Wednesday, January 27, 2016

"I Found A Silver Lining"

      Today -- Jan. 27 -- is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This is the 71st anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in southern Poland.
Rose and Louis Van Thyn
(The Shreveport Times photo)
      My father, Louis Van Thyn, was among the Jewish Holocaust survivors liberated from there. My mother, Rose, had been imprisoned in Auschwitz until a few weeks earlier; she was among those who trudged the cold of the western Europe winter on a "Death March" and was one of the survivors freed from another concentration camp.
      Both lost all their immediate family and their first spouses -- among the 6 million Jewish people exterminated by Nazi Germany.
      Rose and Louis met after World War II ended, back in their hometown (Amsterdam, The Netherlands) and married in October 1946.
      Mom wrote this in January 1991. It is entitled "I Found A Silver Lining."
      Once upon a time, in my younger years, before the world was set ablaze, I lived the good life. I had no fears, no worries, a loving family, lots of friends, laughter, dancing and singing. What a joy life was. Everybody had a name, everybody had a face.
       For me the sun was always shining bright, the fragrance of blooming flowers everywhere, the birds sang their melodies in tune. If the sky had dark clouds, I did not see them; if it was cold and wet outside, it did not bother me; I felt warm and secure.
       In my blindness or innocence, it never crossed my mind that everything could change so drastically. Sometimes when I cried, for what must have been an unimportant reason, my sweet, dear and oh-so-wise mother would so, "Dry your eyes, my darling, and save your tears for when you really need them." I thought, what a strange thing to say. I later wondered if she had a premonition, had she known something I was not aware of.
      Then, as in ancient times, a tyrant came to power. All that had been good and decent vanished; hate and evil triumphed. This demagogue and his consorts wanted all the Jews murdered. They were gathered, thrown into cattle cars, tortured, used as human guinea pigs, robbed of their dignity, their spirit, in a most atrocious way.
      They were brought to one of the most lugubrious and desolate places in the world. There they were disposed of in a worse way than animals. They were pushed into big, black ovens, hundreds of them at the same time -- men, women and children. The poor, poor children -- 1 1/2 million of them, they had not even a chance to live yet.
      Big red flames spew their choking odors of burned flesh and poisonous gas high into the air, ashes were spread all around. Nobody seemed to hear the sorrowful cries for help. Would anybody ever comprehend the depth of this enormous tragedy. It went on for years.
     When it was all over there was this scary deadly silence, a great big emptiness. They called this most tragic event ever, a Holocaust; definition, total destruction of human life, by fire. Few people came out of this hell. I am one of them.
      Experts came up with a statistic, a number -- 6 million. They had no names nor faces; they were only shadows now.
       To me, they were not a statistic or a number; they were the souls of my brethren. I knew and felt that their souls would forever be entwined with mine. I cried and cried till I had no more tears. I then understood what my dear mother had meant. I felt so sad, not even for my suffering but for 6 million humans whose only  crime had been that they were Jews.
      I had so many questions. How could the so-called civilized world have tolerated this unbelievable cruel injustice? How could I go on living? How come I was still alive? Where and when was I to start anew?
      One thing I was sure of, that this was not only a loss for us as Jews, but a loss to mankind.
      But God gave me strength and courage. Slowly I learned to start living and to cope. I got married again to a sweet, caring man, Louis Van Thyn. He understood; he had lived through the same horrendous experience.
     We have two children, one of each -- a boy and a girl. We are fortunate to have come to this country and Shreveport with the help of some wonderful people, the Gilbert family, and the Shreveport Jewish Federation. We will never forget that.
      ... We have a family again. They make life worth living. I thank God every day for all the blessings.
      People tell me I was lucky. That is really not the word. Lucky is when you win a lottery. I did not win anything. I was given something, the most precious gift, a second chance at life.
      I will forever grieve in my heart for 11 million people who perished lonely and forsaken. I realize now that I have an obligation to them, to tell of their suffering to anybody who wants to hear and learn of the Holocaust.
      Although the sun does not shine as bright as before, the fragrance of blooming flowers has dwindled somewhat, the birds sing out of tune now and then, and I can see clouds in the sky now, I am very blessed. God has been good to me.



