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A Basket Case : Alford's Obsession for Basketball Leads to His Success as Coach at Southwest Missouri State

February 25, 1997|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — He learned to count when he was 3 by watching the scoreboard numbers flip while his daddy coached the high school varsity.

Later, at New Castle's Chrysler High, the boy grew up to become Indiana's "Mr. Basketball," honing his feathery shot by tossing Ping-Pong balls into Pringles potato chip canisters.

He denied himself ice cream for missing practice shots on his driveway court, punished himself with fingertip push-ups for messing up his boot-camp basketball regimen.

He earned a national title, an Olympic gold medal and a Purple Heart under Coach Robert Montgomery Knight at Indiana, and even involved his romance with Dr. Naismith's peach basket, making his high school sweetheart climb a ladder to fetch the engagement ring he'd placed in a box on the back of the rim.

He was a peculiar son.

"Oh yeah, the neighbors all thought there was something wrong with that boy," his father remembers. "He'd be out there at midnight, be out there in ice and snow, shooting with galoshes on. He was absolutely obsessed with basketball."

The boy never played kick the can.

A perfect day to him was putting a new net on the rim.

He charted every practice shot he took--reporting at the end of one summer that he had taken 25,200.

On vacation stopovers, the family's younger son, Sean, would make blind leaps into motel swimming pools.

Not Steve Alford.

"Steve would walk out there on the diving board and look, and look, and look, and feel the water, then jump in," his dad says.

What Steve needed was a scouting report on the pool.

Naturally, when his star-spangled playing days ended, Alford having stretched every ounce of ordinary talent into a four-year NBA career, logic dictated he pass "Go" and proceed directly to the bench.

"I was doing scouting reports when I was a sophomore in high school," Alford says.

The shock isn't that he has succeeded--"failure" was never a word he fancied much--as much as it has been how fast he has ascended.

In his second season as coach at Southwest Missouri State, Alford, 32, has made over a program that had gone stale after Charlie Spoonhour left, establishing himself as the nation's brightest young coaching prospect.

Alford's Bears are 22-7 this season, 12-6 in the Missouri Valley Conference, and still in the hunt for an NCAA berth.

Some coaches toil years before getting a chance to run a program.

Alford toiled for a month.

When the Sacramento Kings released him in 1992, Alford returned home to Indiana to help coach his father's powerhouse Chrysler team.

Days later, the phone rang.

Manchester College, a Division III school in Manchester, Ind., wanted the home-state hero to rescue a floundering 0-8 team in midseason.

Alford asked his dad about it.

"I said, 'I guess you have a choice of working for them for money or helping me for free,' " Sam Alford remembers. "Not a big choice in my opinion."

Sam gave Steve two going-away gifts: John Wooden's seminal basketball work, "The Pyramid of Success," and a whistle.

"I'd never blown a whistle until I got to my first practice," he remembers.

Alford was 27.

Manchester was drawing 200 fans a game and had not had a winning season since 1976.

After tug-boating that 0-8 team to a 4-24 finish, Alford strung together seasons of 20-8, 23-4 and 31-1. His last, 1994-95, Manchester advanced to the Division III title game before losing.

The first time a Manchester kid called Alford "Coach," he winced.

"That was the oddest thing, starting out," he says. "Coach to me had always meant Dad or Coach Knight."

Alford had spunk, though.

Once, a Manchester player made 23 consecutive free throws in practice and dared Alford to match it. Maybe the kid didn't know Alford had shot 89.8% from the line in college, fifth best in NCAA history.

Alford stepped up and sank 218 shots as players watched, mouths agape. Probably none of them had shot Ping-Pong balls into Pringles canisters.

Two things were clear: Things at Manchester were going to change, and Steve Alford was not long for the place.

When Southwest Missouri called in 1995, Alford had barely heard of Springfield, Mo., let alone set foot in it.

When an official offer was tendered Alford, as usual, tiptoed to the edge of the diving board.

Sam says, "He used to aggravate his mom and I because he couldn't make a decision; he wanted to hear the full story."

Steve made the decision at 1:30 a.m. in a Burger King parking lot after he had hashed over the details with his parents, Sam and Sharan, and wife Tanya.

Alford accepted the position on one condition, that his father join him on the bench as an assistant.

Sam Alford had spent 20 years at Chrysler High, coaching prep powers before packed houses. He had turned down college offers so he could coach sons Steve and Sean through high school. Sam was only 52, but had found himself waiting at the mailbox for his quarterly 401K reports.

"I needed a change," he says.

So, Sam and Sharan packed up and moved to Springfield, lured by opportunity and the chance to grow older with their son and two grandchildren.

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