Saturday, May 12, 2012

When Sunset Beckons

I have no idea whether Jim Baglin ever met John Wooden although based upon the limited extent to which I know the former and all I have read about the latter I suspect that the two men would have liked each other quite a lot.

A lifetime ago, when our daughters were in elementary school together at Our Lady of Mount Virgin here 'NTSG (leave it to the Catholic Church to juxtapose the words "Mount" and "Virgin" in an elementary school's name), Leigh Ann and Suzanne played basketball together. If memory serves they spent five seasons together competing for the OLMV Vikings (leave it to the Catholic Church to drop a nickname on its religiously-affiliated elementary school of a people who worshipped many gods but not the big "G") in the Diocese of Metuchen League. For all but one of those seasons, they were greatly aided in their efforts by the presence of Leigh Ann's dad on their bench. Unlike most of the youth league coaches - including Yours truly - one is apt to encounter, Jim was far more than a devoted father with a love for the game that his child played. He was one of the best, most successful high school basketball coaches that New Jersey has ever seen.

Yup, for a few years back there in the late '90's the Lady Vikings of OLMV had themselves quite a ringer. He never served as the Head Coach but rather as his wife Barbara's top assistant. During at least two of those seasons, I had a seat on the bench next to him. I not only got to watch him interact with the children he coached - while marveling at the patience he demonstrated in communicating with them and teaching them the fundamentals of basketball - but I got to listen to him share his thoughts about basketball, a game that I enjoy at every level save for the NBA. I learned more in those couple of seasons sitting next to Jim than I would have otherwise ever learned.

Up close I got to not only see him interact with the young girls who played for our team but also those who played for the opposition. Suz's team had a lot of success in the years that Team Baglin patrolled the sidelines. Yet never did Suz or any of her teammates do anything deliberately or intentionally to show up or humiliate an opponent. They won far more often than they lost but never once ran up the score on an overmatched foe. I recall more than one occasion on which Jim would talk to the other adults on the bench about the importance of making sure that all the kids who played enjoyed the game. He is a competitor of course. Yet his love of the game and of passing that love on to as many kids as he came into contact with as he could trumped all else.

When he was not hanging around OLMV helping Barbara coach their daughter's team he was doing a pretty damn fine job of what he actually did professionally, which was coach the Boys' Varsity Basketball Team at Mendham High School. Mendham is a rather affluent town in Morris County - it is where Governor Christie lives - and although traditionally one thinks of schools located in the heart of the big city as opposed to those smack dab in the middle of lacrosse country as the ones who shall rule the roost in scholastic hoops, year in and year out Jim Baglin's Mendham teams stood convention on its ear.

In 33 years as the head coach of the Minutemen (not everyone can be named the Vikings you know), his teams won sixteen Conference titles, nine Morris County Championships, six Sectional State Titles and two overall State titles - as a Group II school in 2000 and as a Group III school in 2010. In thirty-three seasons on the bench, his Mendham teams competed in 878 games....and won 685 of them. In other words, they won close to 80% of their games for three-plus decades. Heady stuff.

I have never known Jim well enough to refer to him as my "friend". To do so would be far too presumptuous. In fact, in the close to fifteen years that have passed since Leigh Ann, Suz and the other two dozen or so kids who comprised their graduating class at OLMV matriculated off to high school, I have seen him but once - for a total of ten seconds. He was leaving a barber shop in town just as I was turning the corner to enter it on a Saturday morning a couple of years ago. We exchanged a quick "Hello" and then continued on, moving in opposite directions.

I had not thought about him much since that morning - until I saw the piece in the paper a week ago yesterday announcing that he has retired from coaching. While he shall continue to serve as the Athletic Director at Mendham High School, when hoops practice starts in November 2012 for the 2012-13 season, there shall be someone other than Jim Baglin running things for the boys for the first time since 1978. I have no idea just how he shall survive a basketball season without being a coach. I suspect that he does not know either. I wish him well in the endeavor.

Coach Wooden once said, "A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment." I know not whether Coach Wooden ever met Coach Baglin. However based upon what I saw up close sitting next to Coach Baglin all those years ago, Coach Wooden could not have described him more perfectly.

-AK

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