Hoops And Dreams

David Byrd didn't have to become a basketball coach to understand the home court advantage.

Cover Story

March 31, 2002|By Story by Larry Bingham

Before practice, on the day high school basketball playoffs began in Maryland, the telephone rang in the athletic director's office at Pocomoke High. David Byrd picked up the receiver and instantly recognized the voice. He hadn't coached "Putt" Johnson in 25 years but he knew why Putt was calling.

No matter how many years pass, no matter how far they move from the Eastern Shore, Byrd's former players begin calling him in late February and early March. Putt, who lives across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge now, in Bowie, played on Byrd's first team. Mike Roberts, the leading scorer on his '91-'92 team, called the day before, all the way from New York City. They wanted to ask about the playoffs, to wish him well, to hear how he would answer the question this year.

It is the question townspeople ask when he stops at Pusey's Country Store on his way home from school, at the Shore Stop when he comes in for gas, at H. Merrill Walter's Insurance if he drops by to see his wife, Peggy.

So, Coach, will the Warriors go all the way?

On the phone, he said they had a chance. Pocomoke almost always had a chance; Putt knew that. But they'd never won the state championship in Byrd's 25 years as coach. "We're in the hunt," he said. That was what he told everyone. "We've got a dog in the hunt."

Standing in his office, Byrd didn't have to look far to review the past, or to remind himself of what really matters, even more than winning. On the wall are 25 photographs, one of each team he coached, 300 boys who were his for a season.

He took five of those teams to the region championships, then across the bay to College Park and the state finals. Two teams made it all the way, to the championship game, before suffering defeat.

The basketballs those players signed sit on a shelf in Byrd's office. On the walls are engraved plaques marking other milestones: "Bayside Coach of the Year, "Athletic Director of the Year," and one plaque alluding to something deeper, to the difference he has made. It is a gift from the last team to go all the way to the final game. It says: "The memories will last a lifetime."

Some of Byrd's boys earned their rides to college on basketball scholarships. They are lawyers, teachers and school principals now. They still call him "Coach," and some still call during playoffs.

On this day, though, there was no more time for talk. Byrd said goodbye to Putt, hitched his gym shorts up over a potbelly that isn't in the early pictures, and headed into the locker room. He passed newspaper headlines taped to the door that told the story of this team's 20-2 season: "Warriors Conquer." "Pocomoke Prevails." "Tournament Time."

In the gym, Byrd propped open the side doors to let in fresh air. The cavernous room, with its honey-colored floor, its wooden bleachers, its blue-and-gold state championship banners lining the walls, has become his second home.

One of the banners belonged to a man who had the job before Byrd, the last coach to lead a Pocomoke basketball team to a championship, in '75-'76.

Two had been earned by his brother, Alan, the school soccer coach.

Seven belonged to field hockey teams coached by his sister, Susan.

If his boys could break the spell this year, it would be a sort of triple crown for the sibling coaches of Pocomoke High. Three more banners could go up in the gym. Both Alan and Susan had already led teams to state titles again this year.

For all his time in Pocomoke, almost 50 years now, Byrd had never seen his hometown the way his brother and sister had: From a chartered bus returning from College Park, rolling down Market Street with fire engines and ambulances leading the way, with people cheering from the sidewalk, the town wide awake at any hour to welcome their state champions home.

But just getting over the Bay Bridge this year would be a challenge for his squad.

First, they had to win all three games in their regional finals and become the 1A East Division champs. Then, in College Park, they would face two more opponents for the crown.

Their division comprises the state's 44 smallest high schools, but what the schools lack in size their teams make up for in skill. Five of the last six state division champs have come from the Eastern Shore. The Warriors were due.

At practice, Byrd put the boys through drills, crunches and sprints. He joined them in running the length of the court. Forty-five minutes later, sweat ran down his face, and his shirt stuck to his chest.

He lifted a ball into the air, and the players gathered around him, but he didn't say anything until each touched the ball. Only then were they ready. Only then did every boy have hold of the dream.

Pocomoke rolled past the Washington High Jaguars, 98-44, in the first game of the playoffs. It was late on a Thursday afternoon, Feb. 26, when the bus left the high school for the second game, and Byrd sat alone in the front seat, tapping his fingers against the window.

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