I have had many coaches in my life, but only a couple who earned the lifelong title of "coach." It is rare to find that coach who earns that singular name. After I returned home from my mission, I had a desire to play basketball in college. Due to a few health complications, I was 23 before I tried to walk on to the local junior college. This is when I met my coach, Coach Zalenski. Back then NPC basketball was a very good program. Coach Z recruited very heavily in the Midwest and brought in some very good basketball players. I knew it would be very hard to make this team, much less be able to play. When I met the team prior to school starting and conditioning, I knew I was in trouble. I was a 6'5 post player who had played at Joseph City. Our best post player had just signed to play at a division 1 college. It was going to be tough. Coach Z pushed us very hard. During conditioning he pushed me far beyond what I believed my physical limitations were. We would go to the gym, play basketball for about two hours, then go on a run. The first day we had a timed run of 5 miles. I had never run that far in my life. I didn't think I could run that far, much less even meet the time. Along the way Coach would be waiting, checking names off his list. Surprisingly, to me, I made the run in time. A week later we were up early for our 10 mile run, again we had to complete it in time. I was a lot less surprised this time when I finished it. Even more surprisingly though was that I was starting to hold my own against Coach's big recruits. I started believing that I would make the team. When coach met with us individually to let I us know, I was very nervous. When it was my turn, Coach told me how surprised he was in telling me that I had made the team. I was very happy and very excited; my dream was coming true.
As the season progressed, we were a very resilient team. We became a team that refused to give up. We won 30 games that year and only lost 5. Two of our losses came in the last week of the season at the national championship tournament. Many times Coach would refuse to allow us to lose. He would will us to win. We were tied or behind in over 20 of our wins that year. Somehow, someway, we would find a way to win. One game that I remember was just after our Christmas break. We were playing Yavapai College in Prescott. With less than ten minutes left in this game and down by double digits, coach called time out. During the time out, he simply told us that we were going to win this game and this is how we would do it. Not only did we win the game, we won by double digits and cleared the bench. This is how our season went. Coach refused to allow us to quit or give up. There would always be a way to win the game.
After completing my two years at NPC, coach helped me get into two different schools and graduate college with a bachelors degree. He took a personal interest in all of his players. He would call us regularly. In 1998, Coach suffered a massive stroke, one that would not allow him to continue as a head coach. Two years later, NPC no longer would have a basketball program. Last week Coach passed away. While coach was recovering from his stroke, he never lost his sense of humor. He never lost his desire to coach again. He worked hard to help local kids have an opportunity to pursue a college education and play basketball. Coach never gave up. Whenever you talked to Coach, he would sincerely ask if there was any way that he could help. His life was about helping others.
Coach taught me many life lessons through basketball. One is you can only control two things: your effort and your attitude. Another is to never give up - there is always a way. He also taught me these with the way he lived his life, especially after his stroke. Another lesson was you can always be happy wherever you are, if you are happy with who you are.
When I think about our town of St. Johns, there are a few coaches I respect and admire, who I think earn this special title of "Coach." Win or lose, they teach the bigger picture of how to act in life. When I officiate or are around these teams, the respect for the coach is clear.
I am grateful for my coach, Coach Z, and for others who dedicate their lives to serving and building our younger generation.
Written by Paul Hancock