Helping players grow

  • Larry Henry / Sports Columnist
  • Thursday, December 7, 2000 9:00pm
  • Sports

SEATTLE – He has come a long way from the black hole.

The black hole where all of his adult male relatives worked.

The black hole that claimed an uncle.

Al Hairston has vague memories of looking down into that black hole as a youngster.

He remembers the men descending into that hole in the West Virginia earth each morning. How they all looked different when they went in. “When they came out in the afternoon,” he said, “they all looked the same.”

Black with coal dust.

They worked long, hard, unforgiving hours. “Coal mining was what you did,” Hairston said. “You worked there until you retired or died of black lung disease.”

That is what killed his uncle.

The miners were paid not in currency, but in scrip. “You could only spend it at the company store,” Hairston said.

Al Hairston never had to wield a shovel and a pickax. His stepfather, who did, moved the family to Detroit when Al was 7 or 8 and got a job in an auto factory.

Since then, Hairston has been back to West Virginia, but only to visit. When he does, it must make him realize how blessed his life has been.

He has made his living with a basketball, briefly playing it as a pro, mostly teaching it as a coach.

When someone recently remarked, “I didn’t get to see you play,” Hairston replied with a laugh, “I didn’t either. My career was kind of a blur. I had a coffee stop in the NBA.”

He must have liked the coffee because he has stayed for more than three decades in the city where he played. While the coffee in Seattle has changed, Al Hairston in one respect is pretty much the same guy he was when he joined the Sonics as a fifth-round draft choice out of Bowling Green (Ohio) in 1968. That is, he still loves basketball.

“My greatest joy in coaching, and this may sound kind of corny, is helping some kid develop physically and mentally,” he said, “and be a contributor to society.”

He has done that at the community college level (Seattle Central), at the prep level (Garfield High) and at the four-year college level (Seattle University). In September, he moved to the major college scene when he accepted a job as an assistant coach on Bob Bender’s staff at the University of Washington.

What Hairston brings to the Huskies is a great deal of knowledge, a familiar and respected name in the city high schools for recruiting purposes, and the distinction of having played at the highest level, albeit only 42 games. “It was a dream come true,” he said of those two seasons (1968-69, 69-70) with the Sonics.

Hairston wouldn’t reveal his signing bonus (“I’d be embarrassed to tell you”) or his salary. “I’ll just say that the total payroll for the whole Sonics organization was less than $500,000,” he said, and Lenny Wilkens was making $80,000 of it. “We took commercial flights and we had four pieces of medical equipment the rookies had to carry.”

Hairston, a 6-foot-1, 170-pound guard, played in 39 games as a rookie, but appeared in only three games his second – and final – year in the league. “I missed part of the season because I was in the (Army) reserves and was stationed at Fort Ord,” he said, adding that he didn’t collect any salary from the Sonics while he was serving Uncle Sam.

His most vivid memory of the NBA was playing a game against Wilt Chamberlain. “They passed to him in the low post and I slapped down on the ball and it was like I had slapped a table – the ball didn’t move. He was that strong.”

There might have been one distinctive moment in Hairston’s career. He got a technical foul for hanging on a rim.

“Probably one of the first,” he said.

Did he make the dunk? “No, that’s why I hung from the rim.”

It cost him $100. “Big money back then.”

His NBA career might not have had many highlights, but his 12-year stay as coach at Garfield High was filled with them.

His teams won five Class AAA state championships and eight Metro League titles. Several of his kids went on to play NCAA Division I ball, including Kenny Lyles, Alvin Vaughn and Bryant Boston, all of whom started for the Huskies.

Garfield was the “perfect situation.”

“I was fortunate to inherit a good basketball program,” Hairston said. “My biggest challenge was keeping it going.”

He left Garfield after his fifth state title, taking the head job at Seattle U. That was a topsy-turvy ride, as the school competed in three different divisions in the nine years he was there. “When I took the job, we were NAIA Division I, and in the fourth year we were 1 1/2 minutes from going to the nationals,” he recalled. “The following year we were a (NCAA) Division III non-scholarship program and we couldn’t get the players we needed to be successful. Two years later we were back to Division II.

“There was no stability in that situation. You couldn’t develop any consistency.”

Now he’s joined a program that could be about a year away from taking off. The Huskies, 10-20 last season, have some promising freshmen, a good recruiting class coming in and a renovated arena.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Hairston said, “in a very re-energized program.”

For Al Hairston, who turns 55 on Monday, it beats the tar out of the black hole.

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