If you were a fan of Larry Bird or even just NBA basketball in the late 1970s through the early eighties, the Rotary Club of Chattanooga Hamilton Place luncheon meeting on Wednesday at Grace Works Church on Lee Highway was the place to be.
Current Brigham Young University women’s head coach Jeff Judkins was the guest speaker and he regaled the membership with a plethora of stories about his time in the NBA, Bird, Magic Johnson, John Havlicek and other names right off of the most coveted bubble gum cards still in existence.
Along with those mentioned above, we're talking Dave Cowans, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Pete Maravich, and Julius Erving, among others.
The BYU coach was in town, also, to play in an annual golf tournament to raise money for area Chattanooga students to attend the school in Salt Lake City on scholarship.
According to tournament chair Phil Smartt, enough money was raised this year to provide half scholarships for 24 young people.
Judkins also spoke of his experiences as a head coach of one of the most successful programs in the West Coast Conference. Since the 2011-2012 season his teams are 146-54 overall and 78-26 in the conference. Prior to the school’s move to the WCC, BYU competed from 2001-2002 until 2010-2011in the Mountain West Conference and had a record of 205-108/98-54. In those 16 seasons, Judkins has made eight appearances in the NCAA tournament, twice reaching the Sweet 16.
The affable coach played his college ball at the University of Utah, where he was a member of the first team to ever defeat Kentucky in Rupp Arena.
He told of the exciting ending to that upset win, “With eight seconds to go, we were tied up. Our coach called a timeout to set the final play. At that time I had 31 points and was shooting the lights out, so I figured I’d get the ball for the last shot.” He went on, “The coach announces that ‘we’ll use Judkins as a decoy and go the other way to a player named Earl Williams,’ who, I’ll add, hadn’t hit a shot all game.”
“Well, we ran the play, Williams hit the shot and the crowd went dead silent, all except our team, of course.” And the kicker was, when we got our plaques and wrist watches they were all engraved ‘Kentucky.’ They weren’t planning on losing, I guess.”
After he was drafted by the Celtics, he told of visiting the legendary Boston coach Red Auerbach in his office, which he described as right out of the general manager’s digs in the movie, “The Natural.”
“I walked into a dark, smoke-filled room,” he said, “And Auerbach says to me, ‘Okay, you’re Judkins, the skinny kid from Utah. We’ll call you Baby Hondo.’ That was great by me; I had always been an admirer of Havlicek.”
Judkins remains friends today with his teammate Bird, whom he describes as a very shy guy who mows his own lawn and changes his own tires. Bird was so shy, he said, that when they went out to eat they would enter restaurants through the back door.
In contrast, he said, Magic Johnson was one of the most outgoing players he ever knew. “I once sat on our team bus, which couldn’t move due to traffic, and watched Johnson sign autographs in the rain for 45 minutes.”
“That made an impression on me and I vowed that I would always take the time to sign autographs for fans.”
Bird, he said, also had one of the most intense work ethics of anyone he ever knew. “I would take fifteen hundred shots a day in practice,” Judkins said, “And Larry would take many more than me.”
Judkins said Bird probably lost years with his family due to his intensive practice schedule. He pointed out that his friend didn’t just give money away to his family, but created opportunities for them to earn their living, in one instance opening a car dealership for one to become involved with.
He said Bird was also the type man that if he told you he was going to dunk on someone or shoot a three in their face, he’d go out and do it.
One story that drew lots of laughs was when Judkins told the audience about his run-in with Darryl Dawkins of the Philadelphia 76ers during the year Dawkins went around the NBA shattering backboards with his “Chocolate Thunder” dunks.
“During the last game of the season, Dawkins was headed for a dunk and I just grabbed him, which really seemed to make him angry,” Judkins said. “Later, we played them in the playoffs and I was stretching out, Dawkins came up beside me and told me if I ever touched him again, he’d break every bone in my body. He said they later became friends.
One of the players Judkins admired the most was Abdul-Jabbar. He recalled, “The first time I ever played against him, I pulled for a little 15-20 footer and I saw this huge pair of goggles rushing at me. I put up my shot and watched it head out in the opposite direction, away from the basket.”
To make a point that it’s not always about the money with the NBA stars, he spoke of Karl Malone having a house built in Salt Lake City. One day, he said, Malone came home and found the guy doing the rock work on the house sitting on his porch, obviously upset,
When Malone asked him what was wrong, the man pointed to his truck and exclaimed how it was all beaten up and broken. Malone told him that one never knew when something good might come their way and to keep his head up.
The next day, he said, “Malone came home and tossed the gentleman a set of keys to a new truck. Karl Malone had bought him a new truck.”
When asked about the difference in today’s game versus when he was playing, Judkins replied, “With us it was all about passing the ball, working the inside game, playing as a team. Today, for the most part it’s putting up three after three with little to no working the ball for the shot. It’s more of an individual game than a team game.”
e also pointed out that today's players may spend more time in practice on their cell phones with their stock brokers than did players in his day.
Turning his thoughts to coaching, Judkins spoke about women needing more relationships amongst themselves. Recruiting can be doubly hard he said, as you not only have to look for a player with ability on the floor and in the classroom, but also one who will fit with the team’s chemistry.
“If the girls don’t like you, they won’t play with you,” he said.
The Coach has been successful recruiting players from countries such as New Zealand and Brazil. When asked if it was difficult for a player from overseas used to playing by international rues to make the transition, he said, “In some cases, however the hardest part was the language difference. Once that’s overcome it gets easier.”
Coach Judkins has a philosophy that coaching basketball goes much further than the game. “I saw once, “he said, “That a coach has more influence on a young person than just about anyone else in their life.” He believes that a basketball coach is also a life coach.
Hopefully, the friendly tall guy in the room (he is 6-5) will return to Chattanooga at some point as he hopes to schedule a home and home series with Jim Foster, the Mocs’ Hall of Fame coach. Judkins believes such a series would benefit both schools.
(Contact Dennis Norwood at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter at @DennisENorwood)