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The Best of the Best

By Buddy Collings | Orlando Sentinel - Staff Writer
This article originally appeared on the Orlando Sentinel website on February 18, 2003.
Please click this link if you wish to view the original article. A similar article appeared in the Palm Beach Post about the late great Martin County coach Don Wallen, Florida's winningest coach of all time.

Otis Johnson first saw Don Wallen, the Martin County basketball coach, in the summer of 1967, sitting on the hood of his 1966 Buick Rambler, watching teens shoot balls through bent rims at a city park in the black section of Stuart.

It was an age when white folks didn't often go to the Cherokee neighborhood just to watch black kids play ball. But the new coach from Kentucky wasn't bridled by the unwritten rules that said blacks had to go to their own schools and stay on their side of town when they weren't working the orange groves.

He was looking for basketball players.

"After he watched us play for three days, he walked up to me and said he was the coach at Martin County High School and he would like me to play for his team," Johnson remembers. "He said I could become a great player if I worked at it and did all the things he told me to do. He said I could be somebody."

You can be somebody. Wallen might as well have been talking Greek to the kid from the ghetto. But he was telling the truth.

Change was coming to Stuart, a watery crossroads on A1A where the Intracoastal Waterway meets the St. Lucie Inlet and saltwater from the Atlantic washes into the St. Lucie River.

Wallen died in 1999, but his legacy lives through men such as Johnson. Wallen is an automatic pick for the Orlando Sentinel's list of the 10 top high school basketball coaches in state history based on longevity, victories, championships and impact on the game.

Joining Wallen on the list are coaches who migrated South from hoops hotbeds such as Indiana, Illinois and West Virginia in an era when Florida's population boom was opening up doors for teachers and coaches but when basketball was a stepchild to football. Coaches such as Wallen, Jack Wilson, Vince Schaefer, Jim Haley and Ed Kershner brought more than the fundamentals to Florida. They brought a work ethic and a mind-set that basketball could stand on its own as a major sport.

Johnson, a 6-foot, 3-inch ninth-grader who would grow to 6-8, was swept up in the tide brought by Wallen and carried to the life he lives today.

A DeBary resident who manages his own State Farm Insurance agency, Johnson was one of the first blacks to go to Martin County High. He went on to be the first All-Stater for a man who became the winningest coach in Florida high school basketball history. And the first in his family to go to college.

"Don Wallen was like an angel to me," Johnson said.

Wallen brought wary whites and cautious blacks together in packed gymnasiums to root for their Tigers. Martin County compiled a 541-155 record in Wallen's 23 seasons.

Wilson, a native of rural West Virginia, got his first job at Zephyrhills, which played home games on outdoor courts. A decade later, his Clearwater teams faced St. Petersburg Gibbs before sellout crowds in the Bayfront Center.

"When I came through high school, the basketball coach was one of the assistant football coaches," said Rudy Coffin, who assisted Wilson at Clearwater and won more than 400 games as a head coach. "Guys like Jack Wilson, Ed Kershner and Jim Haley kind of showed Florida it could be done a different way. They were very well-connected throughout the country, and . . . they changed the face of basketball."

Three others who make the 10-deep list were black coaches who bridged the difficult times of integration. Floyd Andrews, Bernard Wilkes and the late Freddie Dyles came from colleges to become icons in the communities where they were born and raised. Dyles and Andrews began coaching in the 1960s -- when Florida high schools were segregated -- and then brought black teams into the Florida High School Activities Association to compete alongside of, and against, white teams.

Wilkes played for two Jacksonville high schools, Stanton and Butler, in the all-black Florida Interscholastic Athletic Association. He was playing in the FIAA state tournament at Dillard in 1967 when news reached the gym that Dyles' Gibbs team had won the FHSAA state tournament against white teams.

"That was very big news," Wilkes remembers. "We had never played the white kids, except in the parks. We could read about their games in the newspapers. They couldn't read about our games though."

It was a different world, and a different game, when Wilkes came home from college to coach junior high ball for five years and then landed the Ribault job in 1976. In cities where black and white schools were merged, it was all but impossible for black coaches to get the head-coaching slot. But basketball was different, and Andrews, Wilkes and Dyles were hired at predominately black schools.

"I believe that the trend was more or less to have one of those coaches black and one white at a lot of the schools," Andrews said. "Black coaches tended to get the basketball job."

