First night on the new job, Calvin Natt called a couple of his guys by the wrong names, and he found himself constantly amazed.
"I had no idea the kids had so much athletic talent," he said the next day. "I'd only watched them on tape from the East game, and you get a different feel from that. Film doesn't give you the angles and things, and I couldn't believe their actual jumping ability. I had goosebumps all over when I saw them play. It was like they were already my children."
Final score: Natt's Montbello Warriors 88, Manual 46.
At age 37, a recently retired NBA star who drives a black Mercedes and owns a successful business doesn't jump into high school coaching for the paycheck. He doesn't do it to catch another glimmer of the limelight. He doesn't do it to relive the glories of his youth.
He does it because of what he's seen since leaving basketball--the messiness and tragedy of the real world.
The business Calvin Natt owns is not the sports bar or car dealership many ex-athletes are drawn to, but a funeral home in East Denver. And that has made all the difference.
"In your playing days you're in awe of the fame and the recognition and the money," he remembers. "You see millionaires who constantly throw money away, spend a thousand dollars a day and never blink an eye. Now I see how people are really living, people, ten dollars to them is a ton of money. You get a different perspective on things. We are born here on this earth, but our days are numbered. And nobody knows the numbers but God...tomorrow isn't promised to any of us."
Least of all to the kids Calvin Natt has buried in the last two years because of gang violence.
"I can't even begin to count them," he says quietly. "There are too many. I don't want anyone to think I went over to Montbello because the ballplayers are gang members. They're not gang members, they're great kids. But I've learned that the game of life is a lot bigger than the game of basketball. Any time a life is taken for a foolish reason it's a waste of a life. You look at this young man or young woman cut down in the prime of life and you wonder--this person might have been president of the United States, an engineer, a doctor, a lawyer. Who knows? You try to do something."
When Natt hustled over to Montbello High School two weeks ago to apply for the vacant head coaching job, he'd never seen any of the players, and his only coaching experience was a brief stint as an assistant to Manual's Reverend Wade Davis. Not surprisingly, Montbello leaped. In his eleven-year pro career Natt scored 10,291 points, ripped down 4,070 rebounds and earned a reputation as one of the fiercest small forwards the game has ever known. In fact, this year's young and disorderly Denver Nuggets (Natt's team from 1984 to 1989) could do with some of his dark fire.
The young Warriors may benefit even more from it. But the famous Calvin Natt glare will be tempered with the tenderness and wisdom that have come to him through comforting families wracked with grief. As a coach he will dress out with his players, go one-on-one with his big guys (Natt's famously rickety knees feel just fine these days) and generally teach by doing.
Something else, too. Like Mike Vining, Natt's high school coach back in Bastrop, Louisiana, with whom he baled hay and ate gumbo, like the Nuggets' Doug Moe, who treated his team as a family, Natt hopes to be the kind of coach his players can talk to, confide in and trust.
For him it's as important to go to church or a movie with the kids as to teach them the pick-and-roll. "I learned that in my playing days," he says. "I think the Nuggets played better because we were close to each other. Especially on the pro level, when you're with your teammates nine months of the year, on the bus, on the plane, in the hotel, as well as on the court, it makes a season long if you don't get along. I just want to bring some of the traits of my past coaches--not their bad traits--in here with me. Mike Vining. Jack Ramsey. Kevin Loughery. Doug."
Someday, he might even help save a life.
"The world has changed," Natt laments. "When I was growing up in Louisiana, my neighbors would spank me as much as my parents did because they had a genuine interest. Teachers disciplined you. If you were acting up in the lunchroom the servers would come over and pop you on the head with a big spoon. Your neighbors knew you, and so did the people in the tenth house down the street. Everybody knew the family name and all the kids' names. Now, the people next door don't know who you are, and they don't care...Kids join gangs because they don't know what else to do, and they think they can make a quick fix. Make $10,000 in a day, more than they can make in a year at Burger King. A quick fix, but they don't value their lives."
Calvin Natt, ex-NBA star and role model, knows he may be in a position to make a difference.
"I feel I can give something to kids, and I know it will be more inspirational to me than it may be to them. I've been from the lowest to the highest. I know what it takes for them to have dreams, and to make it. I know what it takes to go from one point to another, and I think I can bring that insight to them."
Already, they feel like his children. Already, they give him goosebumps.
Before Jim Kelly starts drawing Social Security, most of the teams in the National Football Conference will probably get their chance to chop up the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl. As those sports television executives standing on high ledges this week can tell you, the Giants, Redskins and Cowboys have already wolfed down consecutive orders of Buffalo steak, and the loudmouths from Dallas have another slab coming out from the kitchen this Sunday.
The notion that Saint Joe Montana would lead the Kansas City Chiefs into the Georgia Dome to play his old team, the San Francisco 49ers, was a fancy ranking up there with peace in our time and a world without Roseanne Arnold--pretty, but impossible. The recidivists from Buffalo just can't seem to take no for an answer (their playoff record on home ice is now 8-0, to the chagrin of everyone but western New Yorkers), and when they get whacked out in a fourth straight Super Bowl loss, they'll doubtless set their sights on number five.
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The Las Vegas oddsmakers have installed Jimmy "Put it in three-inch headlines" Johnson's Cowboys as ten-point favorites, which is like giving Evander Holyfield a slight edge in a bout against Joan Rivers. As you know, the `Boys beat Buffalo 52-17 last January, and if there's some reason to believe that Dallas is slower or weaker or less confident this time around, let's hear it.
The Bills, meanwhile, have not only become a laughingstock, but doubt has gotten so far inside them that it should pay rent.
"There's no pressure on us," Kelly announced after thumping the Chiefs 30-13. "Nobody expects us to win. So we're gonna go to Atlanta and have some fun."
Really? How much fun will it be to lose again, say, 34-13?
As always, it's hard for any right-thinking human to embrace the braggarts from Dallas, but it will be even harder for Buffalo to embrace Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin and Jay Novacek. Forget that phone call Troy Aikman got in the third quarter against the Niners. With this cast, Kosar could also beat the Bills.
Poor Buffalo. Until they play the Big One at the South Pole, the Bills are doomed to run second. And we're doomed to watch it.