Look, the reason people relate to the Michael Jordan story of getting cut when he was in ninth grade isn’t because they relate to Michael Jordan. It’s because they relate to the coach that cut them, the coach who didn’t believe in them, the coach that made a big mistake.
That would be Mike Zuber to me. Now, don’t get me wrong, we all love “Zubes,” but he might have been the worst coach I ever had. Or … maybe he was the best coach I ever had. I mean, hell, he ended up motivating me for the next 10 years. Who knows? I thought he was pretty lousy but he showed me that even if you didn’t like a coach you could still play hard for him.
But Mike Zuber said something to me at halftime of a game against Southwest that I remember to this day. Our ninth grade team was undefeated when we played at Southwest, one of my most favorite gyms of all time. I loved that gym. Went to it countless times with my dad when he was officiating rec league games. Used to shoot around at timeouts and between games.
Zuber seldom played me as a freshman at Holy Name. I mean, he just didn’t. Mike was part of those Holy Name teams in the early 1970s who were really, really good. He was on that state championship team, of course. But dammit, Mike, you didn’t see the forest through the trees!
Gary Swavely, Terry Larkin, Mike Nawa, Al Ciervo and Tom Clouser were the starters. I came off the bench, though not often enough for my liking. Each of those guys had come from one of the catholic grade schools, but I transferred from Muhlenberg. I didn’t know anybody. And those guys were good. Zuber knew he was starting before the first day of practice.
So it’s halftime against Southwest and we’re down about five, circa January 1979. I hadn’t played in the first half, which wasn’t unusual. Steph Lowry was killing us, and Zuber was fuming at halftime. “Can anyone in here guard Lowry?!? Nobody said a word, and I didn’t know if he wanted an answer or not. After some silence, I said: “I’ll guard him.”
After a short pause, Zuber told me something in that locker room — in front of the whole team — I’ve never forgotten: “You’re too small.”
We won that game, I didn’t play, and every time I’ve ever seen Mike Zuber since I’ve given him grief. And rightfully so. Keep an open mind. That’s what I learned from Mike Zuber — because he didn’t keep one for me.
Here’s to Mike Zuber, who made me hungry.