Coach B: Gone but still with Us

Coach B: Gone but still with Us

Larry Freeman

His big heart and that endearing, velvet touch won him the iron grip that held fast the reverence of thousands of teens who crossed his path.

These were core hallmarks of Stephen Burnett, belovedly known around Alameda simply as “Coach B.” Big and blustering with bravado to match, he coached the game of life to youngsters better than he coached any sport on the many courts, fields and tables of his calling.

Combining camaraderie, cajoling, constancy, conscience and, yes, sometimes more than a few cusses, he lifted and led kids upwards on their own ascent of his life path to never settle for being anything but your best. Coach B’s path, inevitably became a part of their own, part of a tapestry woven so many times at his memorial at Thompson Field on Sunday June 13.

Not many people become larger than life in the way that reaches deep and enduring into people’s souls, a touch that blends pure goodness of heart with vision of mind and selflessness.

Coach B led with his heart and then with his mind, always followed by his ever-revving motor mouth. Coach B’s legacy in Alameda High School, be it coaching girls’ basketball to par excellence, creating the school’s first female golf team and championships, or even getting kids behind a ping pong paddle or badminton racket-- does not lie in any sport, for the magic of his passing on human virtue is not about sports at all.

It’s about harnessing the human ideal to build character by giving to the other before to the self; it’s about always striving for an even greater good. Coach B was the composer, arranger and conductor of all of those things.

Now when one didn’t fully perform to his orchestrations, they might get a taste of Coach B’s wrath. If he was doing his best, than so must you. Anything less didn’t get respect, but it did get 5:30 a.m. practices, 20 extra postgame suicide runs, or another 30 minutes at the free throw line till things got right. Then, the respect followed --until the next let down, of course.

His resonating hearty voice, his big warms hugs of youngsters, his shout outs of “hello my beautiful girl” or “hello you handsome young man,” and his extraordinary intuition to peer into a youth’s troubles, immediate problems, potential and limits all became a way for him to nurture forward motion for those in that big wrap around hug of body or mind.

The stories abound: the way he made a woman whom he’d never met crack up in laughter at the butcher counter one day; the way a white kid at the check out counter calls him his uncle — though Coach B, the former U.S. Airborne War Vet, and member of NASA was as beautiful a black skin toned as a man can be.

It was in the way that when he saw a student struggling to get his stuck locker open, he calmed him, left and returned with a wrench and ripped the stubborn steel door open.

It was in the way he told a demoralized girl who had just been cut from an 8th grade hoops team, that she had it in her. He saw her potential and loss of confidence, saw the chance to uplift yet another soul, and two years later, she was team captain. He also knew, “She ain’t never gonna be no great basketball player, but she has heart and is smart.” In essence, he saw in her what he so much was to his very marrow.

Coach B was more than a booming, big presence who lit up the rooms and arenas into which he walked. He endures now, more than ever a larger-than-life presence of nurture and inspiration for so many who had the good fortune to come into his light and rise from his embrace of the soul.

Lawrence Freeman lives in Alaemda.