Friday, January 22, 2016

Minden's best ever: Moreland ... and Dunbar

     (Part II: Sweet Lou Dunbar -- Minden to the Globetrotters)
       If you ask oldtimers, who is the best basketball player to come out of Minden, La., the answer is likely to be Jackie Moreland. But a younger group will say Louis Dunbar. Tough choice.
     Moreland, a 6-foot-7 center/forward who led Minden High School to a 1955 state championship, was so dominant in high school that he was described as "a man among boys." He was the subject of a huge recruiting battle which ultimately left several schools with NCAA penalties.
Jackie Moreland
at Louisiana Tech
     He chose North Carolina State, but never played there. Instead, he went to nearby Louisiana Tech -- after a dalliance with Centenary -- and starred for three seasons, making Little All-American and setting all sorts of Tech scoring and rebounding records. 
     He was Tech's best-ever player, certainly as a big man,  until Mike Green reset the record books in the early 1970s,
     How good was Moreland? Yes, he played in an all-white world in high school and college, but he proved he could last in the NBA. He was the No. 1 draft pick of the Detroit Pistons in 1960, the fourth pick overall.
     Here's what he did that Dunbar didn't: He played eight years of real pro basketball -- five with the Pistons and, after a year out of the game, three with the New Orleans Buccaneers of the new American Basketball Association.
     The NBA and ABA weren't as integrated as they would become, but there were a lot fewer pro teams then -- eight in the NBA in Jackie's rookie season -- and only 12 roster spots, so it was an elite league.
     Moreland was a good pro, especially popular in the ABA in his home state. He retired after the 1969-70 season and became a project engineer on the Superdome being built in New Orleans. Sadly, only a year later, pancreatic cancer quickly took Jackie at age 33.
     He was a Minden/Louisiana Tech legend, and I never saw him play except with the Pistons on TV in the early 1960s. But I knew how good a player he was -- I was told many times by Minden and Tech people -- almost everyone said he was a wonderful person.
Sweet Lou: Globetrotters' "clown prince"
     I saw how good a player Dunbar was at Webster High School (see Part I) and the University of Houston, and for 25 years, with the Harlem Globetrotters.
     I mentioned in a previous blog that I always wondered how it was he didn't play in the NBA; there were rumors he wasn't a fit for the Philadelphia 76ers, who drafted him in the fourth round in 1975. He was their fifth pick; their first two were Darryl Dawkins and World B. Free -- both significant NBA stars-to-be.
     So the word was that Dunbar could not come to terms with the Sixers. Maybe they didn't offer enough money; maybe he wanted too much. Anyway, he wound up going to play in Switzerland, played for the European League champions, and came back to a Houston Rockets summer-league team and tryout camp.
     It was there the Globetrotters scouted him, loved his game and thought he would fit well with them. The rest you know; it's 39 years later, and he's a Trotters' Legend.
     He's traveled the world many times over, met a Pope and several U.S. Presidents and other world leaders, and he's had them -- and so many fans -- laughing. And it's been a personal joy, too.
     Louis summed up his career well in an interview with Larry Guest of the Orlando Sentinel in 1998.
     "When you mention names like Goose Tatum and Meadowlark Lemon and Geese Ausbie, you're talking about the cream of the crop," he said. "To think you're doing some of the routines they did, it's really something special. You just try to go out and do your best knowing and hoping that one day people will say, 'Hey, Lou Dunbar did that.'
     "When you become a showman, you have to bring something to the party."
     Dunbar is not in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. I think he should be soon. The team he's been with hasn't lost a game in 37 years.
     Yes, Lou Dunbar did bring something to the party, and fans loved him. Going back to Webster High and Minden, he always had a fan here.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Sweet Lou: From Webster to Globetrotters

     "Certainly Dunbar and Woodlawn's 7-foot junior Robert Parish rank as the most dominant players in the Shreveport area this year."
     -- my column, The Shreveport Times sports section, Dec. 20, 1970
Sweet Lou Dunbar today (photo from
ESPN telecast)
     The late, great Meadowlark Lemon was not my favorite Harlem Globetrotter. Sweet Lou Dunbar was.
     He was only Louis Dunbar -- not yet "Sweet Lou" -- when I met him and first watched him play basketball late in 1970. He was playing for Webster High in Minden, La., and his game was as sweet as any I've ever seen in high school.
     How fortunate I was that in my second year as a fulltime sportswriter, I covered games and wrote about the two greatest high school basketball players I've seen. Both would become legends.
