[Editor’s note: Reprinted from the 2007 NCAA Division II men’s basketball Elite 8 program. Part one of a series.]
By Richard Scott Special to the E-T
Basketball was never just an activity or a way for Chris Reisman to pass the time. It always meant something more. It was connection. It was heart and soul, body and mind.
“Even though I grew up as the son of a coach my dad never pushed basketball or coaching on me,” said Chris, the son of Tarleton State coach Lonn Reisman. “I had good grades and he always told me he wanted me to be a doctor, a dentist or a lawyer. He never pushed me to coach, but the funny thing was in order to get close to him I’d go to practices as a kid.
“I’d get out of school and walk to practice every day. As I got older Dad would let me run sprints with them. As I got even older I ran some drills with them. My dad was so passionate about basketball that I became passionate about it. I loved it. There was nowhere else I’d rather be.”
When it came time to make a decision about his medical career, Chris spent several days with dentists until he knew something was wrong.
“I didn’t have the love for it,” Reisman said. “So I scheduled an appointment with him.”
Reisman knew something was wrong when his son scheduled an appointment to see him.
“He used to do that periodically when he really wanted me to focus,” Reisman said. “Then he came in and shut the door and when he shuts the door I know he’s got something on his mind.”
Chris recalls, “I told him, ‘this academic program I’m in has been great for me because it’s made me a better person. I’m more organized. My problem-solving skills have really grown. It’s made me feel like I can accomplish anything, but I can’t see myself getting up every day and just love going to work.’ I told him, ‘I have to be around this. It’s in my blood. I love it. I love practice. I love breaking down film. I just love everything about it.’”
Lonn Reisman immediately tried to dissaude his son, reminding him of the long hours, the constant demands, the pressure to win and recruit and the low pay for many assistants.
“I knew he was getting ready to take the (Medical College Admission Test) and he was going to do really well,” Reisman said. “I can remember when he was a player and we’d go on road trips and he’d be on the back of the bus with his reading light on and he’d have cat bones strung out all over the players. I remember one of the players finally saying, ‘Chris can you give it a rest for a little bit?’ He was really dedicated.”
The more Reisman tried to reason with his son, the more he came to realize he didn’t have a chance.
“I said, ‘Chris, do you realize what you’re saying after four years of hard work? Do you realize all the good you could do for people?’ He said, ‘yeah, I realize that but I realize the things I can do for people in basketball, too.’ Then he said, ‘I want to love something so much that when I get out of bed in the morning I can’t wait to get there. I have a passion to do this and I don’t have a passion to do the other thing.’”
What could Reisman say? He understood exactly what Chris was doing.
“The irony is that I was a pre-med student for four years and did the same thing to my parents,” Reisman said. “I had never discussed that with him until he made his decision, but I had to tell my parents the same thing he told me.”
Six years later, Chris Reisman is his father’s associate head coach, serving a vital role for one of the nation’s most successful NCAA Division II men’s programs.
It’s not always easy, this father and son thing. It can be tough living together as father and son in the average household without working together each day.
For some people, it would never work. Some fathers and sons wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s the case for Lonn and Chris Reisman, as well as Lock Haven coach John Wilson Jr., his father and assistant coach Johnny Wilson and his son, sophomore guard Justin Wilson.
“There were a couple of people on campus halfway through the season who came up to me and said, ‘I didn’t know your dad was the coach here,’” Justin said. “Then a few weeks later they’d say, ‘and your grandpa’s a coach here, too? I didn’t know.’”
It’s not something the Wilsons parade around campus. Instead, this coaching thing is more like a thread in their family quilt.
“That’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” Wilson said. “I can remember being 6, 7, 8 years old, following him around, sitting on the bench, trying to draw plays with little scribbled lines going all over the place. It was just something that always interested me.”
Johnny Wilson recalled, “By the time I’d come home he’d have a piece of paper with a diagram of a court and it would have about 50-60 lines running every which direction and he’d be telling me, ‘you should try this play.’”
“He’d sit on the bench with me and you could tell he had a love for the game. If I’d jump up to complain to the officials I’d look around and he’d be standing there right beside me complaining, too. It was already in his mind to coach.”
Johnny Wilson was coaching at Malcolm X Community College in Chicago when he first coached his son.
“His first year there I had him on the bench with me, without a uniform,” Johnny Wilson said. “Then I was short a player and I suited him up and he probably averaged about 4-5 minutes a game. Some games he never played at all. He never complained. The second year he came along and ran my offense and played point guard for me. He really showed his knowledge of the game and his ability to be a coach on the floor.
“I really enjoyed coaching him. When he did something wrong I got on him just like I’d get on anyone else but he always took it well and learned from it.”
Both player and coach understood their role on the team.
“It was pretty interesting in that he never pressured me or talked to me about what was going on with the guys,” Wilson said. “Consequently I was able to interact as a regular team member with the guys. We would do things you don’t always want your coach to know and they felt comfortable with me because they believed I wasn’t always going back and telling my dad and getting them in trouble. He treated me like one of the guys.”
When his son told him he wanted to coach, Johnny Wilson knew he had no chance to change his mind. “I just put him in with me as an assistant at Malcolm X for five years,” Johnny Wilson said.
Eventually Wilson left his father’s side to travel his own path, one that took him to Lock Haven in 1999. Three years later when he was given the opportunity to hire a volunteer assistant, he immediately called his dad.
“It’s been in his blood a long time,” Wilson said of his father. “He has a real ability to interact with athletes because of his experience as a player and a coach. He was a Mr. Basketball in Indiana and his team won a state championship, so he knows how to win. He played with the Globetrotters and he’s been around the world.
