Book excerpt

Striking Gridiron

A Town's Pride and a Team's Shot at Glory During the Biggest Strike in American History

Greg Nichols

St. Martin's Press

Author and journalist GREG NICHOLS has followed his penchant for place-based reporting from the barrios of South America to the steel towns of Western Pennsylvania. His article on Braddock for Pittsburgh Quarterly won the 2012 Golden Quill Awards for Best History/Culture Feature and Best Sports Feature. Nichols holds a B.A. in philosophy from the University of California at Santa Barbara, and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College. He lives with his wife in Los Angeles, California.

Chapter One

IN THE SHADOW OF PAUL BROWN

 

FROM A DISTANCE, the corrugated overhang outside the hotel lobby looked like the folds of a paper fan, or like the charted performance of a volatile stock. On the lip of the overhang, yellow cursive letters formed the word Kutsher’s. Coach Chuck Klausing and his wife, Joann, were tired after their nine-hour drive from Western Pennsylvania, but the excitement of arriving at the Catskills resort revived them.

“Gee whiz, it’s something!” Joann remarked, taking in the grounds.

“I’ll say,” Klausing said, stretching his legs and twisting to loosen up his compact, muscular frame.

He had done all the driving, and it left him stiff and tunnel-sighted. The two stood a moment while the sun and the fresh air played on their faces. Before heading inside, Joann wrapped her arms around her husband and hugged him.

When they pushed through the glass doors, the pair found the lobby buzzing with activity. Middle-aged men in charcoal or chocolate slacks talked in loose circles. Other men sat in the hotel’s modern, pastel lounge chairs, gesticulating and discoursing in brassy tones. With excesses of charisma or sternness, each man seemed to command the three or four feet in front of him. The passing impression was of a convention of off-duty police officers, or of a lively wake packed with career politicians. These were men of power and deep humor, and they had gathered in the lobby under the mantle of mutual respect.

It was Chuck Klausing’s second trip to the famous coaches’ clinic at Kutsher’s Country Club. Every June, the swanky resort in Monticello, New York, became the center of the sporting universe. A major symposium attracted the best basketball and football coaching talent from around the nation. Sports Illustrated covered the event, and college teams on the lookout for new staff often trolled the hallways for prospects. For four days, big winners like Pennsylvania State University football coach Rip Engle and the University of California, Berkeley, basketball coach Pete Newell would preach success to packed auditoriums of trophy-case aspirants. For up-and-comers, head and assistant coaches at all levels, the speakers were prophets. Men who had driven all night from the Farm Belt, the Rust Belt, and the Bible Belt would be scribbling nuggets of wisdom in the margins of their programs. In off hours, the coaches would find comfort in the relaxed bullshitting congenital to their breed. It was sleepaway camp for the whistle-blowing set. Even with his wife on his arm—“vacation” had a different meaning when you were married to a coach—Klausing felt right at home.

After checking in, Klausing and Joann followed a bellhop to the elevator. In the room, their feet sank into carpeting a mile deep.

Joann turned to her husband. “This will do just fine,” she said, smiling.

A picture window, which the bellhop revealed for them behind heavy curtains, overlooked the golf course and acres of trees. Farther back sat the purple humps of the Catskills. Immediately below them, a huge swimming pool reflected the sky. Guests, some of them well burned by the June sun, lounged on deck chairs beside the pool. Klausing thought he might swim later that afternoon, and Joann couldn’t wait to start her tan. They had five children at home, the youngest less than a year old; Joann couldn’t remember the last time she had stopped to enjoy the sun. After tipping the bellboy, they unpacked quickly. There was only a brief window for them to enjoy each other’s company. Joann knew that her husband, despite his noblest efforts, would soon be irretrievably drawn into weighty conversations about football and coaching.

At thirty-four, Chuck Klausing had a chance to make history. He had led the Tigers of Braddock, Pennsylvania, an iconic steel town on the banks of the Monongahela River, to five straight undefeated seasons. On the eve of a sixth season, Braddock High was primed to pass the national high school record of fifty-two consecutive games without a loss—a record set seventeen years earlier by Massillon Washington High School in Ohio. Massillon’s name was legend, and its former coach, Paul Brown, a football god. Klausing’s Tigers had already racked up forty-six straight games without losing. Their only blemish had come in a 1954 regional championship game, which had ended in a tie. Braddock had eight regular season games on its schedule in 1959. Klausing and his boys would need to win the first seven of them to take the crown.

