Down 14 years, he can still rally

Frank Rhodes: Wilde Lake legend returns to bench to help ill former player and finds he hasn't lost his winning touch.

February 08, 1999|By Rick Belz | Rick Belz,SUN STAFF

The chirping of sneakers against the polished wooden gym floor sounds like a chorus of crickets.

Off to the side of the three-decade-old Wilde Lake High School gym, once painted an ugly ocher and dubbed the Yellow Submarine for its stifling effect on visiting teams, Frank Rhodes watches a group of high school basketball players execute a drill.

He's a compassionate, humorous 66-year-old gray-haired man wearing a black ski cap, plaid shirt and baggy brown pants. From a corner of the now-more-subdued, beige-painted gym, his wife, Arlene, smiles. She suffered a stroke in 1991 and comes to practice in a wheelchair.

Rhodes retired as Wildecats coach 14 years ago, but this season he agreed to return on an interim basis and has wasted no time in proving that the game hasn't passed him by. He took over the Wildecats when they were 0-3, and after two more losses, led them to victories in seven of their past 10 games. Newcomers to Howard County basketball are learning why Rhodes is a coaching legend.

The last time Rhodes coached, in 1985, the Wildecats capped his brilliant 27-year career (329 wins, 153 losses) by giving him his first state basketball championship trophy.

After winning in Cinderella fashion throughout the state playoffs -- and erasing a nine-point deficit late in the fourth quarter of the championship game to win by two points -- the players lifted him onto their shoulders as he shed tears of joy. Many Wilde Lake fans cried with him that March day in College Park.

It was a well-deserved moment for a man still rich in family, friends and goodwill.

Last December, Rhodes learned that longtime friend and coaching protege Lester Clay was ill and needed someone to coach the Wildecats. So Rhodes responded as he has his whole life -- he offered a hand.

What Rhodes thought would be a short-term favor has stretched into a longer commitment. Now, two months later, Clay is still hospitalized with a rare inflammatory disease that attacked his spinal column, Rhodes is still coaching and Wilde Lake players are still enjoying the benefits that only a coaching legend can offer.

Three of their opening five losses came without their best player. Now, the Wildecats are 7-8 and suddenly competitive with the best county teams.

Only attitude has changed

Rhodes redux is a mellower version of the one-time spitfire coach known as a larger-than-life teacher and human being.

His was an era when in-your-face-gruff was OK. But he's older and wiser now; he knows that intimidation no longer works with most of today's athletes, many of whom haven't the foggiest idea of the Frank Rhodes legend.

Ed Hinkle knows Rhodes well. He played for him when Rhodes coached at Atholton in the late 1960s -- before Rhodes left to help open Wilde Lake in 1971.

"That he's able to adjust to a new era is fantastic," Hinkle said. "I never thought he'd be able to get through the way he has to today's kids, most of whom are more concerned about playing time and their points than about winning."

Hinkle owns a sandwich shop that Rhodes has frequented for years with his wife for breakfast. Hinkle also has put in successful stints as junior varsity coach at Atholton and Wilde Lake.

Hinkle knows that coaching basketball, although a passion for Rhodes, is only one aspect of a person who has known only too well life's unpleasant hues.

"He's an incredible human being. He's done a lot of stuff for underprivileged kids, many of them minority kids -- and not just basketball players," Hinkle said. "He'd pick them up in his old green truck and bring them to school when they didn't have a ride. And he took them home and fed them because he knew they wouldn't get fed otherwise."

After his wife's stroke, Rhodes took her out of a nursing home and insisted on taking care of her.

"He has a full-time job taking care of Mrs. Rhodes," said Hinkle. "We lift her out of the van into a wheelchair when she comes for breakfast. And he ties a bib on her and cuts up her food. He never leaves her side."

The Rhodes have two children, Tina and Frank Jr.

"He's No. 1 in my book," said Tina, 36. "She is everything to him."

Frank Jr., 42, who runs a family farm, produce stand and greenhouse operation, played basketball in the 1970s for his dad and Wilde Lake. "There's no one I admire more," he said of his father. "He's fantastic. I never thought he could do what he's done."

`Kids sense his sincerity'

Wilde Lake football coach Doug DuVall has known Rhodes for almost 40 years.

"He marks you with an indelible mark," DuVall said. "I've always admired him and held him in high regard, but it's at a whole different level now. To see how loyal and devoted he's been to Arlene after her stroke. That stroke changed his perception of life. He's more mellow than in 1985, and a much different man from the one I first met in 1961 when he was hell on wheels.

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