(Editor’s note: Charles ‘Chic’ Hess was the boys’ basketball coach at Lebanon High during the 1970s and 1980s)
BY CHIC HESS
The day after the moving van delivered my household goods to Robin Road, I headed to the Southeast playground court looking for a game. The outside courts of Philadelphia had been my home, but I was anxious to see what asphalt court action was like in Lebanon, my new home.
To my delight, there were a half dozen high school age boys shooting around looking as if they were waiting to get up a game. I approached the court with a rush of excitement as I wondered if any of these kids were players at my new school.
The boys stopped and stared as I approached their court. As I checked them out, they were checking me out, each of us with the same thought, “I wonder if he can play?” Then their thoughts shifted to, “Who is this guy?” Recognition dawned in their eyes as they realized that I could be the guy whose picture appeared in the newspaper. “Are you the new coach?” some little squirt asked. I could tell he was a potential point guard by his cockiness.
Kids rapidly began appearing as the word spread to those walking by and to others driving east on Walnut Street. By then, I was hoping I had brought some game with me as I didn’t want to embarrass myself if a competitive game developed.
Just then a bright orange Falcon came screeching around the corner. The car had obviously been painted with a broom, and its driver certainly had no time to spare. Out popped a tall, bare footed, lanky Norman Rockwell-like caricature followed by smaller versions of the same—his entourage.
Not wasting a step or syllable, the tallest one asked me, “Are you the new coach, Chic Hess?” All action on the playground had stopped to witness the exchange. I said, “Yes, I am.” Without any further courtside courtesies, the big kid said, “I’ll be right back. We’re going to play.”
Within seconds, the boy and his troop had the orange car on two wheels rounding a corner. Everyone seemed to be excited. My naiveté must have been painted on my face, so one of the kids filled me in—that was Johnny Kleinfelter.
Johnny Kleinfelter lived to play basketball. He was a natural leader with raw talent who’d languished for the past two seasons on the JV team at Lebanon High.
In what seemed to be five to ten minutes, the Falcon made its final hairpin turn around the corner and slid into the curb. Instantly, four boys, ready to play, hastened to the court and gathered around their ringleader. I wanted to smile, but I thought it better that I didn’t.
For the next hour, we ran the court. I don’t recall who won those games, although I will never forget what I saw. I had been introduced to Lebanon basketball, and I said to myself, “I’m going to like it here.”
During my many years on the asphalt courts, I had never seen such excitement for the game. The kids worked, played hard, argued, fought, but they never stopped. The action continued unabated until the winning points were scored.
I don’t remember how I played that day because I was too concerned with scouting talent for my new team, especially the driver of the orange Falcon, Johnny Kleinfelter. He was like a wild horse, the stallion who led the herd. It seemed as if Johnny could run without getting tired, but he did get tired—he just didn’t stop or slow up to rest.
I watched in amazement as John went from hoop to hoop, and he always had to be the first to get there. He was not a ball hog; he just wanted to win. I can still see his 6’5” frame with flailing arms and legs fly above the others, rebounding and passing the ball then sprinting down court to tap in a missed shot.
This Kleinfelter kid had to be the most active player I had ever seen play in my thirty-two years. The only problem was that his game was plagued with playground junk. For every one move or play he did effectively, he did ten things that didn’t make any sense, but he did it all so fast. At first, I wasn’t sure if he was a coach’s dream or nightmare, but because of his huge heart, endless hustle and unbridled gusto, I became convinced he was a coach’s dream. He was the epitome of perpetual motion at breakneck speed. He didn’t stop until the ball was in the basket—usually delivered by him.
When my first season at Lebanon began, my dad would come into town to attend our games. “Johnny K,” as it said on his jersey, was my dad’s favorite player. My pop used to sit at court level and once heard Kleinfelter tell some opponent that he was going to shove the ball down his throat if he didn’t stop doing something that had been annoying him. More than a few times, I remember dad telling me, “That boy is worth the price of admission.”
My only regret is that I didn’t get to Lebanon a year or two earlier because Johnny Kleinfelter was a diamond in the ruff. In my 25 year coaching career, he was the hardest working player I ever coached. His capacity for work bordered on the edge of what the human body was capable of enduring. The flip side of this dynamo was that his fundamentals were in need of work, but work for him was no problem.
