Memories of Herbert Greene have been coming randomly. Sweet memories. Mostly funny memories. Even amid a heart-breaking occasion. The phone call Monday night was numbing: Greene had just died of a heart attack.
Memories of how funny he was. Brilliantly funny. He saw Maulvi Lewis working hard in practice and two other guys playing around and went over to Lewis to work with him one on one.
"The reason I'm working with you is you have heart. Those guys down there, if you put their hearts in a kitten, the two of them together wouldn't be big enough to keep a kitten alive."
Even after a gut-wrenching loss, Greene would walk back toward the locker room and accommodate reporters on tight deadlines. Invariably, his sharp and spontaneous wit would lighten the most tense moments. We could use a dose of that now.
Several years back, he started a tradition of having a preseason media luncheon. It always turned into a team roast. It was not for the thin-skinned, but the players never took it personally. They knew he handled everything with humor.
They also knew one of his favorite targets was himself. Like the time he wore a bright yellow jacket or pullover.
"I looked like a school bus. This morning I had two kids try to board me."
Memories of how much he loved his players. I've never met a coach on any level, higher or lower, who genuinely loved his players more than Greene did.
So he was funny, yes, but he was also tough. He had signed a kid from the rough hard-courts of South Philadelphia. That kid was Lewis. Signed him? No, more like rescued him. Lewis had never known the discipline that Greene demanded. One day, Greene had enough. He yanked Lewis from a game and ordered him to the end of the bench. Moments later, he stalked down the bench and leaned over into Lewis' face in a rage.
"When are you going to stop being a sorry human being and start being the man you can be?"
Lewis laughs about it now.
"Not only that, but he took me into his office after the game and articulated some more."
Harsh words, yes. But Greene had tried everything else he could think of. He had tried being nice. He had tried being encouraging. Greene finally realized he needed to get down on Lewis' level and be bluntly honest. This had absolutely nothing to do with basketball. He could find another power forward. Greene feared he was about to lose Lewis back to the gang-infested life of Philadelphia.
"He held me accountable, which nobody had ever done before," Lewis said. "He taught me how to be a man. He taught me there was a lot more to life than basketball. I didn't have a man figure in my life. He told me to quit using that as a crutch and make something of myself. At the time, I'm like, 'This man's crazy.' I was in shock. Nobody ever challenged me before. But he told me he believed in me. He told me the way I'm living, with my attitude, if I don't change, I would go back to Philadelphia and get shot. He gave it to you raw. But he also picked you up when you needed to be picked up."
That moment saved Lewis' basketball career. Fast-forward to the 2000 Peach Belt Athletic Conference championship game against Armstrong State. The Cougars buried Armstrong 95-67, in part because they outrebounded the Pirates 37-20. Lewis was unstoppable.
Fast forward some more. That moment may have saved Lewis' life. He stayed in school even after his eligibility expired and graduated with a degree in criminal justice. He became a police officer. Now he owns two transitional homes, helping men rebuild their lives after getting out of incarceration. Greene was as proud of him as he would have been had Lewis made it to the NBA.
Memories of so many conversations with Greene, conversations about life. He loved talking about his family. He had two children by his first marriage, Mike and Melissa. A second marriage, to Jan, brought him two more daughters, Olivia and Maria. His eyes would light up talking about them. His family meant more to him than any basketball game ever did. So as he built Columbus State -- actually, Columbus College at the time -- into one of the premier Division II programs in the Southeast, opportunities came for him to coach in Division I.
That was the plan when he left Sonny Smith's staff at Auburn, the school he loved, for Columbus College. But that original plan didn't include falling in love with a town, a school and a life that he found.
Understand, this was not his loss. It was big-time basketball's loss. There is no doubt Greene would have won anywhere he went, to whatever degree the school was committed to winning. In all honesty, there probably was a part of him that wanted that challenge. But he didn't need to be on ESPN or coaching future NBA players to validate his success.
Greene was an absolutely brilliant coach. Back when conventional wisdom held that you have to have big men to win, Greene went against the grain and recruited the best shooters he could find. Some mistakenly think his offense consisted of reckless shooting.
But nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, his wing players had the green light to shoot. But there were two conditions. One, they had to play defense. No team was more relentless on defense than Greene's Cougars. Two, they had to earn that right to shoot in practice. He ran a drill. Everyone had to make a certain number of three-pointers from various spots within a certain amount of time or they didn't play.
That made his teams fun to watch and tough to beat, which is why he won 481 games.
Somewhere along the way, Greene's perspective and priorities change. That can happen when your friend and physician sit down and looks you in the eye and says, "Herbert, you have cancer." Only the next time the doctor spoke to him after surgery, the doctor was stumped. The cancer had encased itself and died.
Was is the unceasing prayer of his family and friends? Greene accepted no other explanation.
"It was truly a miracle," he told me more than once. "I have no doubt."
Frankly, neither do I.
One of the first memories was of that day last January when Greene nervously walked out on the Lumpkin Center floor with his family. There was a brief ceremony to unveil a most fitting, and long overdue, tribute.
HERBERT GREENE COURT
Jan lovingly embraced his arm, which led him to later say, "She knew I was about to fade on her."
That honor, with so many former players either watching in person or texting him congratulations, deeply touched Greene. He had his day and cherished the love from so many people he touched. Maybe this was part of the original plan after all.
-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can writer to him at firstname.lastname@example.org