Coaches have favorites.
They try not to, because that can have a negative effect on team chemistry, but it happens and it can be for a variety of reasons.
Maybe they like them because they are good, so good that you damn well better like ’em because they have your job in their hands. Maybe they like them because they don’t sleep through team meetings or aren’t always questioning “why are you doing this” or “why can’t I play more.”
Sometimes they don’t even know why they like a certain player, maybe even one who sits at the end of the bench and just stays out of the way of the guys who can play.
Sometimes, though, there’s this bond that grows out of a coach feeling at times like he’s coaching himself, looking at a player and seeing in him all the things that he either possessed or wanted to possess as a player.
That is West Virginia University coach Bob Huggins and Joe Mazzulla.
Oh, Huggins doesn’t want to admit to the soft spot he has in his heart for this particular kid, and when you ask him about the similarities he starts it off with a joke.
“I was right-hander, 6-4 … and really good looking,” Huggins says.
Mazzulla is left-handed and he’s not 6-4. As for good looking, we’ll let someone else judge that … on Mazzulla and Huggins.
But you think of Bob Huggins as a player and what comes to mind?
Tough. Check with Mazzulla.
Smart. Check with Mazzulla.
Driven. Check with Mazzulla.
You can almost look at Mazzulla play and think “that had to be how Bob Huggins played the game.”
“I think we both played with a lot of passion,” Huggins said, getting serious for a moment. “We both played extremely hard, and we both played the same position. When you play that position, you are a lot better player if you want to know what’s going on.”
Mazzulla is driven to learn about the game, a coach to be, just like Huggins.
Mazzulla, in fact, might even have more of a passion for the game than Huggins, who was a coach’s son and who just naturally followed his dad’s urging. Mazzulla, on the other hand, went through more than anyone can imagine to get to where he is, and if you don’t think Huggins appreciates that, you are terribly wrong.
“I don’t think anyone can understand what he’s been through,” Huggins said.
You might remember that six games into the 2008-09 season Mazzulla drove to the basket and injured his left shoulder against Cleveland State. He sat out the next game, tried to play the following game and could last only six minutes.
Doctors told him it was a serious injury. He tried to rehab it, to get back without surgery, but the growth plate was damaged and it wouldn’t heal. The pain was intolerable.
He opted for surgery, but there weren’t any guarantees, and when he came back the rehabilitation was grueling.
“It was tough watching him,” Huggins admitted.
He spent hour upon hour working with trainer Randy Meador. He tried to learn to shoot right-handed, both from the floor and free throws. He begged to play, even though he wasn’t anywhere near ready to play at a Division I level.
“I played him last year, even though he had only one arm, it was more for Joe than for anything. I wanted to reward him and encourage him to work at the rehab,” Huggins said. “But think about him last year coming back after not playing for a year and being able to come back and not get his arm up above his shoulder, shooting free throws right-handed, trying to shoot every layup right-handed because he couldn’t lift his left arm up above his shoulder.”
Don’t pass over that statement. Think about it for a minute. Here was Mazzulla, a student and an athlete, graduating early, his career in doubt, his health in doubt, unable to put in a light bulb let alone shoot and jump shot.
But he kept at it. The next season he was back, not ready, still unable to use his left arm naturally. Early in the year he played 15 minutes, nine minutes, six minutes, one minute, four minutes. Huggins would let him do what he could do when he couldn’t hurt the team and hoping he wouldn’t hurt himself.
By January it was becoming obvious this was a special team, and Mazzulla was contributing, using his left arm some, his time up to 25 or so minutes a game.
“It was this time of year last year when he was first able to use the left arm,” Huggins said. “It been miraculous to watch.”
In the national quarterfinal he played 30 minutes, scored 17 points against Kentucky was the MVP of the Elite Eight.
Now he wants more, wants to make it through one more game this year than last, providing the same kind of drive and inspiration his coach provided as a player.
And, come to think of it, he might just be more handsome, too.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Coaches have favorites.
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