Later that evening, the revitalized couple walked to the dining room at Kutsher’s Country Club. Large and softly lit, it had nearly filled up. More than six hundred attendees had registered for the clinic. Klausing scanned the faces to see if he recognized anyone. He doubted anyone would recognize him. He was the only high school coach on the program. If a few of the attendees knew him by reputation, they wouldn’t know his face. Not yet, anyway. The coming season could change that.

After consulting a seating chart, the pair walked to their table. As they approached, Klausing immediately recognized one of the men already seated. He ought to have. Red Auerbach, head coach of the Boston Celtics, had won his second NBA title one month earlier. Concealing his excitement, Klausing whisked Joann over and pulled out a chair for her, strategically choosing one two spaces from Auerbach. Then, bidding his tablemates hello, he took a seat next to the Celtics coach.

“Good evening,” he said, hardly able to believe his luck.

Joann settled in for a long dinner. She knew she had already lost her husband for the weekend.

*   *   *

Klausing had trouble sleeping at night. The coming football season had now fully encroached on his peace, and a decent night’s rest was unthinkable. For an elite group of coaches, a shot at a record-breaking unbeaten streak came around once in a lifetime, and then only when fate intervened. Unlike single-game records—records for the most points scored or the most offensive yards racked up in a game, which coaches boasted about at booster club meetings and banquets—unbeaten streaks made national news. Playing against a weak opponent, any pitiless coach might run up the touchdowns or pile on hundreds of yards of offense. Even single-season records, like the still-unbeaten 8,588 offensive yards that a high school in Arkansas had tallied in 1925, could be chalked up to ephemeral talent—a few star players peaking at the same time. But players eventually graduated, and then teams came back down to earth.

To go undefeated in league games, regional playoff matches, and championship bouts year after year took something more. It took a coach who could squeeze excellence out of any group of athletes, a coach with the nearly inhuman ability to make the correct call on each down for seasons on end. And it took luck. Streaks didn’t last. Football had too many moving parts to keep perfection up for long, and no coach had ever managed a second run at a record like Massillon’s. At thirty-four, Klausing knew he was staring his lone opportunity in the face. In the coming months, sleep would be scarce.

It was early still when Klausing edged out of bed, and he tried to be quiet so he wouldn’t wake Joann. As a mother of five and an adoptive mother to fifty football players, she deserved her rest. Joann ran the mothers’ club at Braddock High. She raised funds, orchestrated rallies, and had attended every game Klausing ever coached. She baked enough to feed an army. Her Jewish apple cakes, which flew out of the oven at an astonishing pace during football season, were in especially high demand. Klausing hoped Joann would enjoy herself here. The coach’s wife had long ago made peace with the fact that even her free time would be spent in proximity to football.

Klausing rode the elevator to the first floor. A few early birds were getting started on breakfast in the dining room. Klausing noticed a man sitting alone and asked if he could join him. Jim Owens, the head football coach at the University of Washington, was just going over a presentation he would give later that day. Sliding his notes to the side, Owens said he would welcome the distraction. Klausing glanced at his neatly printed index cards, which were scarred with last-minute revisions. He could sympathize. He would be giving his own speech in two days, and he’d been tearing his notes apart and stitching them back together again for weeks.

Owens’s presentation would be about the Double Wing-T offense, a variation on the popular Wing T formation that Klausing used at Braddock High. In the straightforward Wing T, a single wingback lined up outside the offensive end and one yard off the line. With a fullback lined up four yards behind the quarterback and a halfback beside him on the weak side, the formation lent itself to inside runs and shifty quarterback options. In the Double Wing T, the halfback became a second wingback on the weak side. Diagramed on a chalkboard, the balanced set looked like a bow firing the shaft of an arrow. Reverses out of the Double Wing T could effectively nullify larger defenses, and with a skilled quarterback, speedy running backs could more easily release on passing routes. Klausing had been toying with the Double Wing T himself. His offensive line would be undersized in 1959, but he’d have some of the fastest running backs in the state. The Double Wing T could be a good way to use them to their fullest.

