Coaches gather to listen to legendary Meyer

Photo by Christine Troyke

Photo by Christine Troyke

DULUTH -- In a gym named for one historic Gwinnett basketball coach, 80 others gathered Saturday.

All to learn from the same legendary one.

Don Meyer, billed as the winningest men's basketball coach in NAIA history, held a basketball camp at Duluth High's Joe Marelle Gym, named for the former Wildcats coach of 23 seasons.

Some of the six-hour clinic was spent on the court dissecting drills, but most was spent seated in the bleachers, listening intently to Meyer speaking from a chair below. Making eye contact with him only when note taking permitted, coaches studiously flipped pages on their pads, seemingly writing every nugget that came from the mouth of the Northern State University coach whose 923 wins rank among the upper echelon.

"His wisdom goes beyond basketball," said new Buford boys coach Alan Whitehart, formerly at Centennial. Whitehart said he came to hear Meyer for the same reason he transitioned from a successful Centennial program after seven years, "to take that next step in my career," he said.

His reputation long preceding his arrival from Aberdeen, S.D., Meyer enthralled coaches with inspirational anecdotes, impassioned pleas and raw realities. As he said he does in both camps and motivational speaking, Meyer interspersed stories of hard knocks with provocative sayings, many personalized with his own twist.

One he mentioned repeatedly: "Prepare, plan and practice like you just lost your last game." Another: "Make practice like games, and games like practice."

The morning session put coaches on the court as Meyer directed Emory-Oxford players in drills. Later, filling hunger for the game that lunch sandwiches couldn't, Meyer kept the message captivating, but light.

Like many attendees Saturday, Norcross' fourth-year girls coach Angie Hembree, at Collins Hill for seven years prior, was a long-time follower of Meyer. She's attended camps of legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, but jumped at the chance to hear from Meyer a fourth time.

"I'd see him four more times, too," she said. "We ask our kids to be coachable and teachable, so we coaches have to be, too."

Mike Allison, a 23-year girls coach at South Gwinnett now assisting Ryan Lesniak at Archer, agreed camps like Meyers sometimes provide more information than practically can be used. He acknowledged coaches often become mired in practical elements, relegating inspirational theories to the notepad.

"There's no real magic out there," Allison said. "At the end of the day, you've got to motivate kids. We'll all utilize whatever parts fit us individually."

A cancer survivor who wears a prosthetic lower left leg since an auto accident in 2008, Meyer recently retired from coaching at Northern State, which was his third stop after Hamline and Lipscomb Universities in a 38-year career. He was invited to Duluth by Wildcats boys coach Jonathan Hemingway, a student assistant with Meyer at Lipscomb.

Meyer, 65, brought with him the instructional DVDs for which he's popular, as well as worksheets detailing drills he considers effective. He addressed basketball lessons, as well as life lessons. Sometimes conventional and sometimes quirky, he was frank, sometimes referencing history, often current events, occasionally even politics.

When talking specifically basketball, Meyer said his favorite drill is 4-on-5. He sometimes advocates making players do push-ups for missed free throws. The key to the jump shot, he said, is aiming for the back of the rim, with great importance on a consistent arc and one-second follow-through with a player's shooting arm and wrist. In dribbling drills, he advised starting slow, getting a rhythm, but going fast enough to make a mistake.

As for life messages, Meyer said he sticks with basic, overarching ones, tailoring them differently for motivational speeches than for camps like Saturday's.

"Coaches are the easier ones to talk to," he said. "The teaching points are what's important. It's one thing to run a play; it's another to know how to run a play."

Former Buford boys coach Milt Travis, now at Stephens County, found value in Meyer's lessons, and therefore, insisted his assistant coaches come, too. Travis said there are pragmatic, life lessons in basketball. He said Meyer's concepts stand the test of time.

"He puts it out there like it is," Travis said. "There's not an older coach out there who doesn't have Meyers' stuff on his shelf."

Whitehart, like many in attendance Saturday, goes to several camps like Meyer's annually, sometimes traveling at his own expense. He plans to attend major ones in Las Vegas and Florida, where he'll perhaps run into Gwinnett counterparts.

Allison said camps like Meyer's are vital, even for the most experienced coaches.

"Coaching is always changing," Allison said. "Anybody who thinks they know it all will be left behind."