     Robert Parish is in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame after a 21-year  NBA career in which he played more regular-season games than anyone. Louis Dunbar is among the Harlem Globetrotters "Legends," a player for 25 years -- their "clown prince" for much of that time -- and the past 14 years their director of player personnel and a bench coach.
     Which is why I tuned in last week when the Harlem Globetrotters' 90th Anniversary Show came on ESPN. I wanted to see what it would have on Meadowlark, who died Dec. 27, and if Sweet Lou was part of the show.
     And there he was, the (very) big man in the dark suit sitting on the Globetrotters' bench, a few pounds (well, a lot) past his playing weight at Webster and the University of Houston. He was tall and thin then -- "sleek" is what comes to mind -- an explosive jumper, great passer and ballhandler (as his Trotters' days proved) and superb shooter. 
     He was, as many have called him, Magic Johnson before Magic. At 6-foot-9, he could play any position -- center, forward, point guard -- and did. Excelled at all.
     After he got to Houston, he grew an enormous Afro -- the subject of an earlier blog piece because when we ran his photo on the sports front of The Shreveport Times, the editors told us no-no. 
     The hair is shorter now, and much of it is gray. So is his goatee. He is -- hard for me to believe -- 62 (4 1/2 months younger than Parish). But I recognized him instantly sitting on that bench.
The young man from Webster
High School (1970 Shreveport
Times photo)
     Good to see Louis. The young sportswriter who talked to him after a few Webster games in 1970 and '71 and saw him again a couple of years later did not ask enough questions to draw out the delightful, upbeat personality. He was a polite, bright young man, not as reticent as Parish.
     He probably never before had talked to a white sportswriter. Little did I think that later he would entertain and keep audiences laughing for years and years. Maybe he didn't either. We both probably thought he'd be a college and NBA star. 
     And he was a star, an All-American choice by some, at the U. of Houston. Saw him a couple of times after Houston played Centenary in the early 1970s, when Dunbar and Parish (and their teams) had some epic battles -- just as they'd had in high school -- and the last time I talked to him was in the early 1990s when I called him at the Globetrotters' hotel when they played in Jacksonville, Fla., where I was working.
     Just after halftime of the ESPN show last week, we saw him up close on screen.
     Sideline broadcaster Sam Gore began: "A legend, Sweet Lou Dunbar. We lost one of the great showman on this earth, Meadowlark Lemon. Your thoughts about Meadowlark, Lou?"
     "He was my mentor," Lou answered. "My very first year with the Harlem Globetrotters (1977), I played with Meadowlark and Curly [Neal], and he [Meadowlark] taught me everything I know about this game of Harlem Globetrotters basketball, and he is going to be truly missed.
     "I mean he's a legend in his own time. And for those of you who did not know Meadowlark, he was the Harlem Globetrotters."
     With that, Sweet Lou went back to the bench and began laughing -- just as always -- at routines he has seen hundreds of thousands of times. The Globetrotters, if you love seeing a basketball move at rapid paces and slick ballhandling tricks and dribbling, are still fun to watch.
     My most vivid memory of Dunbar's final season at Webster: The state championship game in Class AA (third-highest in Louisiana then) and Webster about to win it all, with Louis practically dribbling out the final 3-4 minutes by himself and making the free throws his team needed to hold on.
     The 75-68 victory against Franklinton -- which had won the state title the year before -- ended a 34-1 season for Webster.
     Reminded of that record by my source at The Times, my far-back memory told me that the lone loss was to Silsbee, Texas, in a tournament. So the Wolves did not lose to a Louisiana team.
     They also did not play against Woodlawn and Parish, a team that was -- my opinion -- the best (most talent, most depth, most size) of the five Woodlawn teams that reached state championship games in a 12-year period.
     Webster vs. Woodlawn, Dunbar vs. Parish, would have been a super matchup. But Woodlawn was in Class AAAA, two classes above Webster, and the respective coaches did not schedule a meeting.
     As my 1970 column noted, Webster and Dunbar had faced Parish -- then at all-black Union High -- in the previous season. Webster beat Union twice in the regular season, but Union won the bidistrict state playoff game (Parish led his teams, Union and Woodlawn, to four consecutive state tournaments). Parish scored 30, 25 and 29 points to Dunbar's 22, 31 and 24.