Klausing loved the way football kept evolving. He loved its legacy—the great dynasties, like Massillon Washington High, that stretched the bounds of excellence—and loved how it marched forward, each generation adding new elements. Football was closer to chess than people knew. Within the confines of a narrow set of rules, the masters developed new strategies. Klausing’s father, a lay preacher and the mayor of the small town of Wilmerding, Pennsylvania, had been a passionate football fan all his life. As a young man, the elder Klausing had often taken the train to Ohio to see professional clubs like the Canton Bulldogs play in the Ohio League, a loose confederation of teams that later became the American Professional Football Association. Back then, attrition was the game’s reigning philosophy. Leatherheads made fierce runs into a wall of waiting tacklers. Football had changed in the years since—the forward pass alone had revolutionized the sport. Klausing’s new friend was helping the game evolve even further, tweaking and experimenting with an offense that many coaches had never played against. A new generation was leaving its stamp.

The two coaches finished breakfast together. Then, bidding Owens good luck, Klausing returned to his room. He took out his cream-colored notebook and a blue pen, which he used for revisions. It had been difficult for him to put five undefeated seasons into words, to condense his best strategic thinking down to a pat thirty-minute talk. Much of what he’d written sounded hackneyed to him now, like the empty jargon in bad movies about sports:

“You never win football games, you only lose them.”

“Most all of it falls under hard work. Never found any substitute for work—no magic formula for winning.”

“Do not accept anything short of perfection.”

These clichés would be no more inspiring to a crowd of coaches than a campaign slogan would be to a politician. Klausing had been culling as many false-sounding phrases as he could find. The trick was to not cut the good stuff while he was at it, the biting truths masquerading as platitudes.

“Never cut a boy who wants to play.”

He’d dress any boy who could survive his hellish summer workouts. He would take guts over talent any day—“intestinal fortitude,” he called it. It was the single most important trait a ballplayer could have.

“Don’t ever fear your assistant knowing too much,” he’d scratched in his harsh, saw-toothed script. “Be happy and learn and direct his knowledge.”

He had had excellent personnel in the previous five seasons. One of his early assistants, a man named George Hays, had even played in the NFL. Klausing was always learning from those around him, and he had no qualms about seeking answers from his subordinates. His ability to lead had grown out of that thirst for self-improvement.

“Tradition of boys,” he wrote elsewhere in the notebook. “We are constantly talking about the ’57 team, the ’56 team, etc.”

Klausing was building a dynasty at Braddock High, and he expected every boy who wore Tigers red and white to buy into it. The momentum of dozens of wins carried his players onto the field every Friday night, made the crucial difference in otherwise evenly balanced contests.

No single piece of advice Klausing was considering for his talk was groundbreaking, perhaps, but taken together they showed a rough path toward becoming an effective coach, one who cared deeply about his players and his personnel. Klausing had won games by working harder than his opponents and by knowing how to draw talent out of those around him. Those pillars made him kindred to Paul Brown, the legendary coach whose record he was now chasing.

Two years earlier, before anyone in Western Pennsylvania dared to mention Braddock’s chance at the record, Klausing had interviewed for the head coaching job at Massillon Washington High School. It would have been a tremendous honor to take the reins at a place made famous by his idol. He would never say so out loud, but Klausing envisioned himself following Brown’s trajectory, parlaying a storied high school career into a top college job, perhaps moving into the NFL after that.

In the weeks before his Massillon interview, Klausing stayed up half the night editing game film and drafting talking points. Joann made him pot after pot of coffee—it was the first time she had ever seen him touch the stuff. They talked guardedly of moving to Ohio. In the end, it didn’t work out. An ally on the hiring board called Klausing the following day with bad news. He had done a fine job hammering the fundamentals, the man explained, principles like blocking and conditioning, which Paul Brown had won championships with at Massillon Washington High two decades earlier. But the other finalist had blown the interviewers away with a highlight reel—in color and set to music—from games in which he’d coached. The other candidate had even enlisted cheerleaders to lead his players in calisthenics for the camera. Klausing’s film, clips from a 14–0 Braddock victory that showcased his players’ discipline and gamesmanship, fell flat by comparison. Off the field, glitz won out over substance. It was a lesson Klausing tried to keep in mind as he sculpted his Kutsher’s talk.

Klausing’s players didn’t know a thing about glitz. They told stories of their coach’s drive, his immense expectations on the field, and his belief in the healing power of conditioning. None of his players, from the All-State superstars to the underclassmen warming the bench, had to think twice when asked how they managed to win so consistently. Training—hour after hour of excruciating work.

