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1955_02_19--030_SP Coaching the Pro

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It is a tossup whether Eckman’s methods or the results he has achieved are the more striking aspect of the story. There is general agreement that Eck man’s predecessor, Paul Birch, oper ated with the grim intensity of a cop looking for his stolen patrol car, and seemed to go out of his way to antag onize the players and fans. Eckman, a blithe extrovert, acts more like a cheer leader than a coach. "Winning is fun,” he told the team at the opening practice. "Let’s have a lot of fun this year.” His light touch is such a refreshing switch from Birch’s browbeating that the Pistons are giv ing him the full measure of their effort and capabilities. That, in essence, ap pears to be the explanation for the team’s early transformation. "Birch tied the players into knots and tore down their confidence with in cessant criticism,” says Hilliard Gates, sports announcer for WKJG, in Fort Wayne. "Eckman lets them cut loose and do what comes naturally. They’re like a swing band getting a chance to improvise after grinding out dull, long hair stuff they hated.” Thirty-three-year-old Eckman, the youngest and smallest coach in the league, barely made his high-school basketball team in Baltimore. "I had two handicaps,” he says. " No height or talent.” Like many frustrated athletes, he is awed by the astonishing skills the pros take for granted. He roots so strenuously for the team that he loses his voice in every game. At New York he leaped to his feet after a spectacular play against the Knicker bockers and missed the bench on the descent. He landed on the floor and went on screaming ecstatically, "Go! Go! Get more!” Eckman always got a terrific kick out of basketball as an official, and he sees no reason to change his attitude now that he has a personal stake in the outcome of games. If a player was hav ing a rough night, Referee Eckman would try to relieve the tension in him by saying, "Come on, live a little. Take two foul shots. Be my guest.” He swapped gags and amiable insults with fans and newspapermen along the side fines. He gave the customers an extra fillip by pantomiming the fouls he called, and sometimes, in his ex uberance, he inflicted more punish ment on himself than the offended player had suffered. Eckman was a clown, but he had fewer |hassles with players than any of his colleagues— a reflection of the confidence in his decisions — and he usually was the coaches’ first choice in their annual rating of officials. It is characteristic of Eckman that he prefers to talk of his amusing experi ences as a referee rather than discuss his coaching exploits. Last year, Phila delphia’s Joe Fulks, a good-natured giant who was finishing a glamorous career, stunned one and all by squawk ing violently when Eckman called a foul against him in the final seconds of a nationally televised game. From the stands it looked as though the six-five Fulks had blown his top and had every intention of dismembering the five- eight Eckman. "Stand right here with me, you lit tle squirt,” Fulks was saying. "This is the last time my mother down in Ken tucky is gonna see old Joe on TV, and I want to give her a good, long look. Turn around so the camera can get me on my good side. Now hold still while I jaw at you. O.K. Now throw me out of the game so I can act real indig nant.” On another occasion Eckman was in the middle of a sticky situation at Moline, Illinois, cosponsor of the since- disbanded Tri-Cities Blackhawks. An appeal was made for the Heart Fund before the game, and the fans responded so generously that Eckman and Max Tabacchi, the other official, helped a crew of pretty girls collect the coins showered on the court. It was one of those nights when every close decision went against the home team, and the crowd began to cast coarse doubts on the integrity and ancestry of the ref erees. During a time-out, Tabacchi drew a handkerchief from his pocket to mop his brow—and to Eckman’s horror, a dollar in small change clat tered noisily to the floor. "Max thought his money might be stolen if he left it in the locker room, so he took it with him,” Eckman ex plains. "He tied the change in his handkerchief. The knot must’ve slipped and the coins shook loose. The fans thought we had pocketed some of the money donated to the Heart Fund. Too many clerks regard custom ers merely as counterirritants. —JOHN NEWTON BAKER. Now they were sure we were robbers— from charity, yet. A hotel could’ve been furnished with the chairs and cushions that were thrown at us. We needed a police escort to get out of town.” Then there was a delicate contre temps at El Centro, California, after the war, when