Quick, name one man who coached the following basketball legends in his career:
Connie Hawkins, Dick Van Arsdale, Charlie Scott, Gus
Johnson, Bob Lanier, Dave Bing, Bill Bradley, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Wilt
Chamberlain and Pete Maravich.
Here’s a hint. His initials were WH”B”VBK.
Basketball lost one of its great characters, and the Suns
lost a small, but interesting, piece of their history earlier this week when
Willem Hendrik “Butch” van Breda Kolff passed away in a Spokane nursing home.
To the hoops world at large, Butch will be remembered either
as the man who coached Bill Bradley in college at Princeton, or as the man who
left Wilt Chamberlain on the bench in the fourth quarter of the seventh game of
an NBA final. But around Phoenix way, he’ll be remembered for having the shortest
coaching tenure in Suns’ history – seven games in 1972 – after being hired to
replace Cotton Fitzsimmons, who’d departed for Atlanta after winning 97 games in two seasons…and
missing the playoffs both times.
Butch’s record wasn’t particularly terrible in those seven
games – the team got off to a 3-4 start – but the team’s play was pretty
unstructured (He’d call it “freewheeling,” which was a pretty good description
of Butch himself, who had a reputation as a guy who enjoyed a good time),
defense wasn’t a priority, and VBK clashed with then-General Manager Jerry
Colangelo, then-owner Richard Bloch, and NBA referees (He got thrown out of his
first regular season game…in the third quarter). So after 16 days of regular season action,
Butch was let go. Colangelo stepped in
as interim coach for the second time in four years, finishing out the season, then
the club was turned over to John MacLeod for an unprecedented period of coaching
Butch? Well, he went
on to coach some more. A lot more. The man was a lifer, who tried to walk away
from the game time and again, only to be drawn back by the thump of the ball
against the hardwood, and wherever he went, he coached with the same passion,
sense of fun, energy…and combative spirit when it came to referees. His vagabond career took him from Phoenix to the ABA, to New Orleans with the
Jazz, back to college, to a women’s pro team, and even back to high
Butch wasn’t the right fit in Phoenix.
You could make the case that he wasn’t the right fit in a lot of
places. But if that many people hire you
for that many jobs over the course of your career, you’re doing something
right. VBK knew a lot about basketball –
He made it his life’s work, whether he was living in luxury in Los Angeles
coaching three Hall of Famers to the Finals, or shacking up in a run-down cabin
while coaching high school ball in Picayune, Mississippi.
No matter where he was, whether he was coaching
stars or kids, Butch van Breda Kolff cared about basketball. And basketball will surely miss him.