Scottsburh High School/Lawrence North High School/Twitter: @Jon_Blau
For Cheatham, Keefer, and Holmes, Thrill of Coaching has Never Waned
They have combined to coach 2,308 victories for Indiana high school basketball teams through 138 years of service while winning better than 70 percent of their games and capturing seven state championships.
All have helped dozen of kids earn college scholarships, all are in their seventies and counting, and all can see retirement coming into sharper focus.
While they are among many coaches who have been inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, they stand apart from their active coaching peers, statistically at least, having climbed to heights few of their counterparts can reach no matter how hard they try and how long they're willing to fight the skirmishes.
Donna Cheatham, J.R. Holmes, and Jack Keefer will be honored for their legendary careers during halftime of Thursday's Hickory Night game against the Los Angeles Clippers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. They haven't hung on this long to have their egos polished – they'll all tell you it's about the pleasure of helping kids achieve – but they are deserving of recognition just the same.
Cheatham, from Scottsburg High School, is Indiana's all-time winningest coach in girls basketball with 716 victories in 44 seasons.
Holmes, of Bloomington South, has won 803 games, just three short of Jack Butcher's record total for boys coaches.
Keefer, of Lawrence North, is close behind with 789 victories and has the most state championships of the trio with four.
Each of them recently reflected on their careers in telephone interviews:
Did you think you would coach this long?
Cheatham: I don't think I ever thought about it that way. I'm one of these people, when people ask if I set goals, the only goal I set is to take care of today because it makes tomorrow easier. I take it 24 hours at a time.
I wasn't thinking about coaching in college (at Georgetown in Kentucky.) That's the strange thing. I was taking pre-med. I majored in Biology and minored in Chemistry. I did play three sports in college. I played volleyball, although I had never played in my life, and I played softball as well as basketball.
I loved sports, but my mind was more set on becoming a doctor at the time. I was fascinated with the heart and wanted to be a cardiologist. But I needed money at the time. When I got out of college they were hiring teachers. There might be eight or 10 openings and only two people applying. I didn't even have a teaching license when I first started. I had to go back to school and finish that. But when I started teaching, a friend of mine at the school, we both took an interest in sports and we said, "Let's start a basketball team." She helped me coach basketball and I helped her coach softball. We started back in the fall of '72 and the next thing you know I love it, so I proceeded to get my teaching license and stayed in teaching and coaching.
Holmes: No. I don't think anybody thinks you're going to be coaching 49 years. When I first started I was thinking of four or five years. I have a math degree and was thinking about getting into business and getting rich. That didn't work out very well so I just stayed with it.
Keefer: No, not at all.
I started coaching with a guy named Phil Buck at Frankfort. He was leaving to go to Madison Heights. I had just applied to Purdue to get my MBA, but they were piddling around and piddling around and I'm thinking, I don't know if I'm going to get in or not. Then I got an offer from Oak Hill where I had graduated from and I went over there.
If I had gotten into that MBA program I'd probably be retired now and have no gray hair and not have a cold right now and be living in Florida.
What's your greatest thrill in coaching?
Cheatham: The first time we got to play in an ISHAA tournament and were blessed enough to get to the Sweet 16, right off the bat. You remember the first things you do; they seem to stand out.
Beyond that, I've had so many great kids who played for me. I've been blessed. My kids have gone on to play in 11 different states. I've probably got around 40-plus DI players. I've had 70-some kids sign (for scholarships) in colleges. I was at Southwestern for 12 years and signed 11 kids.
That gives you adrenaline, because you're helping people. What else is life if you're not helping people? There's nothing else to it. If you're doing it for your own sake, that gets dry really quick and leaves you nowhere.
That's the adrenaline that keeps me going. As long as I have a rapport with young people and can have a connection with them, which is hard today. I feel our young people are not taught to respect older people. That will be the cutoff mark. When I get to the point that age separation is too great and kids no longer respect what you have to tell them.
Holmes: When my son (Jonathan) hit the game-winning shot as a freshman to upset Bedford North Lawrence with one second to go to win the sectional. Bedford had been a big thorn in my side growing up. That was really special.
Keefer: It would have to be back when you had no-class basketball and we won that first state tournament (in 1989) and Market Square Arena was filled. Nobody left because one game's over and another game's starting. It's kind of a zoo going on now, but back in those days everybody wore their letter jackets, they all sat with their teams, all the schools brought their teams to the games and stayed overnight.
What's you craziest story in coaching?
Cheatham: Oh, my, I don't know. I've had some funny things happen with the team.
One time the kids were horsing around in the locker room and showering. I had a couple of young ladies who loved to tease each other. One put a towel around her and went into the gym. The other young lady was halfway dressed and took off after her. They got clear to the end of the gymnasium. Nobody else was there; we were the last of the Mohicans. But she pulls off the towel of the other young lady so she was completely nude. And the janitor comes around the corner just about that time. He had this big cart there, so the one who was in the nude jumped behind the cart and they worked their way back to the locker room.
