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08 April, 2014

Digger Phelps

  In 1982 I hopped on a plane as a 15-year old, hoops-loving basketball player bound for Digger Phelp's basketball camp at Notre Dame. The thought of setting foot on the legendary campus to be coached by one of the highest profile coaches in the country was thrilling. Digger and his team had ended UCLA's historic 88-game win streak in 1974 and his reputation had preceded him since that day.
   The week was full of great moments. I had my first in-game dunk in a pickup game on the outdoors courts. We got a tour of the football stadium. The days were filled with hours of basketball and I was on a team coached by John Shumate. Oh, and I even got to see Digger. Twice.
   One night during the week Digger came to dinner at the camp and did a Q+A session. He also came to camp one day to give us some instruction. At one point Digger wanted to use a couple of the kids from the camp to demonstrate what he was talking about, so he called up some campers. One young man in particular caught his attention (sadly, it wasn't me). Digger called the boy over, gave him a look over and asked, "Son, what's that on your lip?"
"It's a mustache, coach!" said the boy whose 'stache made Tim Lincecum's current effort look like Tom Selleck's.
"What's that on your teeth, son?" Digger wanted to know next.
"Those are braces, coach!"
 Digger gave the boy another long look over and then pronounced, "One of them has got to go!"

  Flash forward to 2000. I am the coordinating producer on College Hoops Tonight and am working with non-other than Digger Phelps. Duke and Maryland are scheduled to play a big game so we decide to take Digger down to the studio and he's going to tape a chalkboard segment where he explains why Maryland's defense could cause problems for Duke. We spend about 30 minutes taping the segment, getting it just right. Digger's working hard, drawing all over the board and making a great case for Maryland's defense. When it's over I sidle up to Digger and say, "You know Digger, I just learned more from you in those 30 minutes than I did in a week at your camp." Digger busted out with his patented and infectious laugh.
   When we got back to the newsroom I called my dad on the phone and asked him, "How much did it cost to send me to Notre Dame basketball camp?"
   "Probably around two hundred dollars," he said.
   "Hang on a second," I say as I hand the phone to coach Phelps.
   "Mr. Ramsey? This is Digger Phelps. I owe you a refund."

   Digger announced yesterday that he is retiring from ESPN after 20 years. I'm really going to miss him and I'm not sure I'll ever see him again, which makes me very sad, because he still owes my dad that 200 bucks.

   All kidding aside, Digger was great to have around. He always referred to me and John Buccigross as his campers (we were actually there at the same time. How weird is that?!).
    Working with Digger was always fun because he understood the value of informing and entertaining and that there was a way to do both at the same time.