Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Howard's Team

TigerBlog is nearly 20 years removed from his newspaper days and almost 30 years away from his first assignment in the business, which happened to be covering Pennington at Academy of the New Church on a September afternoon a long time ago.

When TB thinks back to his days at the paper, the first team that pops into his mind is the Princeton men's basketball team. TB had the unique opportunity to cover the Tigers during the Kit Mueller years, and it seems like yesterday that TB was on the bus riding around the Ivy League with them.

Because Pete Carril took so long in the lockerroom after games, TB could write his entire story and then just plug in a quote or two before sending it to the paper from his old Radio Shack word processor. As a result, he never kept the team waiting, so he was allowed to ride on the bus.

Those trips - or the home games - came on weekends, obviously, as they still do. During the week, TigerBlog would cover some of the other local teams, usually Rider or Trenton State (now the College of New Jersey) and every now and then Mercer County Community College.

Mercer's campus is in West Windsor, which borders Princeton Township, meaning that it's about a 15-minute ride from the heart of the Princeton University campus to the community college. Located next to Mercer County Park, MCCC has 13,000 students who are either full-time or part-time.

TigerBlog covered about five Mercer events each year while at the paper, usually in men's soccer or basketball.

He'll never forget the time that an excitable guy named Bud Livingston was the Vikings' basketball coach. Livingston reacted to a call that went against his team by storming down the end of the bench and kicking the door to the outside, which snapped back quickly, locking him outside. About two minutes later, Livingston came running back inside the front entrance, since it's a long way around the athletic building back to the gym.

That might have been the last time TB was at Mercer for a game before last night, when he went to see the Vikings play Morris in the first round of the Region 19 playoffs. Mercer would win 60-47.

The lure for TB was the current Mercer head coach, who is none other than Howard Levy, the all-time leader in field goal percentage at Princeton.

Levy came to Princeton from Suffern, N.Y., with great size and with a head coach - Carril - who guaranteed that he would turn the big man into a player. As it turned out, he was right.

Levy was listed as 6-11 when he played, and he has half-joked to TB through the years that had he been listed as 7-0, he would have stuck with the Nets instead of being the last player cut after he graduated in 1985.

Instead of playing in the NBA, Levy played in the CBA, where his coach would be Phil Jackson, before his time with the Bulls and Lakers.

Levy is a law school grad (George Washington) who coached at Trenton State and GW and built a business in New York City before joining Bill Carmody's staff at Princeton in 1996. He would stay with the Tigers through the tenures of Carmody, John Thompson and Joe Scott.

His first head coaching job is the one at Mercer, and he is in Year 3 there now.

Watching him coach his team last night only reconfirmed what TB has known for years, which is that Levy's competitive fire burns intensely.

He's a combination on the sideline of his college coach and the three Princeton coaches he worked with. He talks like Carril. He makes Carmody's hand gestures. He smiles sarcastically at bad calls like Thompson as he works the refs. He stomps like Scott.

He runs his own version of the Princeton offense, which in the first half last night resulted in 15 wide open three-point shots, only one of which actually went in.

The results were that 1) the Vikings trailed 29-16 at the break and 2) the guy sitting in front of TigerBlog said "the Princeton offense stinks."

Of course, in fairness to the guy, he did clarify, sort of, that he meant it stinks because you need guys who can make shots.

The second half was an entirely different story. Morris' best player, No. 3, went out with a split lip or bloody nose, but even had he been in, he wouldn't have made much of a difference.

Mercer outscored Morris 44-18 in the second half and shot 50% from the field. At one point, after a pass went into the post and a cut opened up a wide-open look from three-point range for one of Mercer's players, who drained it, TB said to the guy in front of him "that's the Princeton offense." When the guy turned around, he saw TB's "Princeton Athletics" sweatshirt and laughed.

The result of the win is that Levy's team advances to play top-seeded Lackawanna Friday.

Carmody, of course, coaches in the Big 10 now, with a Wildcat team on the verge of breaking through. Thompson is in the Big East with one of the top programs in the country. Scott is in the Sun Belt, with an eye on the NCAA tournament. Carril has spent 15 years in the NBA.

As for Levy, he's coaching the local community college. It'd be easy to point out the contrasts between his world and the ones of the coaches he worked for at Princeton, or Princeton itself, for that matter.

But why bother? They're so obvious. Levy's team will be in a few vans to head to Scranton for the next game, not on a big bus or a plane. His gym is tiny. His games don't have TV or radio - or even media timeouts, for that matter.

And who out there needs TB to tell the difference between a 13,000-student commuter junior college and Princeton, one of the best universities in the world?

Still, watching the game, none of that mattered to TB. It was a basketball game, an entertaining one, with players who gave maximum effort and coaches who worked every angle they had.

When it was over, the nearly seven-foot coach was all smiles. He talked about how much he liked how his team's second-half effort, how they had come out of the lockerroom with nearly eight minutes left on the clock, how good Lackawanna is.

Coaching at a place like Mercer can be humbling, especially to someone who has been to as many NCAA tournaments and NITs and won as many Ivy titles as Levy has, as both a player and coach at Princeton.

In his case, though, it doesn't come across that way, not in all the times TB has talked to Levy about the experience and certainly not watching it in person.

Maybe it's proof that he's most like Carril, the coach who believed in him all those years ago, the one for whom it was never about the frills or the money or the ego or any of that.

To Carril - and to Levy, TB is pretty sure - it's always about one thing and one thing only: Those two hours each day in the gym with the guys.

Last night, those two hours were a lot of fun to watch.


Anonymous said...

TB--Thanks for this terrific blog. It was really enjoyable and heartwarming to read. You captured Howie's passion and skill wonderfully. And it's a tribute to Howie's character that he sees his task not only as getting his players to gel into a successful team, but also to set each individual on his team--who largely come from underprivileged and often tumultuous backgrounds--on the path to a successful and rewarding life. He sees his job not just as a coach, but as a teacher and mentor. The Princeton community at large should be enormously proud of Howie!

Anonymous said...

Go Vikings!

....Remember all the movies, Terry, we'd go see
Trying to learn how to walk like heroes we thought we had to be

Anonymous said...

It is good to see a good guy in his element. Assistant coaches don't get much thanks, and Howie deserves a lot of thanks for his service to Princeton after he graduated.