Where Have All the Legends Gone?
Written by Bradley A. Huebner
We’re losing sports legends in this country faster than we can appropriately honor them. As terabytes proliferate, the ponderous hour to pay tribute shortens.
Announcers who broadcast the games of my youth have passed on or retired—the voice of college football, Keith Jackson; the trumpeters of college basketball, Dick Enberg, Billy Packer, a hoarse Dick Vitale; the tandem of the NFL and Thanksgiving games, John Madden and Pat Summerall; and the voice of college and pro primetime, Mike Patrick have all gone in some way.
Are you looking live? That broadcast intro quote originator—Brent Musburger—no longer is. Nor is West Coast NFL broadcasters Charlie Jones or the ubiquitous Verne Lundquist.
Do you believe in miracles? Yes, we still have Al Michaels.
When Jim Valvano and Al Maguire died, we lost ex-announcers and former NCAA championship basketball coaches.
“We’re moving so fast in this world,” said Princeton hall of fame basketball coach Pete Carril, “that nobody has time to be a legend.” I visited Carril in February for the third episode in my show Coach Huebner Courtside. We sat in his usual seats—on the home side in Jadwin Gym, next to the scorers’ table. I wanted to glean some wisdom from this basketball philosopher, this willing David who’d slayed defending champion UCLA and almost took down Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown in the NCAA tournament at a mid-major program limited to recruiting wizards and wunderkinds and doing so in a gym that looked half-fieldhouse, half-lunar test lab.
A Bethlehem, Pa., native whose father labored 39 years at Bethlehem Steel, Carril grew up around tough guy Chuck Bednarik and Moravian College legendary football coach Rocco Calvo (“my best friend,” according to Carril). Carril starred at Bethlehem High, now Liberty High School.
He remembered two potential state title runs thwarted by rival Allentown High, who later vacated its titles for having ineligible players. When he played at Lafayette College in Easton, he made all-American, a 5-foot-7 guard who could “dribble, pass and shoot” just like Carril expected of his Princeton players.
Carril played for legendary Butch Van Breda Kolff, and was famous for coaching Bill Bradley at Princeton and later upsetting Notre Dame at Lafayette. He was also known for not winning an NBA title when he refused to put Wilt Chamberlain back into the deciding game.
When Carril ventured into coaching at Easton High, his Red Rovers ended Allentown’s 66 game unbeaten streak. Then his Reading Red Knights spoiled Billy Packer’s unbeaten season at Bethlehem, Carril’s alma mater. Once again, Carril anguished over a failed possible state title run.
Then a year at Lehigh, followed by his 30 year career at Princeton. 13 Ivy titles. 1975 NIT title. 2006 Hall of Fame.
At 87, he ambles across the floor slowly, onto a court that bears his name and he’s worried that his car will be ticketed for parking illegally.
“You can park in the gym (if you want),” a Princeton employee quips. But Carril, famous for his seemingly electrified strands of hair on the sidelines during a game, is old-school humble.
Two banners hang above the visitor’s side at Jadwin. One is for the great Bill Bradley, who became a Rhodes Scholar and then a United States senator, even running for president. The other is Carril, his career exploits listed on an orange and black felt banner. “I didn’t want my sign hung up there because—in this school, every day—there are some people here that do so much more than what I did here,” he said.
“They also had my picture up there (pointing to a wall),” he said. “And I gave $3,000 to the varsity club if they would take it down, and they did.”
Like a generous grandfather, Carril is universally loved. Like a wise professor, he is universally respected.
How do legends become, well, legendary? They accomplish the incredible and the unlikely, inexplicably but humbly. Carril coached against John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins three times without a win. The near miss still haunts him. And that’s true about all greats. They chase perfection or higher levels when the average person would be content with mere success.
Carril doesn’t rue losing to Georgetown. They made the plays to beat Princeton, he reasons. From the games where Princeton mistakes cost them big victories, Carril remembers the slightest details—the angle of the deciding but errant shot, the sloppy pass in crunch time.
Give him room to recount a lifetime of stories, and he’ll entertain you. After winning the NIT, he celebrated in a hotel bar, glowing after a great victory. “We better get going,” a man said after tapping him on the shoulder. “I need to get downtown and there might be traffic.”
Said Carril, “He thought I was his cab driver. Talk about humility.”
Another time he sought a custodian at Easton High to turn on the lights for practice. Another employee found him and asked, “Do you have a key to turn on the lights.”
“He thought I was the janitor,” Carril noted.
The world speeds on, even as Carril slows down. Take the time to celebrate a legend. There’s not an unlimited supply these days, especially in college basketball.
Bradley is a sports writer for a local newspaper and has written for other newspapers throughout the east coast. He hosts a radio show and has coached basketball for almost two decades. He's earned master's degrees in Mass Communications/Journalism and Creative Writing and is a fellow Silver Sager.