     Parish fouled out of both of his 1971 state tournament games. Dunbar, with two dominating performances, was an easy choice for "Outstanding Player" in the state tournament; by acclamation, if I remember the sportswriters' vote.
     Some background: Integration of Louisiana high school began in earnest in January 1970, but many all-black schools remained open for the rest of the school year. In the fall of 1970, many of those schools were phased out or made middle schools -- which is why Parish went from Union to Woodlawn. 
     But Minden -- 30 miles east of Shreveport on Interstate 20 -- was a holdout, and its all-black school (Webster) remained open, leaving Minden High only partially integrated. (In many parishes, private schools -- all white -- opened to skirt forced integration.)
     So Webster kept its powerhouse basketball team intact, and Dunbar & Co. remained with the already legendary Webster coach, a kindly old man -- at least he seemed like it to me -- named Ozias Johnson. 
     Much of my 1970 column is about him because by then his teams had won 818 games, which made him the winningest coach in the state (75.2 percent). His Webster teams had won state titles in the all-black athletic organization in 1961 and 1962 with 45-3 and 43-2 records, and they kept winning, with four 30-wins-plus seasons after that, including 31-3 in Dunbar's junior year.
     As a young man, Johnson had gone to Grambling when it was a junior college and in his mid 20s and early 30s -- before Eddie Robinson began coaching there -- Ozias was the head football coach for a couple of games and then the head basketball coach. That was only a partime job; he also was the postmaster in Grambling. 
     He was a soft-spoken, smaller man (maybe 5-7, 5-8), pleasant and humble. He was fortunate to have talented players on hand, and he knew how to get them to play together. (And to put it into perspective, Coach Johnson was 60 when I wrote about him; he seemed old to me then. Not now.)
     The 1970-71 Webster team had other quality players -- a 6-3 guard, Con L. Flournoy, and 6-6 junior forward Billy Bennett. But Dunbar was the man. In leading the Wolves to an 11-0 record when I wrote the column, he had averaged 30.1 points, 15.2 rebounds and 9.5 assists per game. Flournoy was averaging 22.9 points. 
     I don't recall their final stats, but they likely were in the same range ... pretty impressive and probably accurate. (Webster had a very good statistician, a sharp kid named Rodney Seamster.)
     Johnson told me then that Dunbar had developed more quickly than any player he'd ever had: "He played for me as a freshman and he's the only one to  do that."  
     Ozias, who had arrived at Webster in 1946, coached only two more seasons and finished with 889 victories. Few have topped that. But the smartest thing he did in 1970 and '71 was let Dunbar run the show -- player/coach, perhaps -- on the floor.
     Obviously Dunbar was being recruited by every college that thought it had a chance. While I was visiting Webster, a coach from LSU called to check when the team was playing again. But LSU, where Press Maravich was in his next-to-last season as head coach, didn't have a chance. No one did, except Houston.
     The word was that Houston was going to outbid everyone for Dunbar. Yeah, read between the words.
     Houston was an independent and had a reputation as an "outlaw" program, in football and especially in basketball under Coach Guy V. Lewis. Was it fact? Can't recall an NCAA probation ever, but Lewis and his chief assistant/recruiter, Harvey Pate, had recruited some great Louisiana talent in the 1960s, notably future NBA stars Elvin Hayes and Don Chaney.
     (The story is that Pate, recruiting Dunbar, made himself at home in Minden and in the Dunbar home. Near signing day, Pate sat next to the phone at the Dunbars. When it rang, he picked up the receiver ... and hung it up. True? Who knows?)
     Lou became one of Houston's top players ever. Here is the link to a 2011  story for a Houston-area newspaper that caps his UH and Globetrotters careers: 
     He certainly was a fit between the Hayes/Chaney NCAA Final Four teams of the mid-1960s and the Phi Slama Jama teams -- Akeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Co. -- that twice lost NCAA title games in the 1980s.
     Houston wasn't as successful in Dunbar's time, but a tough opponent for anyone ... including Centenary (and Parish). Dunbar was in a lineup with Dwight Davis and Dwight Jones, each also about 6-foot-10, and that was much for Parish to handle. But there were some classic Houston-Centenary games in the '70s.
