Sunday, February 8, 2015

THE BEST THERE NEVER WAS

     When a few old sports veterans get together in the Gem City, the topic of Toronto High School's greatest athlete arises occasionally.  Names such as Chip Coulter, Clark Hinkle, George Deiderich, Don Sutherin and Otis Winston are always mentioned, but one name I always bring up won't be found in any of the record books.
     You see, a classmate of mine, Harold "Oink" Coulter, played basketball only his freshman year.  Had he continued to play--that includes any sport--I am certain he would have been crowned the best.
     Oink possessed the hand-eye coordination of a magician.  He wasn't the tallest, fastest or strongest athlete in our class, although he was gifted in all these attributes.  What he possessed was way above what everybody had and that was coordination.
      Playing Little League for Cattrell's during the early 60s, I had heard all about the legend way before I encountered him  He was rumored to throw the only curve ball in the entire league, and to an 11-year-old batter during those days to face that kind of skill was akin to confronting someone with supernatural powers.
       I recall the fateful day when we were finally going to face Oink on the mound.  We were undefeated, with Oink posing as our last obstacle to remain unblemished for the 20-game season in a league consisting of twelve teams.  Our strategy was to step up in the batter's box when Oink started hurling curves, an approach enabling the hitter a good shot at the slower pitch before it broke.  Oink recognized this plan immediately and reared back and blew his lively fastball by us.  So--we moved back in the box and he curved us simple.  The game was our only loss of the season.
      I recall another time when we were in seventh grade playing pick-up football at S.C. Dennis School.  Oink was passing by on his bicycle and stopped.  I never saw him play football before, or even hold one in his hands for that matter, but he asked for the ball and promptly punted a perfect spiral 45 yards.  "Let's see you do that again," everyone said, knowing football was our rare chance to embarrass Oink.  He duplicated more kicks, all going 40 to 50 yards--all perfect spirals.
      Another time I recall sitting in sixth grade at St. Francis School.  For some reason the public schools were off that day and we weren't.  I was daydreaming out the window when I saw Oink approaching on his bicycle.  At the corner of Grant and Euclid, he popped a wheelie and pedaled right by the sixth grade windows, the seventh grade windows, the eighth grade windows and continued, reared back in the banana seat, hands braced on the handlebars, churning the pedals until  turning the corner on Daniels Street, two blocks away, out of sight.  The first flight by the Wright Brothers could not have covered the same distance.
       Basketball was by far his best game.  He could do anything with a round ball except make it talk.  Oink was the only ball handler I had ever seen being guarded by defenders with their legs crossed.  Nobody wanted embarrassed by having the ball dribbled between their legs by anybody.  And Oink could turn an opponent's face redder than a Red Knights jersey.
      The best way to defend Oink was to stand under the basket and bet him he couldn't make a shot from half court, and maybe his heel would accidentally touch the mid-court line so that you could get him on and over-and-back violation.  Oink was the only kid I knew who practiced shots from half court, and he made a good percentage of them.
      He was the last guy you wanted to challenge in a game of H-O-R-S-E.  Besides being able to rainbow shots from various distances, he could bank a ball off both walls on the northwest corners of the Franklin School building and swish it through the hoop.
      As I mentioned, Oink played only one season at the high school level, most of which was on junior varsity, although everyone in school and in the stands knew Oink was the best player on the varsity.  A few times the coach would put Oink in the varsity game.  I remember one time Oink was dribbling about 20 feet from Toronto's basket, an opponent between him an the hoop, arms raised high, knees bent in defending position.  Oink nonchalantly dribbled behind his own back and then around the defender, a complete 360-degree sweep and then swished the ball through the net.
      This wasn't exactly the type of tactic coaches in those days had in mind regarding fundamental basketball and was probably the main reason Oink spent most of his varsity tenure on the bench.  The coach tried to make Oink play basketball the way the coach thought basketball should be played.  Oink could achieve greatness and lead the Red Knights to the state title someday, only via the way of the head coach.
      But sports was not about titles, the state and the greatest--certainly not about pressure.  If he could not have fun, he wasn't going to play.  He never shot his majestic arching set shot in a Red Knights uniform again.
      Looking back, Oink was right all along.  If anything motivates you in sports other than having fun, you are participating for all the wrong reasons.  Coaches and athletes work themselves to the brink of exhaustion.  Heck, Oink was good at what came natural to him.  He was the best that never was.
 
Harold Coulter, shown on THS 1967 squad, was the only guy who could have wore a name like Oink gracefully