“I’ve always believed that putting him in touch with our student-athletes at Lock Haven will make their lives a lot better, just hearing some of his stories and taking his advice. He does a great job building relationships with all the guys and they’ve come to him and he’s gone to them with different questions or different suggestions to help them be better people as well as basketball players.”
Johnny Wilson will be 80 years old this spring but his energy and enthusiasm for young people is reflected in the respect the student-athletes show Justin’s grandfather.
“He’s been through a lot more than I have and he’s been through a lot more than my father has, so when he tells me something I’ve got to listen because he knows what he’s talking about,” Justin said. “It’s not just me. That’s with everybody else on the team, too. They know he’s seen a lot and they see him as sort of a living legend.”
The Wilsons know it’s important to build a level of trust among the players to prevent potential problems on the team. Like his father before him, Wilson would never use Justin as a spy to keep tabs on the team.
“We don’t want to have people thinking that I’m on the team and I get special privileges just because I’m his son,” Justin said. “The players are great about it. None of them would ever say anything like that.
“My dad’s a good coach, he’s knowledgeable and during the time when we’re at practice or in meetings he’s my coach. He treats me like I’m a regular student and a regular player. I call him ‘coach’ around the team. It’s a little awkward but it’s something I’ve got to doand something I’m used to.”
Coaching his son has given Wilson insight into his own father’s strengths as a mentor.
“It’s a great way to communicate and communicating with your kids is probably one of the toughest things to do in our society today,” Wilson said of coaching his son. “This just gives us another conduit to communicate and make sure that we know what’s on each other’s mind and stay on the same page. It’s great to have something we share in common to start the conversation and apply it to life.”
Of course, life isn’t always perfect for the Wilsons. They don’t agree on everything all the time, so everyone has to understand their roles.
“When I first came in I thought, ‘I’ll have to show him a lot of things,’” Johnny Wilson said. “But I was really fooled because of his knowledge of the game. He has a tremendous knowledge of the game. He has a great mind for detail and he’s gathered his knowledge from a lot of different sources.
“During practice I don’t try to interject too much on what he said, but when we get home I’ll mention things to him, or I’ll do it before practice or after practice. Sometimes he’ll look at it and use it and sometimes he’ll look at it and say, ‘no, we don’t need to do that, we need to do this.’ And I understand that. He’s had success so I have no complaints. He was raised to be his own man and you’ve got to be your own man to be a head coach.”
As for Justin, Wilson said, “He reacts just like any other kid. When he thinks he’s right he’ll give me that little look. The other guys do it, too. When they think they’re right they’ll give me a little look and I’ll have to pull them to the side and explain. When they know they’re wrong they know they’re wrong.”
Ultimately, somebody’s got to be the boss and it’s Wilson’s responsibility to make the final decisions.
“When I have to do something I just do it,” Wilson said. “That’s the kind of relationship we’ve always had. I tell my father, as I’ve told my other assistant (Donald Payton) that I welcome suggestions. Make the suggestion. If I like it and it fits, I’ll do it. If I don’t, I won’t. If I don’t respond it doesn’t mean I’m not listening. But I do have to make the decisions and he knows that’s my responsibility.”
At Tarleton State, Reisman’s list of responsibilities includes his role as athletics director, a challenge that makes Chris’ role with the program even more important.
Chris played point guard for his father for four years, serving as an extension of his father on the court before starting his coaching career as a Tarleton State graduate assistant. Reisman never handed him anything so Chris had to work his way to his current role step by step.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that Chris has the ability to be a head coach,” Reisman said. “He has a lot of head coaching ability because I’m also the athletics director. If I’m busy running an athletics department there are a lot of things that he does that is way above being a typical assistant coach. He works on budgets, has the ability to make the final call on recruiting and has the ability to run the basketball program, which is a real relief to me when I’m dealing with other issues.
“He’s only 28 years old and that’s pretty young but he has the mind of a coach who’s been in this a lot longer. He has a basketball savvy and IQ that’s way above his years right now.”
Of course, that means Chris also has his own ideas about the way things should be done sometimes.
“I’m not the average assistant coach but I’m not a yes man, either,” Chris said. “I disagree with Dad quite frequently but it’s been a good relationship and it’s been healthy for both of us. Whether we agree or disagree that bond is still there. We always have the same purpose in mind.”
Chris understands that his father has to make the final call, but Reisman has learned to listen with an open mind.
“I’ve been in this a long time — 30 years — and I really think he’s helped extend my career,” Reisman said. “If you talked to other coaches whose sons are working with them they’d probably say the same thing. We tend not to want to change with the times. We’re stubborn and we’re set in our ways.”
For example, Reisman’s teams have rarely pressed, but with the way the shot clock has changed the game Reisman took his son’s advice and installed a press last season.
“I wasn’t really for it but at the regional we were down against Central Missouri by 11 points with about six minutes left. We got in our press and we won,” Reisman said. “In the finals to go to the Elite Eight last year we were down to Northwest Missouri State by about 10-11 points and we got in our press and we won.
“He had the insight that we needed to do this. If I hadn’t given him a chance we wouldn’t have made it to the Elite Eight last year. When you have the trust and loyalty of someone like your son, you tend to listen more. He’s helped me open and change more.”
Folks at Tarleton State suspect Chris will make an excellent choice to replace his father when Reisman finally chooses to retire. In the meantime, Chris is where he wants to be — coaching basketball with his father.
“The program is something my dad has helped build and I feel like I’ve helped, too,” Chris said. “I’ve been here for 10 years — four as a player and six as a coach. We’ve had some special times here.
“My fiance’s been great about it because even when I go home my dad will call and say, ‘hey, do you want to go out to dinner.’ Then we’ll go to dinner with Dad’s wife and my fiance and they just sit there while we talk basketball. I’m sure they would rather us talk about anything else but that’s just who we are.”