Over the weekend the sport of basketball in Oklahoma lost a legend with the sudden death of Okarche head coach Ray West after a short battle with cancer.
Over the weekend I lost a friend.
The newspaper business can be a slippery slope at times - one minute you’re standing on top of the world and the next you’re sliding toward the abyss after making some dumb mistake in a story.
I made several mistakes over the years in stories about coach West and his beloved Okarche Warriors. Not big life-altering mistakes but mistakes just the same.
Never, though, did I get that butt-chewing phone call the next morning from him.
There were phone calls and I knew immediately that I had screwed up when I heard the same greeting each time, “Hey, Mr. Miller, this is Coach West.” My response was usually, “What did I mess up” and we both laughed and got down to the business of correcting the snafu.
That was coach West, friendly and professional at the same time.
The games I did get to cover in person, not once can I recall him ever greeting me first as Glen or “one of our sports guys.” It was always “Hello there Mr. Miller,” followed always with a handshake and a "How are you doing today?"
Coach West was entertaining to cover in person because you would get all the emotional faces you expect from a determined, dedicated and experienced head coach. Yet the mad or frustrated faces never lasted more than a few minutes before changing to the better.
Coach West knew the X’s and O’s of the game of basketball. How else did he become the state’s active leader in wins before his passing with 853 career victories.
In 25 years at Okarche he took the Warriors to the state tournament 11 times, the last being a berth in the semifinals just this past March.
The thing I liked about coach West the most was that he was also a student of the game at the same time. He followed other teams in the county, usually through his Tribune subscription, and remembered their names and what they had done for most of the season.
Most of our phone calls were never short. After we fixed what error I had made, we would chat at length about teams in the county and across the state.
He always asked about El Reno and loved the style of play the Indians had both under Rodney Haydon and now Kale Simon.
I think his attention to details about other teams is what made him a success on the bench for the Warriors.
Coach West made covering Okarche easy because he understood the format of community journalism. He knew that with one person covering four high schools and a college that most games I would have to back-cover.
I could always count on that game report the next morning over the fax machine before I finally got him to start snapping a picture of it on his phone and text it to me.
Coach West had a statistician that kept numbers which were always spot on to what I kept from courtside. Yet he would never just take a photo of that printout and send it.
He would always fill out, by hand mind you, the Tribune’s game report form. At the top were always some scribbled highlights or pitfalls he felt the team had accomplished or endured. If there was a player that had hit a career milestone or had a double-double or better, it was always capitalized.
It was coach West’s subtle but very loud unspoken way to ask, “Please highlight this player.”
I once asked coach West why he always filled those reports out by hand. His response was that he liked to relive the game in his head while writing things down.
Rest assured, I will be reliving those phone conversations with coach West in my head when I begin writing about Okarche basketball in October.