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Paddy on the Hardwood

It's not easy being the next basketball book to follow Seven Seconds or Less on my nightstand.

It's like subbing for Michael Jordan (which has the potential to make you look like Jud Buechler). But Paddy on the Hardwood, the autobiographical tale of former UTEP and New Mexico State Assistant Coach Rus Bradbird's coaching foray into deepest Ireland, got the call. And the book didn't complain. It yanked off its sweats, jogged to the scorer's table, and checked in.

And it came with a pretty serious recommendation, right there on the dust jacket:

"Paddy on the Hardwood is hilarious, heartbreaking, and touching--I couldn't put it down. I'm an avid reader, and it's the best sports book I've read in a long while."

--Jerry West

Here's the story: Bradburd grew up as fiery about being good at basketball, but lacking the physical tools to succeed at the highest level. So he did what every coach wishes kids like him would do: he worked harder than everyone, by a mile. Mostly on ball-handling. In coaching circles, he is seen as the high priest of ball-handling drills. Guys like that get coaching gigs, and Bradburd was no exception. He also proved pretty adept at recruiting, nabbing a lot of Chicago dudes like a certain Tim Hardaway. He worked under legends Don Haskins and Lou Henson.

But somewhere along the way he got the worst of all curses, at least from an economic perspective: he became artsy. It's like that scene in Monty Python's Holy Grail where the heir tells the king all he wants to do is sing. The king waves out the window, to the untold acres beyond, and tells his son that one day all that will be his. "What the curtains?" asks his son. (Here's a great amateur reenactment.)

Bradburd got the idea that he wanted to spend less time recruiting and more time playing the fiddle and writing. He went back to school for an MFA. And, eventually, he took up a job coaching in the Irish Superleague, where they only practice five hours a week. Even though he'd be leaving his future wife behind, it would leave him plenty of time for playing the fiddle in pubs and writing short stories, thus letting him avoid the sad and lonesome fate of most coaches. He explains in the book:

Before leaving Connie to go to Ireland, I told her one of my theories about sports. "With coaches, there's not going to be a happy ending," I said. "The odds are stacked against you--eventually a coach gets fired. Only a small percentage have a long career, and even fewer enjoy a happy ending."

Connie looked at me like I was a bad freshman essay and it was hard to know where to begin. She finally said, "Why are you climbing back on, if you know it's going to be a bad ending?"

"That's exactly why," I said. "Because I know the ending is going to disappoint me, so who cares? I won't worry about the Tralee Tigers, because I know we're going to win at least enough to keep me from being miserable. I'll write, and when I need a break from the writing I'll fiddle."

Connie said, "So you're getting involved in this project with the assumption of a train wreck ending?"

That's on page 32. Is it any surprise that Bradburd ended up caring a whole hell of a lot? In fact, I wonder if he ended up caring even more. Because in Ireland, there's so little money involved, and so little glamour, that the league as Bradburd described it runs mainly on pure love of the game. Most of the players are volunteers. Travel is miserable. The locker rooms are scandalously terrible. Everything about it is infused with passion--absent that there'd be almost nothing.

Not only does Bradburd get wholly caught up with the Tralee Tigers in every way, but they have one of the most miserably unlucky seasons imaginable. That takes up most of the book. (One of the only bright spots is the recruiting of a young Irish player called Kieran O'Donaghy, who Bradburd suspects could cut it in the NCAA with the proper coaching.) But Bradburd has the fever deep down by now, and heads back for another, which becomes a brief epilogue. I don't want to spoil the ending, but let's just say it doesn't always end badly for coaches.

And it's an incredibly fun read along the way. I totally recommend it. (And remember, Jud Buechler has three championship rings, and was a key player on the best NBA team of the modern era). I talked to Rus Bradburd about his book:

I'm fascinated by your notion that coaching ends badly. That is surely one of the most underappreciated aspects of basketball. Are coaches generally tortured souls, would you say?

There are more unhappy endings for basketball coaches than nearly any profession. I was really lucky to have worked for two men –Don Haskins and Lou Henson –who had happy endings. But lots of guys give up their health, their family and their souls clawing at the pyramid of college basketball.

I was close with a handful of coaches –Will Rey, Bob Hallberg, Larry Gipson—who were far better coaches than I was, who got fired in Division I. None of them deserved to be fired, but that’s my point. I hate to say it, but I didn’t want to wind up like them….although all three have recovered nicely.

Seems like your calling card, as a coach, has a lot to do with some long, hard, solo hours mastering ball handling drills in your youth. Is that kind of hard time just part of what it takes?

I was very light on talent. I couldn’t touch the rim until I was 20 years old. But I was obsessive and I have great capacities for work, thanks to my Depression-era Dad. But that kind of drive—the kind that helped me become a dribbling expert—is what first got Tim Floyd’s attention. He talked Don Haskins into giving me a chance in 1983. I was with Haskins for eight seasons. But I think that kind of energy helped me write ‘’Paddy on the Hardwood’’ just two years after getting my MFA degree from New Mexico State.

