Avina got things done the right way
Love poured through the ballroom at Riverside Golf & Country Club on Sunday as about 200 family members and friends of Jack Avina gathered to pay tribute to the life of the former University of Portland basketball coach, who died Oct. 4 at age 89.
Avina was the tough guy who ran the Pilots from 1970-87, coaching more years (17) and winning more games (222) than any coach in the program's long history.
But Avina's reach to those he touched extended far beyond wins and losses.
He was a teacher, a mentor, a molder of men.
He was, by his admission, a "hard-ass and a taskmaster" who didn't like "having people tell me what to do."
Yet his message of hard work and loyalty and doing things the right way resonated with those around him.
"Jack had an amazing capacity to help people," said Bob Weis, his son-in-law, who played for Avina at College of San Mateo in California before Avina arrived on The Bluff. "He liked to be the center of attention. ... but that ego was held in check with a humility from the fact he remembered where he came from."
Avina was the product of a hardscrabble early environment, the son of Mexican natives who came across the border as illegal immigrants in the 1920s. Ignacio Avina — he changed his name to Jack when he enlisted in the Navy at age 17 — was raised with six siblings in the farm country of Medina, California, near Modesto.
Jack's father, a lumberjack, and his mother both contracted tuberculosis when he was 7. The kids were split up and lived in a pair of foster homes for most of the next five years. His father died when Jack was 12, but his mother recovered and reclaimed the children.
"After she was cured, she moved us into a little shack," Avina told me in a 2005 interview. "When I went to the foster home, it was the first time I'd ever been in a bathtub. We were on welfare most of my childhood. A lot of the change in direction in my life came with living with our first foster parents. They were wonderful people who raised us like their own."
Avina met his wife, Claire, while a senior at San Jose State. They were married 57 years until her death in 2010. She was a gentle soul, the perfect buffer for her sometimes acerbic hubby.
"My mother was a hero every single day," Joel Avina said. "She had to take care of Jack and six kids. Without Claire, Jack would have been a little too much.
"He wasn't that easy to deal with. Some referees are here in the first (table) today. They came, anyway."
The Avinas wed against the wishes of her parents, who objected to their Caucasian daughter marrying a Mexican.
"Her dad was so mad, he disowned her," Avina told me. "But it was the best thing that ever happened to me."
The Avinas raised six children — sons Joel, Jeff and John, daughters Julie, Jodi and Michelle, all of whom were on hand for Sunday's event at Riverside along with nearly 30 of Jack's former Pilot players. Most of them said at least a few words about the impact Avina had on their lives. One, Frank Babcock, read a poem he had written titled, "Smoking at practice," the reference to Avina's penchant for cigars — yes, even at practice.
Long-time assistant coach Rick Jackson recalled how freshmen were usually assigned the burden of riding in Avina's van on a road trip.
"The brothers would be hanging their heads out the window as he smoked his stogies," Jackson said.
Avina, by the way, dubbed Jackson "Action," and the sobriquet stuck.
"He gave everyone nicknames," said Jackson, who coached with Avina on The Bluff for a dozen seasons. "He would give students on campus nicknames."
When Avina took the UP job in 1970, the program was in disarray, having won a total of 12 games combined in the previous three seasons. Interest was nonexistent. The Pilots played at decrepit Howard Hall, which would remain as the team's home until the Chiles Center opened in 1984, three seasons before Avina resigned as coach. Avina said he took a "huge pay cut" to accept the job. "I wanted to see if I could do the impossible," he told me.
Avina had little money to recruit but managed to land some talent, players such as Quentin "Stretch" Braxton, Leonard Williams, Reggie Logan, Rick Raivio, Darwin Cook and Jose Slaughter.
One of his first assistant coaches was Jim Brovelli, who would go on to be head coach at San Diego and San Francisco and serve a short term as interim head coach of the NBA's Washington Wizards. Brovelli was coaching in the Bay Area when he interviewed with Avina after the latter had secured the Pilots job. Avina had asked Brovelli to bring his wife, Nada, with him.