     I saw one matchup at Hofheinz Pavilion in Houston in which Parish, a freshman, outplayed all three of those guys -- probably the best game I saw Parish play for Centenary (and he played a lot of great ones). Houston won, but tight officiating was one factor.
     In the return game at Centenary, Parish again starred -- except for the finish. Fouled while shooting as the clock ran out, with Houston ahead by one point, he had two free throws. The clock read 0:00, no one lined up on the lane, and Centenary's No. 00 stood alone. Win, tie, or lose. There was another zero.  Miss. Miss.
     The next season, though, Parish and Centenary got the best of Dunbar and Houston in the Gold Dome in Shreveport -- maybe the most significant of Centenary's 89 wins in the Parish Era.
     Parish and Dunbar never faced each other again. Lou was headed to the NBA a year earlier than Robert, or so we thought. Didn't happen.
      Next: Part II -- Minden's best ever?

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Sixty years in America: a day, a trip, to remember

       Sixty years ago today -- Jan. 7, 1956 -- we got our first look at the Statue of Liberty. It was a moment to remember, and to treasure.
       We arrived in the United States that day, the boat trip from The Netherlands at its conclusion after 10 mostly seasick days.
       It was Dad and Mom -- in their mid-30s -- and my sister Elsa and me. None of us spoke much English, just a few words Mom had learned from a book -- and I had no clue what the Statue of Liberty meant or represented.
       She welcomed us. She held her torch high.
       I do remember my mother telling us, in our little cabin, that we needed to go upstairs on the deck to see the Statue of Liberty. OK, Mom, whatever.
       On Jan. 7, 2016, I can tell you it was one of the great experiences of a lifetime.
       I have written about this previously, in the first year of my blog (2012), but today I present my mother's version of the trip from Holland and our first week in the United States. 
       She wrote this in January 2006, on the 50th anniversary of our arrival, and read it as part of her speech to a group in Shreveport that honored my parents then. There are details in it that I remember differently, but Miss Rose sometimes didn't let the facts get in her way.
        It's lengthy, but I think it's touching and it's neat, so bear with it ...
        "We applied for an American visa but the immigration laws were so strict we had to have a relative sponsor, and we didn't. In 1953, this country made a special law for Holocaust survivors called the Non-Quota Law. We could come, but we had to have a work sponsor. The HIAS (Hebrew International Agency for Survivors) found us a family in Shreveport, Louisiana, who were willing to sponsor us. They also had a job for Louis in an oil pipe and supply company. They were responsible for the first five years we were here. The owners were Abe Gilbert and his two sons-in-law, Lazar Murov and Neal Nierman. They were what we call in Yiddish real "menschen," which means exceptionally good people.
The earliest photo I have of us in the United States, spring
1956, in front of the duplex on Jordan Street. That's me, Elsa
and Dad with Janet Vandenberg (Mom took the photo). Janet
and her father, Ed, were the first people of Dutch heritage we
met in Shreveport and they were wonderful friends.
       "We had gone in Amsterdam to the American consulate to learn about Shreveport. We knew that we would live a complete different life, but we were determined to adjust. Our friends in Holland didn't understand why we would go to a place where we didn't know anybody. To us, it was a challenge. The 10 years we had lived in Holland (after World War II) were extremely difficult. It probably would have been easier to give up. But how many people get a second chance on life? And if you are fortunate enough to get that chance, then you must try hard to do the best you know how.
      "... We got a visa to come to this great country. We have never regretted it one second that we came here.
      "Someone asked me the other day if I remember where I was New Year's Eve 50 years ago. Yes, I remember it well.
      "We had booked with the elegant, beautiful ship of the Holland-America line. The date was 28 December 1955. All our friends had passes to come on board with us to say our last goodbyes. We all shed some tears. It was very emotional. I realized that nobody made us leave.
      "We were informed that there would be some great parties on board celebrating New Year's Eve 1956 and lots of entertainment. I had made an evening dress of champagne-colored taffeta for Elsa, our 4-year-old daughter. Our very observant son, Nico, who was 8, wanted to know what the brown paper bags on the railing were for. I told him I hoped we never needed them. Just wishful thinking.
      "We went from Hoek of Holland (a city on the North Sea) to Marseille, France, through the English Channel to Southampton. Up till then, the trip was enjoyable. We had a nice cabin with two bunk beds and a great view of the North Sea. The people we met were interesting and amicable. The food in the dining room was scrumptious. Our children were having a good time, which was very important to us. The sea was calm and nobody was seasick.
