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Big Man On Campus 

click to enlarge JENNIFER MAY
  • Jennifer May

Charley Rosen lives high on a hillside in Accord, at the top of a quarter-mile driveway so quiet, deer stroll across at midmorning. As his two dogs bound toward a visitor, frisking and scrimmaging, the 6' 8" former basketball coach appears on the deck, shouting “No jumping!” in a Bronx-tinged growl that both dogs obey at once. Moments later, he’s gushing at them in affectionate babytalk.

Rosen wears old shorts and a T-shirt with a graphic of a gramophone. A self-described “goon,” he’s strikingly more comfortable seated than standing. At full height, he appears stiff and furtive, abashed by his bulk. Kicked back in a chair with his bare feet sprawled out, waving long arms as he talks, he seems richly at peace.

Rosen’s persona is an odd mix of streetfighter and Boddhisatva, with a dash of vintage Deadhead. A Wall Street Journal reviewer called him “the game’s foremost literary chronicler,” and he’s generated a steady stream of hoop lore, including two books coauthored with eight-time championship coach Phil Jackson,  Maverick and More Than a Game. Rosen was Jackson’s assistant coach with the Albany Patroons; 22 years ago, they launched an Omega Institute course called Beyond Basketball.

Bison Books just reissued Players and Pretenders: The Basketball Team That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, a freewheeling account of coaching Bard College’s 1979-80 Running Red Devils through a season in which they won one lone ballgame (against younger players at Simon’s Rock) and numerous personal victories. The coach’s CV included two graduate degrees in Medieval Studies, four mismatched jobs teaching English at junior highs and community colleges, varsity basketball MVP at Hunter, and numerous publications. Not listed: a world-class collection of Grateful Dead bootlegs, an unraveling car named Foodini, and humor to burn.

Rosen’s application concluded, “Coaching basketball at Bard is a chance to participate in basketball in its purest form—no money, no pressure, no statistics, no concept of the ‘enemy.’ Free-form and spontaneous. Meditations. A zen exercise seeking the spiritual radiance of the game.” He was hired on the spot.
Bard is no jock school, and most of his players were under six feet. Some barely knew how to dribble and shoot; many were infrequent flyers, missing practice for math tests and Shakespeare rehearsals; all brought van-loads of emotional baggage for the coach to unpack. Still, on their own unique terms, they became a team.

Rosen grew up on the streets of the Bronx. His father was a chronic invalid, a volatile man who took out his frustrations on his hulking son. Always a big kid, Charley reached 6' 5" at 14. “People expect more of you-—they think you’re older, so you should be more mature,” he reflects. “Everyone notices you; you can’t get away with anything.”

Both parents were Communists, though their son was more aware of the social aspect of meetings held at their house than politics. In fifth grade, he researched a social studies report on a political party by visiting Party headquarters on Tremont Avenue. “There was this old man sleeping. I woke him up and he gave me a couple of pamphlets.” This being the height of the McCarthy era, Rosen’s parents were called into school; he was nearly expelled.

Sports were his refuge. He spent every free minute playing sandlot baseball and street games: kick-the-can, punchball, stickball, and a basketball knockoff played by shooting a pink spaldeen ball through fire escape ladders. He encountered his first real hoop at a camp for emotionally disturbed kids in New Hampshire: “Swimming was awful; we called it Leech Lake. I found this old hoop nailed onto a tree and would stand throwing rocks through it.”

Basketball was “a home for someone my size, the first time I didn’t feel like a freak.” At 13, he started playing indoor games at Bronx House and in the off-season locker room of a public pool with an alleged former Harlem Globetrotter. Clumsy and stiff, Rosen wasn’t a natural. But he’d seen how the game could be played, and longed to join those “joyful warriors.”

Rosen compares basketball to jazz. “It’s a quintet. You’re finding a balance, one guy supporting another, playing roles, creating enough structure so you can be creative without descending into chaos.” Asked to compare it with other sports, he blows the verbal equivalent of a Charlie Parker solo. “Unlike baseball and football, the play is continuous. Basketball players have to make decisions on the move, they don’t have time to gather into a huddle and plan. It takes a different kind of vision, instinct, reaction.” Unlike the specialized roles of, say, an offensive lineman and placekicker, “hoopsters need the same skills in all positions: run, dribble, shoot, rebound, handle. Everyone touches the ball, it’s more fluid, you’re constantly transitioning between offense and defense. You have to recognize it in action and do it before you think about it. It’s less intellectual, more here and now. Ten guys and one ball. You need to have respect for yourself, your teammates—everyone but the referees.”

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