Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Guy Behind The Guy

Behind every charismatic college head coach, there is often a hard-working assistant.

When the leader is cracking jokes at booster functions or holding court in the home of a recruit, the loyal aide is often doing the grunt work of scouting, crafting game plans and running practices.

For Frank McGuire, that trusty sidekick was a crusty basketball lifer named James Ambrose “Buck” Freeman.

Most coaching careers follow the trajectory of assistant to head man. Freeman’s story flipped the script.

Freeman played at St. John’s from 1923-’27, averaging 7.4 points per game in those slow-paced days of center jumps after every made basket.

Freeman was immediately named coach of his alma mater upon his graduation. The game had taken root in New York City, and St. John’s had mined the best talent.

Freeman molded his best players —Mac Kinsbrunner, Matty Bogovich, Allie Schuckman, Max Posnak and Rip Gerson — into “The Wonder Five,” one of the great teams of basketball’s early era.

The Redmen went 88-8 in Freeman’s first four seasons on the job. The St. John’s teams under Freeman are often credited with bringing ball movement, the give-and-go and switching on defense to prominence.

McGuire was recruited by Freeman and averaged 5.4 points per game in three seasons. It was during their time together that St. John’s met Westminister (Pa.) on Dec. 29, 1934, part of the first regular-season college doubleheader at Madison Square Garden and a watershed event in the sport’s evolution.

Freeman was a confirmed bachelor, a night owl and a hard drinker. His battle with alcohol cost him the job at St. John’s, despite a 177-31 record in 10 seasons. Joe Lapchick replaced him.

Freeman became a basketball vagabond. He was head coach for two stints at the University of Scranton (going 12-9 in 1937-’38 and 16-36 from 1947-’48). Sandwiched between that was an assistant’s gig with the legendary Clair Bee at Long Island University.

During the summers, Freeman built his reputation as a first-rate basketball mind by working at camps and clinics in New York City.

McGuire eventually became coach himself at St John’s and, understandably, couldn’t bring his mentor back to that touchy situation. But when McGuire took the University of North Carolina job in 1952, he hired a clean-and-sober Freeman as the only assistant.

McGuire is often credited with creating an “underground railroad” that delivered talent from New York City to Chapel Hill. New York talent scout Java Gotkin, who often steered recruits toward the Tar Heels, was a former player for Freeman at St. John’s.

Some of those New York recruits — including Lennie Rosenbluth, Tommy Kearns, Pete Brennan and Joe Quigg — formed the nucleus of UNC’s undefeated national champions in 1957.

Freeman was obsessed with the game, often walking the streets of Chapel Hill deep into the night while devising strategies. According to Adam Lucas’ “The Best Game Ever,” Freeman even slept in a tiny apartment attached to Woollen Gym, where the Tar Heels played at the time.

The relentless drive to a title frayed Freeman’s nerves. After the season, Freeman retired due to “health concerns” —most likely a relapse with the bottle. That led McGuire to hire an eager assistant from Air Force named Dean Smith.

Freeman must have eventually cleaned up because McGuire hired him again after becoming coach at South Carolina in 1964.

The “underground railroad” moved farther south, and eventually New Yorkers like Brian Winters, Mike Dunleavy and Bobby Cremins were playing for the Gamecocks.

Freeman retired after 10 seasons as an assistant at South Carolina, where he had been in poor health for the last few seasons. He didn’t last long without the game, dying at 69 on Feb. 16, 1974.

McGuire was always gracious in his praise of Freeman. The head coach never hesitated to call Freeman “the best assistant in the business.” After Freeman died, McGuire said his mentor-turned-assistant was “a coach’s coach, one of the great basketball coaches of all time.”