Big Bertha, a massive driving sled, haunted the Tigers dreams. It was rare for high school teams to use sleds, and even rarer to see anything larger than a two-man version. Big Bertha was ten yards wide and had spots for seven players. It was designed from memory by George Hays, the assistant who had played in the NFL. In the summer before Braddock’s 1956 season, Hays mentioned to Klausing how much the drills on Big Bertha had helped his professional teammates improve their blocking. Up until then, the Braddock coaches had been wearing football pants to practice, sacrificing their own bodies to teach the boys proper blocking technique. Klausing enlisted a manager at U.S. Steel to weld the sled together. His name was Harry Stuhldreher and he was particularly well suited to the task. A former Notre Dame quarterback and member of the legendary Four Horsemen backfield of 1924, Stuhldreher knew exactly the kind of sled Klausing had in mind. A latticework of scrap steel and thin padding, the finished product weighed a ton. Steelworkers borrowed a crane from the mill to hoist it off the truck and onto Braddock’s practice field. When Klausing instructed the first group of players to hit it, they bounced off.

“Lower,” he said, “and drive your feet.”

On the next attempt, the sled budged a foot.

“Too high. Get lower and keep your feet moving. All together.”

On the next try, they drove the sled a yard. By the end of the season, they were pushing Big Bertha up and down the field. Successive generations of Tigers had endured the same exhausting initiation.

Six games stood between the Braddock Tigers and Massillon Washington High School’s record, and seven would put them over the top. Maybe, Klausing allowed, he was following Paul Brown’s career trajectory after all. He had traveled to Cleveland two years earlier to hear Brown speak, and the experience strengthened his admiration for the man. Brown beamed confidence. The older coach had a reputation for discipline. Back in Massillon, he would make his high school students stand on the sideline during games, an uncommon practice for the time. What did they need to sit for, he’d ask, playing as poorly as they were? He conditioned his players mercilessly, emphasizing speed and endurance. He was known for blowing up without a moment’s notice, and he had fired assistants for being a few minutes late. But he was also respected—above all, by his players.

Klausing had copied some of Brown’s methods to the letter, especially his emphasis on the ABCs: agility, blocking, and contact. Braddock High players frequently ran a hellish drill straight from Brown’s playbook—fifteen uninterrupted minutes of high knees, sled work, and tackling. But Klausing had a soft spot that Brown rarely showed, a way of joking with his players in quiet moments. Away from the field, you had to let boys be boys, he believed. He presented a hard face in practice, but he always tried to be a guardian and a well-rounded man the rest of the time. Perhaps that was the single most important idea he could offer an auditorium full of coaches who were eager for a leg up. He turned to the front of his notebook and scribbled two sentences in blue ink on the top of the first page:

“We don’t coach football. We coach boys.”

*   *   *

With Joann off at the pool, Klausing dressed in his workout clothes and tennis shoes and headed downstairs. He crossed the resort’s freshly mowed lawn and walked toward the tennis courts. He was thrilled that he had been selected to give a talk at the clinic. He knew he had done something worthy of attention at Braddock High, but he also understood that his claim on gridiron glory was tenuous. Winning seven straight games would be a challenge, no matter how many times he’d done it before. Some of his previous games had been won on a prayer. The victory over North Braddock Scott in 1958 had come after an interception by Mark Rutkowksi and a thirty-seven-yard field goal by a 225-pound tackle-turned-placekicker. The ball had actually hit the crossbar before bouncing over on Roland Mudd’s field goal. Klausing had spent hours contemplating the improbability of that play. If the ball had rolled the other way, a simple question of balance, their streak and their shot at history would have ended. He wouldn’t be heading to the tennis courts at a resort in the Catskills, and people wouldn’t be mentioning his name in the same sentence as Paul Brown’s. A Catholic by conversion, Klausing believed in a higher plan. Though a world-class coach, he could in no other way account for the dozens of turns in his favor during the previous five years.

The coming season would be a battle. North Braddock Scott, a perennial competitor, would retain its best players. With new talent coming up, they’d be stronger than ever. Newspapers had been speculating that either Hopewell or Midland, two Class A teams on Braddock’s schedule, would spoil the Tigers run. No matter whom they faced, Klausing’s players would have targets on their backs.