"I met with him on a Sunday night in a bar at Menlo Park," Brovelli told the crowd at Riverside. "He ordered a pitcher of beer and said to Nada, 'I just want to tell you, Jim will not be around. He'll be gone all the time out recruiting players." She said, "Oh, Jack, no problem. When is he leaving?" Later, Jack said, 'Bro, I'm going to hire your wife, not you.'
"He was a great teacher. I learned more basketball from Jack than I learned in my entire career in basketball."
Jackson recalled his interview with Avina as being like a visit to "the Twilight Zone."
Jackson: "After we talked for a while, he said, "You may be the dumbest person I know. You're an idiot on basketball.' Then I got a call a week later and he said, 'You want a job?' I asked about pay, and he said, 'Oh, I'm not going to pay you.'
"Jack gave me an experience you can only dream about. He also gave me a lifelong friend. He molded us into a culture and a fabric that for 17 years was known as Pilot basketball. He taught us about what real loyalty was. He taught us to demand more from ourselves than you do from others."
Milt Adams was a member of Avina's first two Pilot teams, a holdover from the previous regime.
"Our first meeting, he introduced himself and said, "I came to replace you. I'm going to bring in better players,'" Adams said.
Many players found Avina abrasive and difficult, at least at first. He was old-school during practice sessions, and then some.
"I started thinking, 'Goddamn it' was my name," joked Logan, who called Avina "a coach's coach, a player's coach, his own coach."
"What I really tried to do was make it so tough on them, they could handle anything in life," Avina told me in 2005.
With Adams, as with most of Avina's players, the lessons didn't sink in until years later.
"When you thought he was being mean, he was just putting up obstacles," Adams said. "You'll succeed if you overcome obstacles to get to that point."
After a tryout in the professional ranks failed, Adams reached out to Avina with, "What do I do now?"
Avina hired Adams as a graduate assistant and made sure he got his degree, as did 80 to 90 percent of those who played under Avina on The Bluff. Avina told me Adams was the favorite player he ever coached.
Cook, now coaching at Antelope Valley College, an NAIA school in Lancaster, California, was one of those who got his degree. Cook was unable to attend Sunday's event but sent a note that was read by Joel Avina.
"As a freshman all the way to my senior year, (Jack Avina) gave me the confidence to be the person I am," wrote Cook, who would go on to play nine seasons in the NBA. "He believed in me. When things got tough, he made me tougher. He gave me the confidence to be the best I could be — not only on the court but in the classroom. I worked harder in the classroom than I did on the court. Now I tell my players to do the same thing."
Avina made relationships with professors on campus, who would alert him if a player missed a class. When that happened, they would be sentenced to a 5:30 a.m. run on Northwest Germantown Road — where the Avinas lived on a 19-acre plot of land — sometimes until they puked.
"Jack loved running Germantown Road," Jackson said. "Oh, he never did it, but he loved what it did for the players."
It was about discipline, which Raivio found out immediately upon transferring from Willamette after one term at the Salem school.
"First practice, I'm like, 'Oh man, I'm in the Marines now,'" said Raivio, who wound up being a four-year starter from 1976-80 and one of the best players in Pilot history. "We butted heads a lot of times. We were both very stubborn. The thing I didn't realize until much later was how much he cared — not just about me, but about everybody who played for him.
"Your relationship didn't stop the day you stopped playing. It really just started. I'll never be able to thank him enough for all he has done for my life."
Gary Strachan, a member of Avina's first recruiting class at UP, had his run-ins with the coach, both as a player and later for seven years as an assistant. Strachan learned how stubborn the head man could be.
"I'd have a suggestion during a game and he'd say, 'No, we're not going to do that,'" Strachan said. "Then he'd call timeout 20 seconds later and get the players into the huddle and say, 'OK, Strahnie, tell them what we're going to do.'"
Bill Krueger remembers Avina watching him play for the first time as a nonrecruited basketball player out of McMinnville High.
"He proceeded to tell me all the things I was doing wrong," Krueger said. "Then he gave me a full ride. That changed everything for me."
Krueger, who had been recruited to The Bluff for baseball, wound up being a two-sport player at UP and went on to a 13-year major league career as a pitcher.
"Jack opened a door that never seemed to be possible," Krueger said.