We just stood and laughed. The custodian was never the same after that.
Holmes: In my first year, at Tunnelton High School (1970-71), I was both the JV coach and the varsity coach. We were playing down in Milltown, a team that had gone to the final 16 the previous year and had everybody back except one guy. It was a big game, and we had a good team. We're playing and a call on a block-charge goes against both my second-best player and their best player. One official is pointing to one and one official is pointing to the other. Then all of a sudden the official pointing at the other guy points at our guy, and they call it on us.
I was 23 years old and a little crazy. I go out on the floor and take my chalk and throw it up against the wall in the gym. Get a technical. I was about to get a second one when one of the officials says, 'You understand, you have no assistant. You get another technical, this game is going to be forfeited.' So I go back to the bench. And here comes my player's dad, a big ol' burly truck driver named Dane Case, who was Damon Bailey's grandfather. He goes after the official, but I stop him and take him off the court. But then he kicks the bleachers and breaks his foot.
The next day we were at this place where we hung out with a bunch of guys and he was in there. I said, 'I'm really sorry about your foot.' He said, 'No, I'm happy as hell. I can draw unemployment and now I can go to all the ballgames and sit around here and play cards.'
It was just like out of Hoosiers. Before they even made Hoosiers.
Keefer: My wife reminded me of one the other day.
We weren't doing very well going into the sectional one year in the late Eighties or early Nineties. We had lost a couple in a row. I went to the stage at school and got a coffin. It was just a box, but it was marked coffin. I got in it and I put candles all the way around the room and drapes and made it look as ugly as I could make it look. My assistant brought in the kids and lined them up in front of the coffin and sat them in chairs like at a funeral. Some kind of signal was given to me and I threw the lid off the coffin and I jumped out of the coffin – I could jump then – and yelled, "We ain't dead yet!"
I can't remember how we did in the sectional, though. I don't remember what year it was. But we were fired up, I know that. It was fun. We used to have a lot of doing things like that.
Do you enjoy coaching practices or games more?
Cheatham: That depends on the personality of the team. I've had teams, you go over something one time, they seem to get it, and you can cut off practice early and send them home. I've had teams it gets hard to practice because you have to repeat yourself so many times. Practice can be fun, but games can be fun when you see kids playing as a unit. Basketball comes at you so quickly. Really, destiny is in the players' hands, it's not in the coach's hands. They're the ones who execute what you practiced, they're the ones who decide if they're going to play together or not. There's very little a coach does after the game gets started.
It's a lot of fun to watch your kids play as a unit. Playing as one on the court instead of five individuals. That can get exciting. It's exciteing when you're playing a team that's very hard to beat and you get the victory. I've had a lot of fun doing both. And I have a lot of fun going to college and seeing how my kids advanced. I love the game and I love the kids. To say that one is better it depends on the personality of the personnel and how quickly they can adapt to the game and not be robots on the court.
Holmes: I like the preparation. There are some games I don't like. But other games I enjoy a lot.
I don't enjoy a game when I have to coach against my former assistants. Those are no-win situations. And nowadays there's so much put on what you do in the tournament. It's no good if you win 20 games out of 23. If you don't win the sectional it's a bad year.
It's an unrealistic ideology. Sometimes those games get a little nerve-wracking because you've practiced a hundred times and had all these games and now you're judged on one 32-minute period.
Keefer: A good practice is very rewarding. But a great game is more rewarding. You would get tired of practice after a while if you didn't have some games. But when you see it come together in a game it's very rewarding then. And the kids know it, too. I have a sign right here from Vince Lombardi that say, "I firmly believe that any man's finest hour is a moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause, lies exhausted on the field of battle and is victorious." That's the feeling you get. You're spent.
Does the joy of winning games exceed the pain of losing?
Cheatham: You learn from the losses. I think you learn more. Not to say you don't learn from the winning. Yes, you do. But I look at basketball like it's life. That's why I enjoy it so much. You can work your butt off and that doesn't mean you're going to win, it just means you did the best you could do with the situation at the time. Life is that way. It doesn't mean if you work hard you're always going to succeed. You have that inner feeling inside you that there was nothing else you could have done at that moment.
I guess I can be satisfied with a loss. I guess I can live with it and not dream about it night after night.
Holmes: I don't think so. I like to win, but you don't seem to be able to enjoy the win because you have to go right back and get ready for the next game. If you lose, it sticks with you all the time. The first game of the season this year we went like 3-for-17 on threes and got beat by four or five points. I'm still thinking about Nov. 19 or something like that and we're 20 games we're removed from that. You think about the losses you had and what you should have done different.
Keefer: The only bad thing with me, and I think most adults, we remember most of those losses. The kids forget right away. They can lose today and be ready to go tomorrow. I'm still licking my wounds, probably. For adults it's more hurtful I guess.
