When I was a kid growing up in Castle Rock during the 1950s and ‘60s, I never missed a home basketball game. I dreamed of wearing the red-and-white and playing for Rocket coach Floyd LeBaron.
I got that chance during the 1967 and ’68 seasons. Those two years remain memorable for me – not only because my teammates and I formed a deep and lasting bond but also because Coach set an example that has influenced me my entire life.
His death on Wednesday, at 86, left a hole in the heart of Rocket Nation that will never be filled.
For the record
During his 21-year run as the Rockets’ head coach, his players had far more opportunities to be humble than gracious.
From 1953 to 1974, Floyd’s teams went 340-157, winning 10 league titles. They qualified for district 17 times and made 11 trips to the state tournament, placing 6th in 1954, 7th in 1957 and 1965, and 1st in 1969.
LeBaron was inducted into the Washington Interscholastic Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1985.
Boys to men
But statistics can’t tell the story of a man who believed unconditionally in selflessness, integrity, preparation, and hard work.
Above all else, Floyd did his best to teach boys how to be men. And in many cases, he succeeded. He cared about us as players, but he cared about us as people first and foremost.
Coach was a John Wooden advocate, and he walked the walk. Fundamentals, team play, and defense came first. He believed in doing things “the right way,” on and off the court. Our practices were structured down to the minute, with focus on passing, defense, rebounding, and free throw shooting. You took your Vitamin C and E pills and wore your stocking hat after you showered.
Whether it was game-planning or special situations, Coach was always prepared. If we were down by two with six seconds left, he’d draw up a play that would give us a chance.
A man of principles
When you respect someone, you don’t want to let him down. As a player, you knew it didn’t matter who your dad was or whether you’d been a bench-warmer on the sixth-grade team. If you worked hard and could contribute, Floyd had a place for you.
Opposing coaches and officials remember him as a gentleman. Running up the score on a hapless opponent would have been dishonorable, disrespectful, and shameful. He didn’t tolerate taunting or trash-talk, and he didn’t practice them. He drew one technical foul in a 497-game career.
Coach never belittled his players. Never used fear or intimidation to make a point. That said, he had high expectations and would let you know if you weren’t meeting them. I’ve never met anyone who could get as much mileage out of a “Holy cow!” or “Gee whiz!” as Floyd LeBaron.
Team play and defense
Human beings are innately selfish. Project that selfishness onto a group of 17- and 18-year-olds, and it’s easy to understand why getting buy-in to “team first” can be difficult. But Coach had a way of making you believe – in him, the program, and yourself. And once you believed, you were willing to forget about your scoring average and focus on doing what it took to win.
The connection between fanatical defense and winning tradition has never been more evident than during LeBaron’s tenure at the Rock. In 18 of his 21 seasons, the Rockets ranked first in the Trico League in scoring defense.
“Shots don’t always fall,” he liked to say, “but you can make up for a lot of things with defense. Because defense is about pride and mental toughness.”
LeBaron grew up in Centralia, where he was a three-sport athlete. He taught and coached at Concrete from 1947 to 1952 before taking over from Ted Hippi at Castle Rock, where he was also a teacher and counselor.
Floyd was a lifelong believer in physical fitness and was still ratcheting off 100 push-ups and sit-ups a day when he was in his early 80s. He had amazing hand-eye coordination and was an accomplished golfer.
Despite his failing health, when I visited Floyd several years ago all he could talk about was how lucky he was to have been the coach of the Rockets.
“I had wonderful kids,” he said. “We were successful because they were great competitors and because they respected each other and were willing to work so hard.”
We were the lucky ones, Coach.
We love you. And we won’t forget.
Former Rocket players and fans are encouraged to send their remembrances of Coach LeBaron to Jim LeMonds at firstname.lastname@example.org.