Dead Can Dribble

Coolidge would be just a dusty, open grave if it weren't for its crack basketball team.

If Coolidge, Arizona, isn't the most godforsaken place on the face of the Earth, it's only because Phoenix--equally hot, equally nasty, and absolutely teeming with obnoxious white people--nudged cotton-town Coolidge out at the finish line for the distinction. About an hour's drive northwest of Tucson and a million miles from civilization, culture and a livable climate, Coolidge is a holdover from an earlier time. It's not really a ghost town; it's more like the undead. Walking around but not exactly alive.

Even considering the cotton, you'd swear that the town's biggest export is dust devils. Coolidge is a bleak, windblown place. The sand-blasted storefronts along the main drag make it appear as though nothing there has ever been new. Coolidge was born old and just kept getting older.

All you need to grow cotton is heat, dirt and water. Coolidge, for better or worse, has plenty of all three. As the cotton industry expanded in the desolate outpost, the town attracted African-Americans who had drifted from the South into Texas and then were driven even farther west by the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Hundreds settled in Coolidge after facing the tough decision of either becoming sharecroppers in Arizona or starving to death in Texas. In fact, Coolidge (and its satellite village, Randolph, which includes many of the original wooden houses inhabited by the early sharecroppers) has perhaps the highest concentration of African-Americans of any town in Arizona.

After having said all that, it would be almost impossible to segue into mentioning that Coolidge High has one hellacious basketball program without it sounding stereotypical. Fortunately, in high-school basketball (as in so many other things), Arizona is all screwed up. In the Grand Canyon State, prep basketball is not dominated by inner-city black schools. Among the larger (4A and 5A) schools, championships are generally won by one of three types of programs: Catholic schools that go out and buy athletes; schools twice the size of normal, bursting at the seams with Mormon kids, their starting lineups peppered with kids named "Blake" or "Hunter"; or brand-new, high-end jock factories so pretentious they spell "Point" with an "e" at the end.

The lower levels (Classes 1A and 2A) are dominated by prep academies and hard-nosed farm communities. And the Class 3A, the level at which perhaps the best basketball of all in the entire state is played, is owned by the "rez ball" Indian schools from the Four Corners area. Last year Tuba City on the Navajo Reservation won both the boys and girls state championships in 3A basketball. In fact, in the past decade, Indian schools (Window Rock, Monument Valley, Tuba City) have won every state title in 3A girls' basketball and have been a perennial force in boys' basketball, as well. That's why the mostly-black Coolidge powerhouse isn't a stereotype; it's an exception to the rule.

Coolidge is coached by Dave Glasgow, who happens to be the whitest man in America. The British royal family calls this guy "Honkie." He's so white he's got, like, negative skin cancer.

While attending the UA, Dave stumbled into coaching. This guy would coach anybody, anywhere. He coached junior-high kids at Green Fields Country Day School. He coached little kids at the YMCA and adult-league teams all over town. This last part is rather weird because adult-league teams generally consist of guys from work or guys you played ball with in high school. There is no coaching. Ever. It's almost sacrilegious.

But Dave didn't know that. He'd call practices, diagram plays, and take losses really hard. While his players were making plans to go get a beer with the guys from the opposing team, Dave would be doing a written post-game analysis and planning his strategy for the next game. Of course, all his players ignored him, but he helped pay part of the league entry fee and he'd get sponsors for the team T-shirts, so they let him hang around.

He got the Coolidge gig pretty much by default, but he threw himself into it. Open gym and constant traveling during the summer. Weekend tournaments and leagues in Tucson and Phoenix. And it began to pay off. His teams won back-to-back state crowns in 1998 and '99, but got bounced in the first round last year.

You know that saying about "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach?" I hate that cliché; it's so last millennium. Unfortunately, it's dead center with Dave. If the dude tried to dribble full speed, the ball would need training wheels. He may very well be the worst basketball player I've ever seen in my life, and that's really saying something. Dave is to basketball what George W. Bush is to salsa dancing.

But he can coach. He's a real student of the game, a numbers cruncher who also manages to instill discipline during practice and then unleashes the fire during games. Over the past four seasons, his teams have an absolutely sick record of 110-12. This year they're 27-1 and top-ranked in the state. (Their only loss was to Alchesay, an Apache school, in front of 5,000 fans.) Beginning this week, they're going for their third Class 3A state title in four years. And if they pull that off, next year should be four titles in five years since they're only losing one senior off this year's team.

The Bears are led by senior point guard Mike Smith and junior scorer Randy Youtsey. (Randy's last name is pronounced "Yoot-see"; the first syllable sounds like the way Fred Gwynne says it in My Cousin Vinny.) They face a tough two games at altitude in Flagstaff this week, but if they get by them, they'll play the final two next week at America West Arena in Phoenix.

Dave will be there, patrolling the sidelines, quietly becoming one of the most successful coaches in the state. And should the Bears pull it off, there will be a little extra bounce in the town of Coolidge's undead step.