The following is another excerpt from my upcoming memoir, COWBOY FROM PRAGUE: AN IMMIGRANT’S PURSUIT OF THE AMERICAN DREAM, to be published by Atmosphere Press in late spring/early summer:
It was February of my junior year at Oklahoma State University. As always on non-game weekdays during basketball season, I walked into Gallagher Hall at 3:15 pm sharp, quickly changed into my practice uniform, and ran into the gym. As I began to warm up with my teammates, one of the student assistants came over.
“Mr. Iba wants to see you after practice,” he said.
“Why?” I asked, as I nearly fainted from shock and fear.
“How should I know?” replied the short, fat kid, obviously pleased that he had just scared the hell out of a player.
Henry Iba was one of the most famous coaches in the history of college basketball. At that time, he had won nearly 700 games and later would become coach of the US Olympic team and one of the early inductees into the basketball Hall of Fame. Sportswriters often referred to him as “The Iron Duke.” But in the entire time I knew him, I never heard anyone – sportswriters, faculty, students, players, fans – call him anything but “Mr. Iba” to his face. His mere presence intimidated people.
He was strictly old-school: a hard driver whose word was never questioned, a strict disciplinarian who would not tolerate anything less than all-out effort, total obedience, and good manners on and off the court. He insisted that his players not only attend class, but that they maintain grades well above the campus average.
I could not comprehend the attitudes his former, graduated players had toward him. They worshiped the ground on which he walked. When they spoke of him, it was with a reverence usually reserved for heads of state. By contrast, those of us who were playing for him were terrified of this ramrod-straight man with a roaring, hoarse, foghorn of a voice. We feared and respected him at the same time.
Now, I had to go for a one-on-one session with the man we called “God” behind his back. I had nearly three hours to wonder why he wanted to see me. I suspected that it had to do with my recent performance in the classroom.
Finally, practice was over, and I knocked on the door of Mr.Iba’s office.
“Come!” The guttural sound sent a shiver down my back.
The office was dark, except for the yellowish light from an old-fashioned lamp. Behind an old wooden desk sat a tall man who parted his hair in the middle like someone in a 1920s photo.
“Sit down, Heller,” he said sternly, as he examined some papers on his desk.
“Thank you, sir.”
“I see that your grades slipped last semester,” he said after an uncomfortable silence.
“Yes sir, they did. But, I’m really trying to bring them up,” I replied meekly.
Mr. Iba looked at me over his horn-rimmed glasses and said: “I realize that you’re the only engineering student on the team. The other guys are taking much easier courses. But, I still can’t tolerate lousy performance in your classes.”
Again: “Yes sir.”
“Do you think you’ll ever play in the NBA?” he asked, as I wondered why he would ask such a ridiculous question of a guy who seldom left the bench in OSU games.
“Then why the hell don’t you quit basketball and concentrate on becoming an engineer?”
His words hit me like an exploding bomb. What would my parents say? As recent immigrants, we were so poor that I had not been able to afford to make a single phone call home from college and, during the off-season, when not eating at the training table, subsisted on Coke, Hershey bars, and rice. How could I afford to finish school without a scholarship?
“I know your background,” Mr. Iba interrupted as if reading my desperate thoughts. “I admire you and your family, and I know that you’d have a hard time affording school without basketball.”
“So, I’ve decided to let you keep a half-scholarship for the rest of this year and all of next year. At the end of next year, I want to see you on the platform in cap and gown.”
“Sir, I don’t know what to say,” I stammered.
“Just come around to practice every once in a while, so you stay connected to the team. Now, get the hell out of here and go to work!”
As I trudged down the hall, I felt tears running down my cheeks. There had been a time when I had visions of being a college basketball star. Then I came to OSU and discovered rather quickly that, at this level, there were too many players who could shoot better, jump higher, and run faster. Through hard work and perseverance, I had earned a scholarship and made the squad, albeit as a practice player. Now, I would have to turn in that coveted white uniform with orange and black letters. Tomorrow, students and faculty would no longer look up to me, and I would be just another Oklahoma State University student. Was I ready for the transition?
I walked outside into the cold air, and, suddenly, reality smacked me between the eyes. The most famous man in the state of Oklahoma had just told me that he was giving up an invaluable scholarship slot just to see me graduate. In an instant, I was transformed into one of those former players who considered Mr. Iba a great friend and who worshiped and honored him for the rest of their lives.
The last time I saw Mr. Iba, fourteen years later at Baltimore’s Civic Center, I told him proudly and gratefully that I had just received my Ph. D. degree in engineering. It was the first time I ever saw him smile.