Larry Ross is pictured across the top with Dick Helm (l), Wheaton North athletic director and head coach, also pictured with David Dick; Lee Pfund (c), head coach at Wheaton College; and Wesley Dusek (r), Wheaton North JV coach. The bottom photo includes returning players from back-in-the-day, including Kerry (back, second from left) and Randy (front, second from left) and David Helm (front left).
Earlier this month, I re-connected during the 50th Anniversary homecoming weekend at Wheaton North High School in Wheaton, IL, with the three basketball coaches in my life: Dick Helm, Lee Pfund (c) and Wesley Dusek (r), as well as returning players from my era as a member of the first class to attend my alma mater for four years.
Beyond modeling a competitive spirit, desire for excellence and drive to win, I was especially encouraged by the reminder of the strong character development, values impartation and rich spiritual heritage these men infused into their players.
In his remarks at a ceremony announcing the annual MVP award to be named in his honor, Coach Helm shared how in 1964 he regularly “prayer walked” the perimeter of the building as the foundation was laid and later the hallways as the walls went up, asking God to bless every teacher, staff and student that would work or study at the school.
Coach Helm then asked every returning player who had been on a Wheaton North team for any sport to stand, saluted the group and thanked the Lord for the way He blessed them, their attitudes and accomplishments. He said he appreciated the myriad life and career success that many individuals he coached had achieved, but explained that he instead saw them as blessings, for which he had prayed more than half a century ago.
Coach Pfund, who celebrated his 95th birthday the previous week, reinforced that ministry heritage during our conversation together. He shared stories of being one of the few players willing to sit next to Jackie Robinson on the bus to training camp in Cuba during the rookie year of the first black player signed to a Major League Baseball team. his rookie. During the 40-minute ride to, and from, the ball park in Cuba, they discussed their respective testimonies and common bond of faith.
I, in turn, was able to regale Coach Pfund with a conversation I had in a bank vault in Brooklyn prior to a local branch event with his former teammate, Joe DiMaggio, for whom I was privileged to handle media liaison as spokesperson for my client, The Bowery Savings Bank.
I explained that when I asked Mr. DiMaggio if he remembered his co-player, Lee Pfund, he replied, “You mean the preacher? That’s what we called him, because of he had it written into his contract that he wouldn’t play on Sunday.” More than four decades after his successful career, including a consecutive game hitting streak that will likely never be broken, that testimony of faith and Gospel witness had made a lasting impression.
I was also intrigued to realize the curious interconnectivity of these men and families. After Lee Pfund coached Dick Helm on his Conference Champion team at Wheaton College in the mid 1950s, Coach Helm went on to coach all three of Coach Pfund’s three sons, John, Kerry and Randy, in high school, and later took over as head coach of the Wheaton College team after Coach Pfund retired.
Subsequently, Dick Helm and Randy Pfund competed against each other during their distinguished tenures in the NBA, while respectively coaching/managing the New York Knicks, Seattle SuperSonics, Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks and Toronto Raptors (Helm) and L. A. Lakers and Miami Heat (Pfund). And, my mother taught the children of Coaches Helm and Dusek in second grade before I was later associated with their teams — not quite Mayberry, but close…
So with hats off to the past, and coats off for the future, I remain grateful to these great men for their example and influence in my life.