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Back against the Wall


Mark Woods

What motivates someone to leave their wife and family at home in order to spend nine months of the year in a foreign land, enduring the daily mental and physical toil without the accompaniment of those who matter most? 

For Edinburgh Rocks coach Kevin Wall, it isn't for the money, such are the relative pauper's salaries on offer to those who call the plays in the British Basketball League. Neither is it for the glamour; long bus trips and mid-winter matches in unsophisticated leisure centres unforgiving on mind and body.

"It's because I love basketball and I love to coach," Wall answers, our reunion over coffee squeezed in among a litany of peripheral duties which accompany his true raison d'etre - to guide the Meadowbank-based club back from ignominy to the relative prosperity it enjoyed two seasons ago when the Rocks were ranked among the best in Britain. 

That success was built on sandy foundations, Wall arriving last summer to weave a silk purse from the most unrefined of ingredients. And as of yet, victories have supplied scant further motivation, Edinburgh's meagre total of four halved  when once-mighty Manchester Giants folded into oblivion. 

For a long six weeks, Scotland's only professional side failed to taste a triumphant nectar, Wall often adopting the mien of a startled rabbit, caught between the flares of rapture and frustration. A rare recent win against with Derby Storm brought temporary relief, a positive infusion which would be embraced with a pent-up gusto.

"When you win, everything's great, everything flows in your mood," Wall outlines in his languid Texan drawl. "When you fall into the kind of situation we've been in, everything is huge. The weather doesnít usually bother me but during these stretches, it does... The one thing that would drive me out of coaching is the pain of losing. 

"That's why it's miserable this year because I wanted to come back and do it right. Instead, we've arrived in the most bizarre situation I could dream of and the only way to get out of it is to fight.

 "It just becomes a challenge, a daily fight. The difference between winning and losing is huge but you donít have time to think about it."

The challenge though is one he clearly enjoys, the solitude of the long-distance father once which is an asset rather than a trauma.

"Each team is special. During that seven month period, that becomes my focus. Even if I'm near my family, the game still dominates my thoughts so in a crazy way, it's better to be here on my own.  At times like this it would be even harder if my family was here and I had to be father of four and husband on top."

Despite such travails, Wall has surmounted loftier ramparts in his 49 year, none more inopportune than when, as a promising youngster, his ambitions of making his mark on the court were dashed in the cruellest of fashions. 

His stage-in-waiting was the old American Basketball Association, a much-lamented enterprise which introduced such innovations as the red, white and blue ball, slam dunks and the heart-stopping talents of the legendary Doctor J before its eventual demise.

Wall, then aged 24 and plying his trade in Belgium, was summoned back to his native St. Louis for a try-out. "At the time, they had an outstanding group, perhaps one of the best offensive rosters ever put together," he recalls. 

"They had Fly Williams who led the nation in scoring while at Austin Peah University. He was legendary. They used to have a famous chant for him: 'The Fly is open. Let's Go Peah'.

"But they felt like they needed a heady white guard. I hate to say it came down to that but their roster was exclusively black otherwise and being from Missouri, I felt like I had a good shot."

It was not to be. Engaged in a two-way duel for the final vacancy with ML Carr (later to become coach of the Boston Celtics), Wall suffered an injury in practice which would bring an abrupt end to his playing career. "I crawled over onto the bleachers and was in pain like Iíd never felt before," he recounts with regretful emotion. 

"A few minutes later, the coach, Rod Thorn, who is now in charge of the New Jersey Nets, came over to me and said 'thanks and good luck'. And that was it. I still had a ticket in my pocket to go back to Europe but it all came crashing down."

Stripped of his nirvana and without a degree, Wall addressed both issues under the tutelage of his elder brother Dan, making a daily 150 mile round trip to take classes while helping out with a local college squad. 

It was during that time that Wall mixed with another young coach, Lon Kruger, who has since graduated into the NBA at the helm of the Atlanta Hawks. Yet it is the tortuous path followed by another contemporary, now also in the Stateside showpiece, with whom the Edinburgh chief presently identifies most. 

The Rocks struggles mirror, in style if not in substance, the desperate fall from grace sustained lately by the Chicago Bulls who are guided by Wall's like-minded cohort Tim Floyd. The BBL and the NBA might lie a world, rather than a mere ocean, apart, but the trials and challenges which the former cohorts are currently enduring run in a perverse parallel.

"We've talked," Wall confirms. "I read their reports a lot on the Internet because they're going through the same things. I print it out and give it out to our players so they can read quotes from guys who are going through the same things. And you hear the same words coming back, the same feelings."

For a few dollars more, would the agony and the ecstasy be any more palatable? "It's funny because Wall, Kruger and Floyd were all regarded at one time as pretty good coaches." 

He laughs, adding: "I don't know what our combined record would be over the last 18 months but I imagine it would be pretty shabby. It's just they earn a million for what they do and I don't but there isn't a whole lot of difference otherwise." 

For Wall and his ilk, the love of the game remains truly blind.

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