It happened. That sign indicating that middle-age has hit and hit hard. I was reading about Joanne McCallie, and the investigation into her coaching of the women’s basketball team at Duke, and I became nostalgic. I mean, I was oozing nostalgia.
Some readers may know I am a former hoops player, which isn’t that big of a surprise since I am a tall woman who grew up in Maine in the 70’s and early 80’s. If you showed any signs of height or coordination back then, they put a ball in your hands — for me I think it began with Atomic League at the local YMCA when I was in second grade.
In my middle school years, I started attending Swish summer camp at the University of Southern Maine, which is where my nostalgia journey started. I was picturing Joanne Palombo, now McCallie, in front of us girls sitting on the floor of the gym at USM — she was a couple years ahead of me in age and lightyears ahead of me in talent. She was a junior counselor and would perform whatever skill Coach Bob Brown, a now storied coach and head of Swish at the time, wanted us to learn.
Flawlessly. Her graceful style of play is still unforgettable all these years later.
Which got me to thinking about Brown, and his mantra: Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect. After saying it, he’d have “JoJo” show us the difference between sloppy practice and perfect practice. I was all gangly arms and legs, as clumsy as an adolescent can be; and for the life of me, I couldn’t imagine how she could move like a dancer in basketball sneakers.
Such a transformative moment, I can still picture it all like it was yesterday.
It’s not like I can remember every second of every day at camp or at any point in my sports career, but you do remember the transformative moments. You remember being in the presence of exceptional athletes and coaches. And you remember with a profound respect for the exceptional people who created those moments.
Like Brown and “JoJo” showing us what perfect practice looked like. Or Maureen Burchill Cooper, 1980’s USM great, showing us how to pull up and pop off a jump shot. She had this seemingly effortless fluidity, like a female Larry Bird.
Or my senior year in 1986 when Cony Coach Paul Vachon called a time out toward the end of our Eastern Maine Class A final game. We had been running by the bench complaining about pennies and M&M’s being thrown from the stands and thought he called the time out to say something to the referees. We were wrong.
Instead we got yelled at and were told the clock was running and the game was going to end, no matter what. And told we could either worry about the pennies and M&M’s or we could play our game. And told the big difference between us and Stearns was the Stearns girls didn’t care about the pennies and M&M’s, and they were running up the score while we were busy complaining.
It was a transformative moment and transformative story that has served me so well over the years. I’ve told it countless times to clients, students, and friends seeking advice. It never fails to help people to prioritize and refocus.
I decided I needed to know what was up with Coach Brown. Googling him, I learned he retired from coaching in 2012, having finished his career at Cheverus. For a great summary of his brilliant career including coaching with Rick Pitino at Boston University, click here.
But my nostalgic urges needed more, so I called Vachon, now Athletic Director at Cony and former Swish staffer, to ask if he and Brown were still in touch. Actually, I told him I figured the best way to track down a Maine Basketball Hall of Famer was to call another Hall of Famer. He reminded me that not only were he and Brown Hall of Famers, but they along with McCallie, had been inducted as part of the inaugural group.
Vachon and I had a great time on memory lane, and he was happy to share Brown’s email address. Vachon called Brown “a legend,” and recalled his experiences working for Brown at Swish camp. “I was getting paid to learn from the best,” and said he misses Brown “in the coaching world,” since his retirement.
Vachon also spoke highly of McCallie as a parent of one of her former players. His daughter and recent Hall of Fame inductee, Amy, played for McCallie at UMO and sought McCallie’s mentorship as she started her own coaching career. Vachon said McCallie graciously invited them to spend a couple weeks at Duke with her, and again as at UMO, he was impressed with her style and knowledge as a coach.
Brown answered my email right away and was generous enough to let me interview him over the phone. Okay, it was awesome. Even in retirement and over the phone, he’s a legend. His voice sounds the same, except I teased him, like Vachon, about how relaxed their voices sound now that they’ve retired from the court.
He laughed about me recognizing his voice when it wasn’t yelling, and added, “Even coaches have to mellow as we get older.”
Brown, too, loved reminiscing about Swish and said he started running the basketball side of things in 1978 or 79, ultimately doing it for about 12 years. The stories flowed from Brown like cups of refreshing water from the cooler at the end of the bench, and my thirsty nostalgia drank them up.
Brown spoke fondly of the “great Swish staffs” he assembled, and of how Burchill Cooper “was the best female shooter,” he has ever seen. Like Vachon, he had nothing but praise for McCallie, although to him, she’s “Jojo.” He didn’t have any detailed information about the nature of the investigation, but talked about her being “really tuned into doing things their right way —” exactly the way I remember her as a player.
Brown and I also talked about how the tenor of student athletics is changing. I shared experiences I had coaching elementary school kids in a YMCA league a little over ten years ago, and he talked about the not-always-so-positive impact the proliferation of Amateur Athletic Union teams (AAU) is having on the development of young athletes.
Brown said parents today get “so wrapped up in their kid being the best” and forget that “learning athletics is supposed to be about developing skills,” not just sport skills, but “skills in life, skills that last.” He doesn’t see the “majority being taught life lessons in a positive way.’’
The kind of skills and lessons that are born from transformative moments that no one knows are transformative at the time.
Brown compared my remembering his Swish lectures to his remembering the lady who supervised the playground he played at as a child in the late 1940’s. He still remembers her name, Jane Ingraham, and “the things she said and the way she treated me.” It impacted him for the rest of his life.
Like a ripple, she impacted so many others. By providing transformative moments for Brown, Ingraham gave him the skills to create transformative moments for others. I loved hearing that story, and I like knowing that I indirectly benefitted from this woman’s talents.
It was like a sneak peak into a critical part of a legend’s origin story. And it’s story that carries an important message for people involved in student athletics today, who are shaping the legends and nostalgia journeys of tomorrow.
Endnote to Coaches Brown, Vachon, and McCallie: Journalism standards require that people are referred to by their last names only, but boy did it kill me not to stick a “Coach” in front of your names every time. To this day, I struggle to call Paul, Paul, when I see him — in part because I can still feel the pain of running suicides after being disrespectful — Lol! The best coaches, which you all are in my mind, earn the right to always be referred to as Coach!