Thursday, March 6, 2008 | 2 a.m.
- Al La Rocque, the Durango High School girls basketball coach, adds a little bit of humor to his pep talk during halftime of the Bishop Gorman game.
Al La Rocque At A Glance
- Born: Jan. 19, 1951, Inglewood, Calif. (57 years old)
- Wife: Beverly, married 27 years; she’s a teacher at Grant Sawyer Middle School
- Daughters: Ally (19), freshman, University of Oklahoma; Lindy (18), senior, Durango High School
- Education: Lakewood High School (1969), Long Beach City College (1971), Cal Poly Pomona (1973), UNLV (master’s degree, 1976)
- Teaching: 34 years (19 at Western High School; 15 at Durango)
- Career coaching record: 487-264
- State championships: 2
- Former players who went on to college basketball careers: 29
- His all-Durango High team: Nathan Miller (1995), Jared Call (1996), Ra’oof Sadat (1996) Thomas McTyer (1997 Nevada Gatorade player of the year), Jamaal Brimmer (First athlete to be named Nevada player of the year in football and basketball in the modern era, 2000). Sixth man: Miha Cmer (1996). Manager: Jack Murphy (1997, current scout and video coordinator for the Denver Nuggets)
- Referee: Deldre Carr (1997) Official in the NBA Development League. “I told him I would put him on our Wall of Fame when he makes it to the league.”
- Best player he ever coached: “Lindy, my daughter. No player of mine ever put in more time or hard work. She lived in the gym.”
- All Achievement Team (for success beyond basketball): Terry Adler (Western High 1976). “Graduated from the Air Force Academy, 1981. Ph.D. in information systems at the University of Cincinnati. Retired lieutenant colonel, now a professor at New Mexico State University." Jeff Guinn (Western 1978): “Would take a charge on a freight train. Graduated from Arizona State University and took his work ethic into business, where he now owns and operates a local company, Aspen Financial.” Brandon Barkhuff (Durango 1996): “The ultimate role player on two state championship teams who graduated from UCLA, where he was Steve Lavin’s personal assistant. Graduated from Boston College Law School and is now practicing law in Las Vegas.” Evan Glusman (Durango 1999): “Scored 1460 on his SATs and got his business degree from UNR. Runs the family business, nationally renowned Piero’s Restaurant.” Adam Schwartz: (Durango mgr. 1997): “Manager at UNLV under Charlie Spoonhour and Lon Kruger and now an assistant coach at Lamar J.C. in Colorado.”
- Toughest local prep coach to beat: “Whoever is coaching Bishop Gorman at the time. They already have the best players that money can buy; now we have to figure out how to beat them!”
- Best rivalry: “Gorman, tiddlywinks or basketball. If we are playing them for a championship, it means we have already won the Public School Championship and now it’s time for a showdown.”
- Most memorable win: “The semifinal game of the 1995 Nevada State Championship. A win over No. 1-ranked Green Valley (63-62) to advance to the state championship game. We won that game too, and it was anticlimactic.”
- Did you know: In 34 years of coaching, La Rocque was never assessed a technical foul. “I always recognized when another human being had had too much of me.”
- Did you know II: La Rocque taught NASCAR racing brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch in business class at Durango. Kurt was quiet, he said, sort of like he drives. And Kyle? “Not so much.”
Now that Al La Rocque, the dean of local high school basketball coaches, has announced his retirement after 34 years of wins and losses and rhetorical questions about the nuances of blocking and charging fouls directed at guys wearing striped shirts, it seems only appropriate to look back on his career, in a way that he could relate to.
Four quarters. Halftime. Maybe even overtime.
But no TV timeouts.
Al La Rocque was born Jan. 19, 1951, in the shadow of the old Los Angeles Forum. But he didn’t start sinking jump shots in earnest until his family moved to Lakewood, just a long bounce pass from Long Beach. La Rocque honed his game at the famous Belmont Shore basketball courts at Ocean Boulevard and 54th Place, where everybody liked to be “skins” instead of “shirts,” owing to the warm ocean breezes blowing over the fan-shaped backboards and the rims with the chains hanging from them.
La Rocque said he was a “decent” high school player; his backcourt running mate at Lakewood High, Mike Rae, was better. Rae would go on to become USC’s starting quarterback.
And La Rocque? “I played 20 games and had 101 fouls,” he said, which is impossible, at least if you didn’t flunk math.