What's your earliest basketball memory?
Cheatham: I lost my first tooth playing with my dad. We used to play keepaway in the living room, much to mother's dismay. He'd sit in this chair and he'd pass to my brother and I was in the middle trying to catch the ball. I had a loose tooth and it hit me in the mouth and knocked my first tooth out.
I can also remember when I was five years old. These friends of ours had a son who was two years older than my brother and I – there was 10 months between us. My brother, Dan, and his friend, Ronnie, were shooting hoops on the back door of his bedroom. I was five years old and wanted to follow what my brother was doing, so I went in but they wouldn't let me play. I had to sit on the bed and watch. Occasionally the ball would fly over to the bed and I got to pass it back to them.
Holmes: My dad started the biddy program at Needmore High School when I was in grade school. They had no feeder program. He started a program on Saturday mornings. I played in that. And going to the Boys Club and playing when I was 10 years old, or 11 years old. Playing at noon hour when the varsity guys would referee the games a little bit. You always looked up to the guys on the varsity.
I remember going watching the Needmore-Oolitic rival games. It was always a knock-down, drag-out rival game. They didn't like each other. The two towns are three or four miles apart. You can't believe it. Basically my life is just like Hoosiers.
We were in the sectional my senior year. We had won the sectional the previous year and Oolitic had a really good team. We played a really close game. They had to move the game to Bedford because their gym sat 4,000 people. We filled it up. We beat them in a real tight game in the semifinals of the sectional. It was snowed out that year and the semifinals weren't until Monday. We had to drive home through Oolitic. They were sitting there throwing rocks at us and cussing us out and blowing their horns, all kinds of stuff as you were trying to go through there. You couldn't even go to the stores in Oolitic if you were from Needmore.
Keefer: I went to a little elementary school called Sweetser that was part of the Oak Hill system. I went out for the 7th grade team; that was the first team we had that you could play on in those days. And the guy cut me. My god...what do you mean, cutting me?!
I wasn't any good. I couldn't dribble, I couldn't shoot. I was probably shooting two-handed, I don't know. Who knows? It was quite a shock, I know. But one of my neighbors was a youth league coach (Hack Wilson) and he worked me out for a year. He had a little bucket in his driveway. We had to get rid of the snow sometimes.
When I went out as an eighth grader, I was one of the main guys on the team. I really worked at it. Kids didn't work at it then like they do now. You just played when the season came around. But I had been working all along.
How much longer do you think you'll do it?
Cheatham: There are mornings my body feels like I'm quitting today. I have this inner feeling that it's coming pretty quickly to a head. The way I'm thinking inside is, no more than one or two more years. Then again, this may be it. I'm not really sure. But it won't very long.
Holmes: I've never had a goal as far as victory totals. When I first started my goal was to go four or five years. Then my next goal, I just wanted to win a sectional. I saw these coaches who had won sectionals and I always wanted to be one of those coaches, even if I got beat in the first game of the regional. I thought if I could ever win a sectional I'd be completely happy. It took me 14 years to do that. Once we won a sectional, we won four or five in a row.
So than that become not enough. I never thought if you didn't win state you had a bad coaching career. I really believe this: there are really, really good coaches who don't even win a sectional because (they have to play against larger schools). And I know guys who have won state championships who I don't know are great coaches. Maybe they had some great talent. So winning the state was never a major goal of mine.
My next goal after winning the sectional was to coach 1,000 games. I reached that a few years ago. So my next goal was to reach 50 years of varsity basketball in Indiana. This is year 49.
So, I want to go next year for sure. Then after the 50th year I may be on a day-by-day or week-by-week basis. The light at the end of my tunnel is a lot brighter than a few years ago. I'm getting close.
But in saying that, I may coach five more years. I don't know. At least one more. I'll be 72 in February. I base it on practice. The games are pretty much fun. People are there, the popcorn's going, the strategy. But if you get tired going to practice, if you don't want to go prepare and that becomes a boring activity for you, that's when I'll know it's time to get out.
Keefer: I don't know. It's hard to say. I certainly enjoy doing it. I've got a group of people around me, my coaches, who are great. You don't get the support you used to get. In '89 the support we had from administration and everything else was phenomenal.
I just have to decide. I can't pull that trigger. I have great kids. I have some sophomores I certainly want to coach. But my god, I'll be old by the time they'll get up here. I don't know. We're just taking it a day at a time. I used to work some of (Bob) Knight's camps with (Mike) Krzyzewski. I was on the phone with him last year and he asked me, "When are you retiring, old man? You're not very much younger than I am."
He said people tell him to retire a year after you think you want to retire. Because so many coaches get out when they first think about it and then they regret it. But if you decide to retire and you go one more year you'll hate every minute of it and then you'll be happy you did it.
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