At the same time, a host of new challenges loomed for Braddock—none bigger than the loss of starting quarterback Mark Rutkowski. In 1958, Rutkowski was named to Scholastic magazine’s All-American team and won the Most Valuable Player award in the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League. He’d also been selected as starting quarterback for the vaunted Pennsylvania team in an annual interstate matchup with Ohio’s best high school players. That game would take place in a few weeks, the final hurrah in Rutkowski’s charmed high school career. Few teams could survive the loss of such a notable player.

Rutkowski’s 1958 backup would take over as starting quarterback in ‘59. John Jacobs was talented, and maybe even more versatile than Rutkowski. Both players had incredible arms, but Jacobs could run the ball as well. He was lightning quick and scrappy as a hungry dog. But Jacobs had strained his back, a major concern heading into the season. From time to time, his lower back tightened and his lumbar region screamed with pain. He could hardly lift his arm when that happened, to say nothing of dodging tacklers. Doctors said vague things about an aggravated muscle. With a record on the line—and, for Jacobs, a shot at a college scholarship—the strength of that back was key.

In Western Pennsylvania, opposing fans liked to talk about Klausing’s blind luck, especially when it came to attracting talented players. Anyone could win with the likes of Mark Rutkowski, they said, neglecting to see how Klausing and his dedicated assistants had formed Rutkowski as an elite player. Klausing and John Zuger, an assistant coach on the Tigers, had spent hours watching the quarterback lob balls downfield. Zuger had worked with Rutkowski in an alley each summer, positioning him against a wall to teach him not to twist his arm out at the end of his release. When things were bad at home for the boy, as they often were with an alcoholic father, the coaches taught him to channel his frustrations into perfecting the few things in life he could control—his step drops, his blitz reads, and his checkdowns. Klausing had a gift for spotting untapped potential. He often recruited from the track squad or the JV basketball team at Braddock High, cultivating seeds of ability in sophomore athletes that, with careful attention, would blossom into mature talent by senior year. He understood that nothing would silence his critics. One more perfect season, though—a new national record—would quiet them down some.

Klausing arrived at the tennis courts to find his dinner companion from the evening before already warming up. Playing tennis with Red Auerbach. Boy. Getting licked by him, more like. It became clear as soon as they started that the Celtics coach was a much better player. At forty-one, Auerbach retained all the agility of the basketball star he’d once been. He was a natural athlete, smooth and quick, and he was able to summon incredible power with no apparent effort.

On the other side of the court, Klausing sprinted from line to line. A former college football player, he was no slouch.

“Best one-hundred-fifty-pound center I ever had,” his Penn State coach Bob Higgins had once kidded him.

Best and only. Most players weighed in at over two hundred pounds, and centers were typically among the heaviest on the field.

“I may be small, Coach, but I’m fast,” Klausing had shot back.

It had helped that the war was going on. While Klausing was preparing to become an officer in the marines, putting in two years of college before Officer Candidate School, many would-be players had already shipped out. The pool of available athletes had thinned, and small fries back home got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Klausing loved football and had grabbed that opportunity with both hands. He impressed a lot of people on the way. He may not have had a size advantage, but he had a kind of blind determination that made up for it.

Drawing on that determination now, he hurled himself at Auerbach’s returns, somehow managing to keep a portion of them in play. But it wasn’t enough. A laser shot down the line zipped past his outstretched racket. He was losing badly.

At the merciful end of two sets, the high school coach bade his opponent good game.

“If basketball doesn’t work out for you,” Klausing quipped at the net, “there’s always the pro circuit.”

Auerbach slapped him on the back and they retired to the bench to towel off. After they’d had a chance to rest, they headed to the club’s restaurant for an early lunch. Still in their tennis clothes, the sweaty duo chose a clean square table in the light of a large window. Kutsher’s was posh, the fanciest place Klausing had ever stayed. Success on the field was its own reward, but a high school coach could get used to amenities like these.

Auerbach, cheerful in victory, wanted a preview of Klausing’s speech. What made him so damned successful? When Klausing first arrived at Braddock High, the football team had been mediocre.

“Chuck,” the team’s outgoing coach, Henry Furrie, had warned him in 1954, “you don’t want this job. The kids are undisciplined. The administration isn’t in it. It’s an unwinnable situation.”

In the nine previous seasons, the Tigers had gone 21–54–4, including one disastrous year when the team managed only twenty-five combined points. By contrast, the teams they faced routinely scored thirty points against them each game. Braddock shared a field with North Braddock Scott, its biggest rival. Scott Field had seats for close to ten thousand fans, but the Tigers were lucky to attract a measly thousand on Friday nights. To say that Klausing faced an uphill battle was putting it mildly.