ex-Corporal Eckman needed ready money to support his wife and three children — he now has four. He went on tour as a referee with the All-American Redheads, a girls’ team that played any bunch of men foolish enough to venture into the arena with them. The Redhead center was a six-foot, six-inch misanthrope who committed frightful indignities on male opponents, taking outrageous advan tage of the maxim that a gent never slugs a lady in public regardless of the provocation. " That dame had a build that would make a skinny boy look like Marilyn Monroe,” Eckman says reflectively, "but her bony elbows and knees cut guys to ribbons. What a beast! ” After watching the hatchet woman in a couple of games, Eckman felt he would lose his union card in humanity if he did not curb her atrocities. He finally called a foul on her when she ran into a man so violently that he was struck in the face with a pass and suffered a broken nose. " What’s the foul for? ” she screeched. "You can’t bump into a player and use your—your chest that way,” Eck man retorted. The Redhead was a real pro. Her competitive drive was stronger than her vanity. "Where do you see a chest?” she demanded. " I ’m giving you the benefit of the doubt,” Eckman snapped. The young lady patted Eckman on the head when the fans within earshot stopped whooping hysterically. "That’s a great gag, kid,” she said. "We’ll have to use it tomorrow night.” Referee Eckman always had a pen chant for pulling wisecracks. Last sea son he submitted a report to Maurice Podoloff, president of the NBA, on the progress made by a new referee assigned to work with him. " I believe he will prove satisfactory to you, since I have told him the most important rule to observe in the league,” he wrote. " I always instruct a new man to hold the ball so that the people in the stands can read your name on it.” Eckman does not exempt his own sudden prestige as a target for the needle. He shrugs off the hullabaloo over his switch from officiating to coaching, which is so rare that there are few precedents for it in big-time sports. Bill Stewart, former National League baseball umpire, was a hockey referee before he won the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1938. Hank O’Day and George Mori- arty, also big-league umpires, took fliers at managing, then fled back to their original occupation, where no one ever is second-guessed successfully. "What’s such a big deal about a referee doing a good job on the other side of the street? ” Eckman demanded recently. "Every pro player can shoot, pass and dribble like he invented the game. If he wasn’t great he wouldn’t be up here in the first place. You don’t have to show him anything. It’s a breeze compared to coaching in col lege. I’d be a stiff there because I was a lousy player myself, and I don’t know enough to teach techniques. "You hear a lot of talk about strat- egy- Who’s kidding who? In sixteen years of refereeing, I saw all the hot- shot coaches operate, and they never showed me a new trick. How could they? Basketball is a game of spon taneous situations. There are only three or four basic set plays, because it’s impossible to anticipate rebounds or how the players will be scattered over the court. It’s different in base ball and football, where there’s a break in the action before every play and you can plan your next move. You can’t pull a surprise in pro basketball. You meet every team in the league about ten times a season, and after watching a player for a couple of years, you know what he’s going to do before he thinks of it himself. "All the teams are loaded with so many All-Americans it’s a wonder every game doesn’t end in a tie. To win consistently, you’ve got to make the most of each player’s extra talents. That’s where I have an edge on other coaches. As a referee, the outcome meant nothing to me and I got a more objective look at the players.” A provocative statement. Would Eckman elaborate, please? "Sure, I’ll give you for-instances. I refereed a game at Milwaukee a few years ago when Max Zaslofsky scored a bushel of points on the pivot play. Zaslofsky is six-two, short as pros go, and most coaches think only big goons are effective in the pivot, so he wasn’t used there again. I remembered how great he looked in the pivot that one time, and I told him to try the play whenever the defensive man was his size. He won three games for us in the first month of the season. Take Frank Brian. Everyone had him tabbed strictly as a back-court feeder because that was his function in Birch 8 deliberate offense. When Brian broke in at Anderson six years ago, though, he was a helluva man leading a fast break. Knowing that, I was able


1955_02_19--030_SP Coaching the Pro
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