Our days became filled with drills to restructure his game. “Johnny don’t do that;” “Johnny try not to do that anymore,” became my mantra. An offensive base with a couple fundamental moves was installed, and John was ready to assault the 1974-75 schedule.
I watched him score 535 points in 23 games his senior year and lead the team to its first winning season in a number of years with a 14-9 record. In one game at Shippensburg, John hauled in 36 caroms. His 6’5” teammate, Mike Whitman, quibbled that he didn’t get any rebounds because John hogged them all.
Stories abound about the Lebanon basketball legend. I remember a practice one mid- November. The action on the court was heating up and the players were going at each other with a vengeance. I called John aside and quietly told him to take it easy because the last thing we needed was for him to get injured. He glared at me for a few seconds and said, “Take it easy? I’d rather be dead,” and he took off down the court to join the fray.
Another time, in a similar situation about a month later when we had developed closer coach/player rapport, I called John over again to tell him to take it easy so he wouldn’t get hurt. He stopped to explain, “Coach, if I take it easy, the next thing you know, they will start to take it easy.” He ran back on to the court without waiting to hear my reply. But, I had no reply. What could I say?
For John and me, an unforgettable moment happened during the second quarter of the Cocalico game when fellow starters John Holler and Barry Shepps injured their ankle and knee respectively and exited the game. The rejuvenated Cocalico press overwhelmed their replacements, and our paltry lead was disappearing as quickly as a side order of potato filling at Mel’s Diner.
Team captain Kleinfelter was irate over the careless play of his teammates. Watching his team throw the ball away time after time was too much for him to bear. He decided to get the ball himself and bring it up court—not the usual role for the big man, but he did it with aplomb. Still, whenever he passed off, his teammates managed to lose the ball. Out of desperation, John decided to do it all—throw it in, get it back, bring it up and score. The futility of the task took its toll, and Johnny was about to lose control and lash out at his teammates.
One of my better coaching decisions was to call timeout to try to squelch the volcano that was about to erupt. If John had a stick in his hand, I think he would have taken his teammates to task with it. A couple squad members gathered around me for protection, others looked to me to see how I was going to regain control of our huddle. Meanwhile, Johnny K, who was wild-eyed, muttering under his breath and rocking and rolling all over the bench, chastised those who were responsible for our sudden bout with ineptness.
“John, settle down,” I barked. Unable to control his fury and despair, the stallion continued to become unhinged. His emotional outbursts were distracting the team from my instruction and twice more I looked at him saying, “John, be quiet.” My words had no effect, and the frustrated center teetered on edge of the reason. It was then that I leaned over and cuffed him upside the head and told him to shut up.
Now, what would you expect if you smacked a raging stallion? I know he considered flattening me right there, and I did hear him say out of the corner of his mouth to those behind him, “If he does that again, I’m going to….” Nevertheless, we all lived to see the quarter end.
In the locker room at halftime, he was withdrawn and sat with his head down, not sure what he was going to do. He was completely unsure of how to handle the situation. As the others headed out to the court, I pulled him aside and calmly told him, “I’m sorry. But you deserved it.” He nodded, accepting my apology, and I knew he understood my intent.
We won that game, but more importantly, we developed an admiration for one another that will endure a lifetime.
During a Lebanon basketball reunion of the players from my eight years as a Cedar this past June, Sam Bowie was puzzled by the appearance of another tall person who seemed to have everyone’s respect. In a crowd of basketball players, Kleinfelter commanded respect, but still Sammy asked me, “Coach, who is that guy?”
“Sammy,” I said, “That is John Kleinfelter, a local basketball legend. They called him Johnny K.” The point I was trying to make became clearer when I told him that Kleinfelter averaged 20 rebounds a game for us—averaged! “Sam, if it hadn’t been John’s last year when I arrived and if he had the fundamentally sound players surrounding him that you did, it would have been his records you broke.”
Besides Big Sammy, Kleinfelter may be the best court phenom Lebanon High has ever produced. It is “Johnny K” who is responsible for turning the proud basketball program around, and I am fortunate to have been his coach.
“I love you too, Johnny.”
Chic Hess, Ed. D., former Lebanon Cedar basketball coach with a 158-57 record (1974-82). The season before Hess’s arrival, LHS won three games. In 1990, Hess was voted the National Association of Basketball Coaches Junior College Coach of the Year. Dr. Hess is the author of Prof Blood and the Wonder Teams: The True Story of Basketball’s First Great Coach, see www.profblood.com.