Remarkably, in the five seasons since he took over, Klausing’s Tigers hadn’t lost a single game. Braddock had become a winning town by association. Friday-night home games always sold out, and with fans sneaking in, the spectators piled two or three deep in each aisle. Just as Paul Brown had done at Massillon High, Klausing took a hopeless group of individuals and turned it into an unstoppable force.

“It’s no big secret,” Klausing told Auerbach with characteristic understatement. “We work hard and we try to get the most out of our boys. There are maybe only a couple of things I’m doing differently.”

In the first place, Klausing couldn’t understand why more football coaches didn’t drill their players on punt blocking. Most treated it like some uncontrollable part of the game, a matter of luck more than training. Klausing held three or four boys back every practice, lined them up, and didn’t let them leave until he was satisfied they were exploding off the line fast enough, raising their hands high enough, and timing their leaps perfectly. His defensive line was one of the quickest and most specialized in the country. They averaged close to one blocked punt per game. Most teams were lucky to get a few in a season.

And then, Klausing admitted with a smile, there were his trick plays. With the immense talent on the Tigers in recent years, he hadn’t needed to use trickery so often. Early on, though, his play calling had been downright devious. After a stint in the marines, and once he’d finished his last two years of college, Klausing accepted his first coaching job at a small high school in Pitcairn, Pennsylvania. Newly married and financially strapped, he also took a part-time job as a high school football referee calling games outside Pitcairn’s division. To get his thirty dollars per game, he had to pass officiating tests throughout the season. In the course of studying rule books and running simulations, he had developed a robust repertoire of tricks.

At Pitcairn, he’d once won a game by dressing a kid in blue jeans and a faded practice jersey, hiding him on the far sideline, and having him jump onto the field, unguarded, at a crucial moment. When the opposing coach complained, the head referee took out his rule book to review the league’s uniform policy. Jersey with numbers on back—check. Helmet—the player had slipped one on before taking the field. Cleats—sure enough. Looking doubtfully at the scrawny receiver, the referee asked if he was wearing the requisite kneepads. The underclassman, who was still gasping after his fifty-yard touchdown run, dutifully rolled up his blue jeans. Spotting the kneepads, the opposing coach threw his hands up in frustration. Everyone in high school used tricks. It’s just that Klausing used them better. Coaches who played against him still kept a rule book close by.

Auerbach laughed. As a fellow coach who knew a thing or two about success, he understood Klausing was being modest. Blocked punts and trick plays didn’t account for forty-six games without a loss. Discipline and tireless preparation won games, not gimmicks or easy angles. But you had to hand it to Klausing. At a sports clinic full of coaches eager to land a hot tip, the “hard work” shtick was a nonstarter. Better, in his talk, if the young coach avoided recapping the hours he spent each night studying film, the scouting trips, and the two weeks every summer of grueling three-a-day practices when he melted his boys like Monongahela Valley steel and forged them into football players. Klausing had learned his lesson from the Massillon interview: Off the field, glitz carried the day.

Attentive waiters shuffled by, swooping in to refill water, bus silverware, take their orders. When you were with Red Auerbach, Klausing noted, the service was exquisite. Auerbach was a staple at Kutsher’s Country Club. The Celtics coach had moonlighted for years, heading the club’s summer basketball team. In the early 1950s, as the NBA was just coming into its own, some of the best nonprofessional play in the country took place in the Borscht Belt, a string of Jewish-owned hotels that stretched from Sullivan to Ulster counties in Downstate New York. Amid the loud boasts and louder bets of management, the hotels fielded teams of summer bellhops—well-paid young men who happened to be the best college basketball talent in the country. Spectators, comprising both paying guests and professional bookies, piled courtside at each game on the summer circuit. Thousands of dollars changed hands as vacationing couples and greasy gamblers cheered on their home clubs. For patrons, it was especially exciting to root for the bellhop who’d carried their bags. In 1953, one of the bellhops on Auerbach’s team had been a high schooler named Wilt Chamberlain. He was good enough at sixteen to be playing—and beating—college All-Americans. Auerbach had ridden the headstrong young player hard, demanding more than raw talent out of him. It was a frustrating experience. Still, the coach had never laid eyes on a more promising player. The first time he saw Chamberlain walk, all grace and glide, the man who was fast becoming the most successful coach in the NBA had stopped admiringly in his tracks to watch.