     "The trouble started going in to the Atlantic Ocean. The ship went east to west and the waves from north to south. Not a very pleasant feeling.
     "Our 4-year-old daughter, who always got carsick, was doing great. She would go by herself to the dining room and told the steward there that the three of us were seasick. She would bring back apples for us, which were supposed to make you feel better. No such luck. We weren't able to take part in any of the parties.
     "If you ever plan a trip to Europe on a ship, don't go in January. After 10 days of misery, we landed in Hoboken, N.J. I kissed the ground, not only to be glad to be in America, but also to be off the ship. I swore I would never go on a ship again, not even a rowboat.
     "There were several people to welcome us; we had known them from Holland and Belgium. Some of them had come to America before the war or right after the war was over. They were all diamond polishers and offered Louis a job. He didn't accept, and I was delighted. I had enough of snow and ice and temperatures far below freezing. We were invited the next day (Sunday) for dinner by some of our friends. They were living on Long Island.
     "Our friend, Sally, picked us up from where we were staying. The HIAS had brought us there. It was on Lafayette Street (in New York City). The building used to be an old school. It was now a place for immigrants. There were people there who had lived there for years. It was nothing to compare with the Hyatt. Fortunately, we had to be there for a few days.
     "We had a wonderful time with our 'old' friends talking about 'the good (?) old times.' After dinner, Sally dropped us off at the railroad station. We took the train to Great Neck, N.Y., where we had to change to New York City. It was the first time we were on our own. Not knowing exactly where we were, not speaking the language well, with two children to whom it all was different and strange. It was sort of stressful.
      "Back in New York, we took a cab to Lafayette Street. The next day we took the subway to Broadway to see the Rockettes dance. It was maybe the only chance we would get to do that; we probably would never come back to New York. It was fabulous except for the ice cold, freezing, snowing weather.
     "Tuesday, we again took a cab to Penn Station to catch the train to Chicago. There, we had to change platforms and another train. We waited three hours for the train, which would bring us, hopefully, to St. Louis. It was Thursday, 12:30 a.m., when we arrived in St. Louis.
     "We left there with our two tired, sleepy children at 2:45 a.m. At 5:50 a.m., we stopped in Hope, Arkansas, where we had to go to another platform. The station was closed. There was not another train coming until 6:40 a.m. We sat outside on the two suitcases we had, not very comfortable. At 7:30 a.m., Jan. 12, we arrived in Shreveport.
      "The Jewish Federation director was there to welcome us. He was very kind. His name was Maurice Klinger. We were impressed with the car he was driving. It was a 1956 Chevrolet two-toned, grey and pink. In our eyes, it looked like a limousine. In Holland, you wouldn't see cars like that. Everybody drove small cars, like little toy cars.
      "We had an address on our papers for a hotel downtown, the Caddo Hotel. The Jewish Federation had rented a room there for us for two weeks. Mr. Klinger brought us to Jordan Street, to a two-story house. I said to Louis in Dutch, never seen a hotel like this. It turned out to be a duplex; it was nicely furnished. There was some food in the refrigerator, among other things, a chicken. Our first meal in Shreveport was chicken soup, of course.
     "The next morning we found an elementary school in the neighborhood. Louis and I thought the faster Nico would go to school, the faster he would learn English. Afterward, we came to the conclusion it was a big mistake. We should have given him time to acclimate. He had a very difficult time in the beginning. He became good friends with the rabbi's youngest son, who was a tremendous help to him and us.
     "There were no public kindergarten schools, only private, and we couldn't afford that. With the help of Nico, I tried to teach Elsa at home. There was one word she was familiar with: 'cute.' Everything was 'cute," from toys to cars to flowers. Even some food. She heard that word over and over again because that was what people would say to her.
     "Friday night, we went to Shul (Agudath Achim, on Line Avenue). It was about three blocks from where we lived. It was quite an experience. They made us all feel welcome -- something we really needed. Until then, we hadn't met many people.
     "The next day, we walked around the neighborhood to get familiar with our surroundings. On Sunday, we walked all the way to Kings Highway, about an hour from Jordan Street. There we took the city bus to the Mansfield Road where Gilbert Pipe Co. was located. We wanted to see how much time Louis needed to go to work.