Avina was keen to the adjustments his inner-city recruits had to make at UP. Jackson remembers during one Christmas break, a couple of the Pilot players from the Los Angeles area were unable to afford a trip home.
"Jack bought a new family car and told me to drive Darwin home to L.A.," Jackson said. "And I did. It's that kind of thing that sticks with you all these years and gives you a moral compass moving forward."
Avina recruited Bob Williams, who grew up on the south side of Chicago, from Trinidad (Colorado) State JC.
"If it hadn't been for Jack, I'd have never graduated from college," Williams said. "He said, 'I'll stick with you until you graduate.' I became a grad assistant and got my degree. He was a man of his word."
In 1974, Avina helped institute the Home Away from Home program, which supported minority athletes on The Bluff.
"Jack got together with Vern Chapman of the Urban League of Portland," said Donald Dixon, captain of one of Avina's early UP teams. "Vern told him, 'You're bringing these African-American players in. What are you going to do to retain them, to prevent them from wanting to leave because of the culture and environment? I can put together a group of parents who will be able to become host families and have interaction that will create a family environment.'"
Dixon, who came to UP from Oakland, still has a relationship with his Home Away from Home parents more than 40 years later. He got his degree and recently celebrated his 40th-year anniversary working with Portland Public Schools.
"I owe that to Jack," Dixon said. "He put hurdles and barriers in front of you. Only someone else can push you beyond where you want to go. That's what Jack did for me."
Avina struggled getting some of his minority students admitted to school at UP, which he felt had racial overtones. It was part of the reason he stepped down from his position at age 57 in 1987.
"There was a feeling in the administration that our teams 'didn't reflect the student body.' Exact terms," Avina told me in 2005. "Well, we were graduating a very high percentage of the kids, and most proved to be good people, whatever the race or color."
Later in life, Avina's 13 grandchildren got a taste of Jack's saucy wit.
"He was the king of the one-liners," said grandson Brock Griffin, relating a story about how a UP teacher complained to his grandfather about players sleeping in class. Avina's response: "Well, you better make class more interesting."
Jackson remembers Avina watching Logan and Cook get into it at practice and calling it a "pillow fight." The coaches just let it go.
"They'll never hurt each other in a million years," Avina told Jackson.
Mostly, Avina's life was about teaching and developing people.
"To say Jack was a good coach was an understatement," said Hank McCurdy, a former player who called him one of the two finest people he has known. "He was a fantastic coach. He was tougher than nails. Jack got everything out of his players that could possibly be wrung out of a human being. Coaching was simply his vehicle."
"Jack taught lessons," Strachan said. "Sometimes those lessons weren't learned until many years later. He basically fired me, but our relationship endured. I called him every year on the anniversary of his wife's death."
Claire's death was a devastating blow, the beginning of the end for Avina.
"That was his biggest loss," said Joel Avina, who played and coached for his father on The Bluff. "He never recovered. He cried every single day for six years."
The senior Avina lived his last two years in Lafayette, California, near where daughter Jodi lives. By that time, dementia had dimmed his memory — but not others' memories of him.
Jeff Heller was a 6-9 center who played for Avina's best UP teams in the late 1970s. Heller's life struck a tragic chord 13 years ago when son David, then a junior at Central Catholic, died in his sleep of a heart condition. David Heller and Avina had formed a relationship.
"After it happened, the first person to walk up my driveway was Jack," Jeff Heller told the group at Riverside, his voice choking with emotion. "It meant a lot of me. I told him, 'David loved you, Jack.' He said, 'I loved him, too.'
"Since Claire died, I made it a practice to visit Jack about every six weeks. One day he said, 'Big boy, I'm afraid of dying.' I said, 'Why? You've changed so many people's lives. You've prepared us to be better in life. God and Jesus are praying for you, and Claire will be there waiting for you.' "
Jack and Claire are together again, Jack after making the most of a life that began with a boat load of obstacles.
"Walt McPherson (his coach at San Jose State) summarized it better than anybody," Avina told me in 2005. "He said I was the biggest surprise of all the players he ever coached, that I made it the way I did coming from where I came from. He was right."