After Roosevelt was closed in 1970 to make way for integration, Andrews moved to North Shore, which had been troubled by racial strife. His first team had three blacks and two whites as starters, and it helped with the healing.

Similarly, Marcos "Shakey" Rodriguez, was became one of the first athletes of Cuban descent to play for Schaefer at Miami High. "When Coach Schaefer called my house when I was in the ninth grade to tell me they had open gym, I thought I was talking to God. He told me it started at 7 that next night. I was there by 5:45."

Schaefer, an old-school icon who rubbed elbows with college coaches such as Ray Meyers of DePaul at national conventions, coached Navy training teams during the war years and came back with military-like discipline that turned Miami High into a juggernaut. The Stingarees won five state titles in nine seasons from 1948 to 1956.

But by the time Rodriguez was elevated from top assistant to replace his aging mentor, Miami High had fallen well behind Miami Jackson and coach "General" Jake Caldwell.

"Jake was the dominant figure in Miami, and we were right next door to him, so we got the leftovers," Rodriguez said. "We were good enough to win 20 games, but we'd get smashed in the district final."

Rodriguez brought back the magic with boundless energy. Then the athletes came back. With Miami's most-storied school on the rise, perched next door to an inner-city community, black athletes such as Vernon Delancy and Douglas Edwards transferred in via Dade's majority-to-minority rule, which let them transfer to mostly white schools in the name of racial balance.

"Once Edwards decided to come over, it was all over," Rodriguez said. "I benefited tremendously from kids that were out of zone. . . . In every big city, once you get hot, kids find a way to get there. But I was never investigated and never did anything illegally. And the most underrated thing about Miami High was the work we put into it."

Rodriguez averaged 33 wins a season, and several state finals were almost anticlimactic. The Stings pounded Oak Ridge 79-46 in a 1989 title game and beat Tampa Chamberlain 91-62 in 1990.

A world away, in the Florida Panhandle, coaches such as top 10 pick Jerry Davis and Marvin Lassiter of Malone built year-round basketball factories at schools too small to have football.

"It's changed a lot, but most of the kids I had came off family farms, and they'd a lot rather be practicing basketball in the afternoons," said Lassiter, now the Malone principal. "A lot of those kids never left Jackson County unless it was on a basketball trip."

Collectively, these top 10 coaches helped pave the way for stars such as NBA rookie Amare Stoudemire and Edgewater junior Darius Washington to gain national notoriety, and for college basketball in the state to improve to the point that the Gators attained their first national No. 1 ranking this year.

"When I had a lot of success in the 1970s, there were some good coaches in this state, but not nearly as many there are today," said Haley, a native of Joliet, Ill., who showed how to market a program with flair. He had an applause-meter installed at one end of the gym to measure (and encourage) the decibel level his sellout crowds could attain. He purposefully incited fans as a young coach with his sideline antics. He once belly-flopped onto the gym floor, skidding on his stomach, in protest of a call.

Those tantrums might have been mock disgust, but they helped put high school basketball on the map.

There are countless others who could have made this list, among them Lassiter, who played at Malone and then coached his alma mater to a 316-56 record in only 10 seasons, including state titles in 1977, 1981 and 1983.

Among today's shining stars is Darryl Burrows, who played high school ball at Sunrise Piper for Broward County's all-time wins leader, Butch Ingram (553-188). He replaced Ingram at Fort Lauderdale Dillard and has a 260-59 record and three consecutive state titles. If the Panthers (25-1) win a 6A crown this year, they will be the first large-classification school to win four in a row.

Memories of these men live on in the players they coached. Recollections, such as the one Otis Johnson has of the day he and three other black Martin County players were late for practice. Thirty seconds late. Wallen met them at the door. "You're late. You're not ready for practice. Get out of my gym," Wallen barked, stunning four players who were the heart of a 12-0 team.

"As we walked toward home, I could hear those other guys saying things like that white man would come get us. He needed us. But inside my head, what I was hearing was what he told me that very first day. That I had potential to be somebody. I turned and walked back into that locker room, got dressed and ran back onto that gym floor without ever making eye contact with Coach Wallen. He had already pulled up the JV guys. That day I became a leader because I broke away from the pack. I knew I had too much to lose."

And way too much to gain from that coach.

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