     "The next day Louis went from diamond polishing to the oil pipe and supply business. He was hired for six weeks and stayed for 28 years. He learned the business from the bottom to the top. He not only liked the work, he did what was even more important -- he liked the Gilbert family and so did I.
      "... We are blessed in so many ways having come to Shreveport, meeting so many people and making so many good friends. All of them showed us love, care and kindness. We can't thank everybody personally, but we want you all to know how much we love  you and appreciate you."
     It is 10 years since she wrote that and gave the speech. She's gone, Dad's gone, and they had more than 50 years in this country. Elsa is in New Jersey, and I'm in Texas. There are now six Van Thyn great-grandchildren.
     And we're grateful.
     The Statue of Liberty stands in that harbor and it might be debatable to some, but not to me: She is a welcome sight still.
     It's 60 years and counting for us. Seems like a lifetime.      

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The media and coaches: On the firing line

      We watched Les Miles being fired in the media as the head football coach at LSU in late November, and it was -- if you are partial to the Tigers -- an unsettling but fascinating chapter.
      Didn't happen, of course, but it made me think again of the media's role in the business of firing and hiring coaches. Is it the media's job to write or say -- or demand -- that coaches be let go or be forced to resign?
      In the sports world, speculation/analysis is almost as much fun (is that the right word?) as it is about politics. But, heck, politics isn't nearly as important as sports.
      I've always believed it is not the media's role to flat-out call for a coach's dismissal, and I've never done it on a local/state level. But I am "old school," and it's a new age, and my day has passed. More on this below.
Louis Van Gaal: A Dutchman coaching the Manchester
United soccer team -- and battling the English media.
      I was going to write about Miles and the media, but what really triggered this piece was a couple of news conference I saw with a soccer coach recently. Yes, soccer.
      Those of us from Louisiana think Miles has the most high-profile job in sports. You probably have not heard of Louis Van Gaal, who has arguably -- my opinion -- the most high-profile job in all of sports.
      I am, of course, partial to a Dutchman whose name starts with Louis Van ...
      Louis Van Gaal has had some of the world's top soccer coaching jobs -- Ajax Amsterdam, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and (my favorite) twice The Netherlands national team. The job he has now, Manchester United, is the most prestigious in the English Premier League and -- my opinion -- of any club team in the world. 

      Those are the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox, Celtics, Lakers, Cowboys, Packers, Canadiens -- all rolled into one. (OK, maybe a slight exaggeration.) But Man U. has more Premier League titles (20) than any team and had a legendary coach, Alex Ferguson -- Sir Alex -- who was Lombardi, Stengel, Landry, the Bear, Scotty Bowman, etc., of England.             
      And in his second year there -- after eight consecutive matches without a victory and the team's worst season in 25 years -- Van Gaal is catching hell, from fans and -- yes -- the media.
      His recent news conferences -- and his exchanges (battles) with the English media -- are an ongoing soap opera.

      Like in the case of Miles, the media already has him "sacked" -- that's the European term for fired. But it hasn't happened, which is why it's ongoing. And what Van Gaal touched on recently made a lot of sense to me.
      He talked about the human element involved in these situations, how it's not just the coach -- who despite salaries of millions of dollars still have feelings, and more importantly, lots of people around them (family, assistants, staff, friends) who are affected.
      I thought back to Miles and how, on the night of the Texas A&M game when most everyone thought he was about to be fired, the TV cameras and announcers several times focused on Miles' family. In the news conference afterward -- after the "he is still our coach" announcement -- Miles also talked about his family.
      No matter how you feel about Miles, you have to admit he kept his cool during the hectic two weeks when he was being roasted and "fired." As he pointed out, he just kept working and he did tried to answer all the speculative questions the best he could.
      Only twice, when asked about his feelings, did he respond in a suggestive manner.
      In the news conference after the A&M game, he said, "There's probably a guy or two I'd like to meet in an alley and just have a little straight talk with, but I'm not built that way."
      And in a news conference before LSU's bowl game with Texas Tech in Houston, he was asked, "Is there any bitterness toward some of the people that possibly leaked out some of this stuff about you?" His reply: "I promise you, should I find out who was in conversation there, I would -- that would be a lot of fun for me to know."
      I am assuming he meant LSU Board of Supervisors people, not the media.