La Rocque said he owes most of what he knows about X’s and O’s to Lute Olson, his coach at Long Beach City Junior College. What he knows about everything else, he said, is due to Dan Ayala, his coach at Cal Poly Pomona.
“I learned about basketball from Lute Olson,” La Rocque says. “I learned about life from Dan Ayala.”
Ayala and La Rocque could have ridden the same tour bus from Southern California to Las Vegas; Ayala to become an assistant at UNLV under Jerry Tarkanian; La Rocque to become the head basketball coach at Western High. He was just 23 years old. By 28, he was out of the high school coaching business. “Depending on who you talk to, I either quit or was fired,” he says.
He wouldn’t be back for 13 years.
Life is full of overnight successes, but La Rocque wasn’t one of them.
In 1983, three years after he either quit or was fired as a high school basketball coach, La Rocque became an AAU basketball coach, albeit without the fancy jogging suit and gold medallions. He started a grass-roots summer basketball program, beginning a long association with Nike, and put together a team of local all-stars who spent the blistering Las Vegas summers hooping it up against other all-star teams coached by guys wearing fancy jogging suits and gold medallions.
Where there are now a dozen or more summertime basketball teams in Southern Nevada, there once was only one. La Rocque coached the Las Vegas Stars for 10 years. He was still coaching them in 1993 when it was becoming harder to find a gym in which to play — at almost exactly the same time Durango High was opening its doors. And a new gym.
Thirteen years after he quit or was fired, La Rocque was back as a high school basketball coach.
Two years after La Rocque returned as a high school basketball coach, he was a state champion. Nobody saw it coming.
Durango, playing with some of Bonanza’s former players and some of Clark’s former players (rezoning) and a couple of players who slept on La Rocque’s living room sofa (Recruiting? Generosity? A little of both?) was 20-10 in 1995, a modest record for a state champion.
The Trailblazers drew 33-1 Green Valley, whose only loss was to Oak Hill Academy, one of those basketball factories back East, in the state semifinals — and somehow won, despite playing without their best player, Nate Miller, who had broken his hand by slamming it against a wall after a loss to Rancho in the zone tournament.
Durango had fallen behind 12-0 when La Rocque went to his bench out of desperation.
By the middle of the second quarter, even the Durango baseball players at the end of the bench were hitting 3-pointers.
The gritty Trailblazers rallied for a memorable win, then presented La Rocque with a state championship banner the following day by exacting revenge against Rancho. They gave him another one the next year. Durango went 29-5, with four of the losses coming against nationally ranked opponents.
“The first one was fun, because it was unexpected,” La Rocque said. “The second one was work. We were the last team to go back to back.”
He said that was fun, too.
During La Rocque’s 19 years as head coach, Durango won 280 games and lost 176. The boys, that is. The Durango girls were 107-37 in the five years he was an assistant.
That’s right, La Rocque coached the girls, too. Blame it on the X chromosome: La Rocque and his wife of 27 years, Beverly — “the only woman that could have married me,” Al says — have two daughters, both of whom played for their old man. Ally was first, then Lindy. Ally was good; Lindy was real good. In fact, on most nights, she was great. In the fall, she’ll start a college career at Stanford, a perennial NCAA contender.
“I never dreamed it would be so much fun,” La Rocque said about coaching his daughters, born 14 months apart.
Those five seasons helping out with his girls and their teammates were a reminder of how rewarding coaching can be when you don’t have to deal with parents and administrators and referees and the day-to-day minutiae that can unravel a head coach’s sweat socks, especially when he has been at it for 34 years.
“It was just me and basketball, me in the gym with those 12 girls,” La Rocque said. “It was way cool.”
A few weeks ago, I watched La Rocque coach his last home game. When I mentioned I wanted to devote a column to his career and asked if it would be OK to hang out behind the Durango bench, he said why not just sit on it, next to him. So I did.
Before the game, they made an announcement over the public address system that sort of sounded like the speaker at the drive-up window at Jack in the Box. There was a screech and a crackle and some unintelligible words. It was about La Rocque’s coaching his last game at Durango. There was a muffled mention of championship trophies, of games won, of years taught. The crowd sort of cheered. La Rocque sort of acknowledged it.
Then it was just La Rocque in the gym with those 12 girls.
The coach and basketball one more time.