wasn’t my son.
“Instead of being intelligent about it and getting those two guys and saying, ‘Let’s go out for dinner or something. What are you on my back for? I want to win and you guys want us to win.’ But I just said, well, I think I’ve had it and I just folded and went home, to New Jersey, and walked the beach.”
To Phoenix. But he didn’t get along at all with General Manager Jerry Colangelo. He was fired after seven games. For all his departures, this was his first firing.
Back to the Jersey Shore. This time, however, he was “antsy.” He drove to Princeton, every day, to help out. He worked with the second team. He was going to be assistant coach!
But Finley called and he took the Tams. A year later, VBK went to New Orleans. With the Jazz, he came upon Maravich, the individualist, to say the least, and antithesis of Bradley. Still, they made peace-although they had to renew the treaty often.
The Jazz fired van Breda Kolff after two seasons and 26 games. But he stayed in New Orleans because “the town and I got along exceptionally well. We had the same idea, of party time.”
He became athletic director and coach at the University of New Orleans for two seasons (resigned), then coach of the Pride for two (fired). He tried as a salesman, renting tugboats. Then, to nowhere.
He surfaced in Picayune two years later, in 1983. He also taught world history. “Can you believe it?”
Knowing trouble when he sees it, he suspected the other night that more awaited him: He was watching his Hofstra team warm up for Navy. “It’s going to be pretty difficult tonight,” he said. “I haven’t seen a ball go in. Look at all these bricks goin’ up there.”
But the Flying Dutchmen led Navy by nine with 11 minutes left. VBK had done everything he could think of. He had gotten the entire team to stop playing out in the middle of the floor and moved them to the baseline, within their range. He had worked the three game officials mercilessly.
With Navy bringing up the ball, he tried for a 10-second violation. “Don’t start counting when you should be at five,” he yelled. He got an official’s attention. When he came close to the bench, without looking, he said to van Breda Kolff, “I started just when I was supposed to.”
“Oh, OK,” said VBK.
VBK wanted a call against Navy for a “moving pick.” He got it. A Navy rooter shouted, “You going to let van Breda Kolff call everything?” An official glared.
“Geez,” van Breda Kolff screamed, “No. 33 looks like he’s going to hurt somebody.” Navy’s No. 33 is slender, the 6-foot-8 freshman Sam Cook, who is only 185 pounds, not about to hurt anyone.
VBK fell forward to the floor as a Hofstra player missed a layup.
“We’ll get it. We’ll get it,” he encouraged them.
“He kicked the ball. He kicked the ball.
“Oh my God. Oh my Lord.
“Get back. Get back.”
“Can you believe this? Can you believe this?
“Take your time. Don’t get worried.”
A technical foul was called -- on Navy Coach Pete Herrmann, of all people. Slumping onto the bench, VBK said, “I better keep my mouth shut.”
But Navy’s Joe Gottschalk (27 points) started canning jumpers, like Bradley. Hofstra players repeatedly missed layups and short shots. As Hofstra’s lead evaporated, VBK stamped the floor.
He had a cup in his hand. A cup of water. Oh, no. He saw something wrong. You could see it coming, the fury in the man and the water out of the cup. He wound up and hesitated, and there it went; he flung it behind his chair.
He called a timeout. His team listened to him with what seemed a mixture of wonderment and fear.
Down by 3 points with 58 seconds eft, he swirled, his face red.
Down by 1 with 16 seconds left, a Hofstra player was called for an intentional foul. Two shots for Navy, and the ball. That did it.
You’d have thought it was the worst call he had ever seen, although he would know when he calmed down that it was Hofstra’s 32 percent field-goal shooting that did him in. He screamed in anguish. “A flagrant foul, my butt.”
And then he walked a substitute up the court toward the scorer’s table, because he wanted to get close to the official, to say one more thing: “You know I’m right on that call. You know I’m right on that call.”
The game ended, and the music began, the “Navy Blue and Gold.” Almost everyone stopped, and officers held their white hats over their hearts.
The place was still, except for VBK, marching head down across the court. He was alone with his thoughts, knowing he was right, he was right, he was right.