      But Van Gaal's target was the media, no question.
     You think coaches in pro football, basketball and hockey, and managers in baseball, and of course, college football and basketball coaches are under a lot of pressure here? Not even close to what happens in the soccer world.
      Coaching jobs change rapidly in that sport. Already this season, among others, defending English champion Chelsea, Liverpool and -- just Monday -- Real Madrid (generally sports' richest team, the only one richer than Manchester United) changed coaches.
      Van Gaal hasn't been "sacked" ... not yet. But he is as displeased with media as they are with him.
      He has a reputation as an aloof, know-it-all arrogant manager -- sounds like some U.S. coaches we know -- but when I read that he "stormed out" or "walked out in a huff" of his news conference on Dec. 23, that's not how I saw it.
      Yes, he had an agenda. But he didn't rant; he didn't lose it; he didn't do Nick Saban or Mike Gundy or Jim Mora or Dabo Swinney on "Clemsoning" or even the occasional fired-up Les Miles routine. English media stories called Van Gaal "fiery." I thought he was calm and measured, stern and direct and -- my feeling -- honest. He did leave after three questions and five minutes, but he gave the media plenty.
       Here is how it went:
       He began by asking the media, "Has anybody in this room not a feeling to apologize to me?" (Oh, they must have loved that.) That's what I am wondering.
       “I think I was already sacked I have read. Or have been sacked. Or that my colleague [ex-Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho] was here already.
       “What do you think that happens with my wife or with my kids? Or with my grandchildren? Or with the fans of Manchester United? Or with my friends? What do you think?
       “They have called me, a lot of times, and also [Arsenal coach] Arsene Wenger is saying something about that.
       “Do you think I want to talk with the media now? I am here only because of the Premier League rules. I have to talk with you. But I can only see that when I talk to you that you put it in your context."
       In other words, the media will write or say whatever they want to.
       He went on to say that he still felt support from his players and top team officials and that the atmosphere around the team was positive. Then he added, “But I didn't feel that [warmth] in the media. I can imagine that you can write about that subject."
        When the media kept badgering him, he had had enough.
        "I wish you a merry Christmas and also maybe a happy new year when I see  you," he said. "Enjoy the wine and mince pie. Goodbye." And he walked out; he didn't storm out.
       A week later, after another loss, the media again asked about the assurance/support of team chairman Edward Woodward and Sir Alex Ferguson.
       "When they have said that, I don't say it to you because it is not any of your business," Van Gaal replied.
       Like I said, fun times at Man U. But I could empathize with the coach under fire.
        So in my career -- through Shreveport, Honolulu, Jacksonville, Knoxville -- I never personally wrote that a coach should be fired, nor did anyone on our staff do that. I could be wrong, but I don't remember any case.

        Sure we knew of some coaches who struggled in their positions and maybe weren't qualified, but my feeling was that these things take care of themselves. It was up to school officials/administration and/or boosters.
        For instance, for all of the "Help Mac Pack" talk about Charlie McClendon in 19 years as LSU's head coach, I am pretty sure that no one in the Louisiana media ever wrote that he should be fired. Charlie Mac was friends with most of the men who covered his teams.
         Then I came to Fort Worth and media here didn't mind passing judgment on Rangers/Cowboys/Mavericks/Stars managers/coaches. And I do have friends who have called for college coaching changes.
         Because of the expanded media world -- talk shows, Internet sites, blogs -- it is a new day. As a friend pointed out, "Objective journalism is hard to find any more. It doesn't sell."
         I have a friend who did think Miles should have been let go, and he has twice called for coaching changes -- 23 years apart. But he said, "I don't write it unless I absolutely believe it and back it up with facts."
         Another friend, a longtime scribe, said, "My personal stance is I won't call for somebody to be fired. I'm not an AD. What I will do is point out how bad things are."
         Yet another friend said: "I never overtly called for a firing; didn't think it was my place. Would lay out the facts and all but hit the reader over the head but never said fire him." As an example, he used the case of one of the former LSU football coaches.
          These are friends, and all good journalists. And I think they'd agree that the media is in a sweet spot in this regard: We are fortunate that -- with few exceptions -- we don't have football or basketball (or soccer) coaches sitting in judgment of our work, saying that we should be let go.
          As my wife points out, there's enough judging going on about the media within our own ranks.