Auerbach no longer coached the Kutsher’s team, but the service didn’t suffer when he walked through the door. The country club was renowned for its kosher meals—beef brisket, matzo ball soup, and pastrami sandwiches—and the helpings were enormous. After his workout, Klausing was ravenous. What hair Auerbach had left hardly looked upset. Klausing apologized again for not giving him a better match. Auerbach brushed the apology aside, leaning back in his seat with a satisfied grin.

As they ate, the conversation veered easily between their respective sports. Like football, basketball was evolving, in large part thanks to a new generation of players. Auerbach had drafted the league’s first black player, Chuck Cooper, nine years earlier. Jackie Robinson had already broken the color barrier in baseball when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, but circumstance had long kept minority players from advancing on the hard court.

The thing was, Auerbach explained, it had been awfully hard for black kids to learn how to play basketball. YMCAs, which had the best youth leagues in just about every city in the country, didn’t end their national segregation policy until 1946. Even then, local chapters were slow to open their gyms. But in 1931, the Voit Rubber Company introduced the world’s first rubber basketball. It was an accidental civil rights triumph. Where white players paying twenty dollars for a leather ball didn’t dare play outdoors, black players with one-dollar balls started putting hoops up in their yards and driveways. Outdoor courts began showing up in alleyways and public parks, and black athletes began playing more basketball, merging traditional indoor styles with athletic street play. Now black players were redefining the game in the pros. Star Celtics center Bill Russell, who was perhaps the biggest talent the NBA had ever seen, had just led Auerbach’s team to its recent championship.

Braddock High was an integrated school, but racism still burned hot in the steel towns of Western Pennsylvania. The mills created a caste system, with black workers stuck at the bottom. When he first arrived at Braddock High, Klausing had been forced to break up dozens of lopsided fights—gangs of white students picking on smaller groups of black students, or vice versa. Instead of punishing the offenders, he took them into the gym, passed out boxing gloves, and let two boys at a time have at it. Klausing boxed in high school, and he had seen the way a fair fight could change your opinion of an adversary. Exhausted, dripping sweat, the same boys who had been at each other’s throats on the blacktop often finished those improvised bouts hugging. Sports could alter the way you looked at the world, Klausing believed. His father had often told him stories of Jim Thorpe, whom the elder Klausing had seen play football in the 1920s. Half white and half American Indian, Thorpe was the best athlete of his era. Loved by fans, he helped chip away at the bigotry of the age with success on the field.

The Tigers were starting to do the same thing in Braddock, where black players had flourished. Even so, Klausing lamented that his best white players got scholarships to big schools while scouts rarely took an interest in his black players. If the situation was changing, like everyone said, it seemed to be changing slowly. A look around the dining room suggested as much. A representative sample of the best coaching talent in two sports had started to trickle in for lunch. It was a monochrome group.

Klausing and Auerbach chatted into the early afternoon. For the Tigers coach, it was reassuring to talk with someone who understood the pressures of the limelight. Auerbach advised him to stick with what he knew—hard work and discipline, mixed with compassion off the field—and especially to not get distracted by the fanfare. That went double for his players. It would be easy for the 1959 Tigers to lose focus under the intoxicating influence of the inevitable press coverage.

After lunch, Klausing returned to his room. Breathless, he told Joann everything—the humiliating tennis match, the jovial lunch, Auerbach’s eminent, rough-around-the-edges kindness. Joann was delighted. She reminded her husband that he deserved to be there, in the ranks of the great coaches. Klausing had accomplished something monumental in his five seasons at Braddock, and now was on the brink of making history.

But he couldn’t rest on achievement. After checking the clinic program to see which of the day’s speakers he wanted to hear—taking special care to look up Jim Owens—Klausing returned to his notes. Joann laughed. Her husband had been tinkering with the talk for weeks, had kept her up at night rehearsing. But there was no such thing as too much preparation, Klausing believed. Any one of his returning players could attest to that. In backyards across Braddock, the incoming Tigers had already started to fret about the season ahead. The torch of five undefeated teams—and the record, which had become a rallying cry in town as residents traded gossip about a looming steel strike—now fell to them.

 

Copyright © 2014 by Greg Nichols