You mention that Dick Versace is a literary NBA guy… that's fascinating to me.

Well, Dick in some ways was a role model for me: a guy who kept up his interests in books and music and theater, but was extremely bright and charismatic, and used his other interests to inform his coaching. He was Phil Jackson before Phil Jackson. I think Dick’s a rare guy, though. Also, he’s smarter than I am, and a far better coach. But like me, he was not a great player. Also, he’s been supportive of me for twenty-five years. I’m anxious to hear if he liked “Paddy on the Hardwood,” because I respect his opinion about books.

How did you recruit Tim Hardaway? I'm always curious about the particulars. What do you say to a kid like that when you first meet him? It strikes me it'd be a little like asking a someone to a prom.

When I first started at UTEP, I called my coaching pals in Chicago and asked who was the best point guard they’d seen. Lots of them mentioned Tim Hardaway, but he wasn’t on any of the scouting services. Many of the coaches who recommended Tim recalled his father as a great playground player. Also, his Mom was a great lady, a postal worker who delivered the mail for decades. So hard work and basketball were part of the family. Finally, his high school coach was a man named Bob Walters, a straight shooter type who had no interest in using Tim to advance his own career. But Bob Walters remembered the 1966 Texas Western team, and that helped. Bob died at age 43, when Tim was a sophomore at UTEP, and that had a profound affect on Tim… and me.

I never went to the prom—I was practicing my dribbling.

How's the fiddling going these days?

I still play for an hour every day. I was surprised to find the similarities between hoops and fiddling. Both of them require you to practice on your own, then find the right level of guys to play with. Then you go back and work on your skills some more. But also this: it’s a group thing, music, a team sport.

What's Kieran O'Donaghy up to?

Donaghy is the greatest competitor I’ve ever coached. Ever. But Micheal Quirke and John Teahan are close. Kieran Donaghy was MVP of the Irish Super League the year after I left. Then, this year, he was named Ireland’s “Sportsman of the Year” because of his Gaelic Football heroics. He’s become the biggest name in all of Ireland, and that’s one of the many ironies of “Paddy on the Hardwood.” Anyway, Donaghy never came to America, he’s too big in Gaelic Football now.

What was the Tigers' next season like? Who coached? How'd they do?

I sent two UTEP players over the next year. One of them, Chris Craig, was player-coach, to save money for the club. They did well, got to the league championship game, but lost. Yet, they won the mid-season Irish Cup, something I never came close to doing. Chris quit playing and is an assistant at Eastern Utah JC.

180 pages on the worst season in the league. 54 pages on winning. Are you a glutton for punishment, or did you catch the fever of the Irish lament?

The novelist Robert Boswell told me that history is written by the winners, but literature is written by the losers. I wanted this to be a unique read, not your typical sports book. Lucky for “Paddy on the Hardwood”: Ireland is filled with surprising, ironic, and complex characters. Then there’s the music, and me learning the fiddle from one of the masters of the music—so I think it is a different sports book.

At the end of the book, you are hired by Jerry West to coach ball-handling to Shane Battier, Earl Watson, and Jerry's son Jonnie. One of those meetings takes place in a swanky gym at the Bel-Air home of a shoe honcho. You write:

...on that pretentious private court, with the most powerful man in basketball watching me teach his son and an NBA guard--basketball's part, present, and future--I thought about our tiled tundra of a gym in Tralee. I thought about [great Irish fiddler] Paddy Jones, who had chosen a life of poverty--material poverty--to pursue his craft. And I thought about [Irish basketball players[Michael Quirke and John Teahan, who'd grown up playing twice a week because of limited gym space. And Kieran O'Donaghy, who had Jerry West's rawboned athleticism and long arms, but not his shot. No one had his shot. And I wondered what [musician] Ciaran Dalton would think about me dribbling two basketballs between my legs in the midst of these riches. What would Junior Collins say if he could see this swanky gym that we could use any time, without considering indoor soccer of badminton's schedule?

That's powerful to me. Can you tell me about that?

It’s meant to be a powerful paragraph. Ireland is well-off now, but was mired in poverty for many years. Basketball has just been late catching up. That’s how I wanted to end “Paddy on the Hardwood,” looking back at where I’d been, and not forgetting what the Tigers had been through in Tralee.

The Irish Super League is far better, in terms of competition level, than its pay scale would indicate. And Tralee’s gym happens to be the worst one in Ireland. There are imported Americans who flopped in Ireland, then went on and did well in other mid-level countries. The Irish-born players are tough, rugged, rawboned men. And the Irish coaches were superb, and that was a big surprise. There’s an American guy named Pat Price who is the best young coach I know—he should be a head Division I coach in the States, but he loves Ireland as much as I do.