Laura likes to say that she has become a much better basketball player since marrying me. Sure, I admit that I can get carried away telling stories about her playing days in high school and at Oklahoma.
The fact is I never saw Laura play live, though we think I might have photographed a KU vs. Oklahoma game for the Topeka paper during the Big Eight Tournament in Salina once. I have only seen videotapes of her games and heard others tell stories. Both are awfully good as was the player. No matter how much Laura likes to downplay her career, she can’t get around one memorable fact.
She has her name painted on the court at Claremore High School.
Last Saturday, Laura, along with other Claremore all-state players returned to be honored again. For the first time, Laura willingly let her guard down and truly basked in the experience. A lot of the credit for that has to go to her beloved high school coach, Jim Keith.
Every state has their legendary old coaches, but Coach Keith really is special. Not many have had their coaching stories made into a Hollywood movie whose basis was an award-winning book, Brief Garland. While many might not remember Believe in Me, the 2006 film really was well done. Think Hoosiers meets A League of Their Own. While names were changed in the film, Burn Notice actor Jeffrey Donovan played Keith’s role admirably.
The film focused on Keith’s early career when he traveled to western Oklahoma for what he thought was a boy’s head coaching position in Sayre in 1964. What awaited him was only a chance to coach the girls’ team at a time when girls’ basketball was just beginning to grow.
Not all went well early on for the coach and the girls as they struggled to adjust to each other. Keith thought the job below his coaching skills and the girls and school administration seemed incapable of adjusting to his demanding style. However, over time all did adjust and great success came out of their unifying love of playing and coaching the game with a real sense of family.
Coach Keith only coached four years at Claremore. He came out of retirement to coach Laura and promptly retired after she left. Now in his 80’s, Keith continued to help with the Claremore team even in retirement until this season. His name has become synonymous with Oklahoma girls basketball.
One key subplot of the movie was the role of Keith’s wife played by Samantha Mathis. The movie truly did imitate real life, as the actress was just as supportive as Keith’s wife, Jorene, was in life. For 61 years the two were inseparable. In October, Jorene passed away after a long and painful illness.
At the funeral, Keith never wavered as he spoke of seeing Jorene for the first time and how his love for her blossomed when she came off the sidelines at an intramural game to tackle a showboating player. He eloquently recalled how pretty Jorene was in his mind, but his stories also detailed how strong and supportive she was in difficult times and how that shaped his life. Keith has a way of talking that makes everyone feel comfortable. With every word at that funeral, Keith seemed to be more concerned with easing the sorrow of the many mourners more than confessing his true loss.
Maybe that is why Laura embraced this reunion so much. She knew how much it meant to her coach, and she wasn’t about to let him down. She waved, smiled and allowed people to retell stories from her playing days without the embarrassment she usually shows.
Laura and her coach had exchanged e-mails before the reunion. How interesting it was to see his e-mail address began with HonestJimK@… Honest he is. As Laura sat with Keith during the second half, he revealed to her how lonely it was for him to go to his house now that Jorene was no longer at their home. His black lab Ruthie Rose accompanies him everywhere. During the game and ceremony, Ruthie Rose was waiting in Keith’s truck for the lonely ride home where the dog still rests her head on the pillow Jorene used during her final days.
Sadly, just as I didn’t ever see Laura play live, I didn’t get to see the events of last Saturday. Laura’s mom took the photos you see. I confess my constant work on the weekends does cause problems with events like this. I know for every heartache my work causes there have been many more privileges granted that we all try not to take for granted. Still it is very hard. Fortunately, my family includes a former coach and an athlete’s mother for understanding in-laws. When Oklahoma comes to play in Lawrence soon, Coach Keith will be there with Bill Self’s father, and I’ll have a chance to thank him again for becoming my friend as well.
Now, please don’t think this past weekend’s events were all about sorrow or loss. Laura told me how Coach is still a coach. She said he sat with her in the stands and talked about the current team. He’d watch a bad play and hang his head, shaking it just the way he was portrayed in the movie. Laura delighted in that just as much as being honored on the court.
He also was still free with life advice. He leaned over and told Laura he wanted her to do him a favor. “When you get home, I want you to eat some mashed potatoes and gravy,” he told her. Seems Coach Keith felt she was too skinny. He also had one other thought for Laura I’ll share from an e-mail he sent before the game.
“You will be the best All-Stater there,” he wrote. “I have seen them all and none could hold a candle to you.”
Enough said. Thanks, Coach
For August 2011 update on Jim Keith click here.