MINNEAPOLIS — Chris Beard was supposed to pull in $200 per game, but there were times he never even got paid — ownership flipped over and over, four times in all during the season. His responsibilities with the South Carolina Warriors went well beyond coaching. He set up the chairs and cleaned the floor of the rec centers, drove the vans, and even washed the players’ uniforms in his condo.
Life in the ABA.
“This might sound crazy, but it was the best year I’ve ever had in coaching,” Beard said.
Beard had just been let go by newly-minted Texas Tech Head Coach Billy Gillispie. Beard and Gillispie didn’t exactly click, and eventually Beard took his buyout settlement and headed for Myrtle Beach where he took over the South Carolina Warriors. He got the job with the help of Purdue Coach Matt Painter, who recommended Beard to one of the owners of the team.
That was eight years ago.
When the idea of coaching in the ABA was first broached to Beard, all he could envision was that red and blue ball and Dr. J. He knew the history of the league, but this wasn’t that ABA. He compares his version to single-A minor league baseball.
The NBA was locked out at the time, and that meant that players who normally wound up in Europe were also having difficulty landing jobs overseas. Many teams were keeping spots open for NBA players.
Beard wasn’t just tasked with coaching the players. His job was also to put together the team; he was the de facto general manager. So first he started calling agents. That went nowhere. Then Beard began calling college coaches in hopes they would help refer him to former players in their program.
They got former TCU forward Marquise Gainous, ex-Kentucky big man Perry Stevenson, former Big 12 guard John Roberson and a few former Coastal Carolina players including Jack Leasure. Beard said at one time he rolled out a starting lineup of five guys who also played in BCS leagues.
“The team was sick,” Beard said.
So were the rules. Beard and his assistant, George Tuttle, had to take a trip to the mall shortly after arriving in Myrtle Beach and get a 3-D light from Spencer’s due to the plus-one rule — which essentially said that any steal in the backcourt gave the defensive team the opportunity to earn an extra point. Thus, a 3-pointer was worth four points. Beard didn’t even tell his players until pre-game warm-ups just prior to the first game because he didn’t want to scare them away.
“Ridiculous” was how Leasure described it. “The guy at the scorer’s table would turn this siren on and everyone would go nuts.”
“It was crazy,” said Mario Edwards, the former Coastal Carolina standout who played that season for Beard. “The whole league was crazy, but we killed it with that rule. We pressured and guarded like his Texas Tech team is doing now.”
The players got $150-200 a game. Well, that was the guards. The big men earned about $50 more. Beard offered $50 for the player who took the most charges, and $20 for whoever pulled down the most rebounds. But the players also had the ability to make a few extra dollars with the 10 tickets apiece that they received. It started in the Myrtle Beach convention center, but then due to financial issues, they had to play at area rec centers and YMCAs — some even on tile floors.
If they won, sometimes there was free Bojangles.
“He’d tell us before the game that if we won,” Edwards said, “we’d get free Bojangles and also a kiss from a 40-year-old cheerleader.”
“It was a grind,” said Roberson, who is now playing in Russia. “We didn’t know what was going to happen day-to-day, didn’t know if the team was going to fold. But we had fun doing it. Beard had a way of getting the culture right, every guy grinding and working hard and playing for each other.”
Sounds familiar. It’s the same thing he did on his ensuing stops: McMurray, Angelo State, Little Rock and now at Texas Tech.
“You’d have thought every game was the Game of the Century,” added Roberson, who also played at Texas Tech for four seasons while Beard was an assistant coach under Bob and Pat Knight. “That’s the way he approached every game, and guys came to play every night because of that.”
Beard and the Warriors were 31-0 going into the best-of-3 championship series against the Jacksonville Giants in Clearwater. Fla. The Warriors had already beaten the Giants twice, but some of his players wound up leaving for overseas gigs late in the season — and they wound up losing in the final series.
It was only one season, but his impact on his former players remains to this day. Most of the players on the team credit Beard for helping them get jobs overseas, and also for preparing them both on and off the court.
“He changed me as a player,” added Leasure, who is now a high school coach in Rochester, N.Y., “and changed me as a coach.”
“The best coach I’ve ever played for,” added Joe Harris. “He cares about people. He taught basketball, but also life lessons.”
“He treats everyone the same,” said Mario Edwards, who is playing in Finland now. “Whether it’s the best player or the 12th man.”
Now, instead of coaching in front of 100 or so fans at the Carolina Forest Community Center, Beard will make the four-minute walk from the Texas Tech locker room to the court on Saturday prior to the Red Raiders’ Final Four matchup against Tom Izzo and Michigan State with more than 70,000 filling the seats at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“How many?” Beard said when first informed of the size of the arena.
And his former ABA players will be watching — whether it’s Roberson in Russia, Mario Edwards in Finland, Harris in South Carolina or Leasure from Rochester.
“Nothing has really changed,” Leasure said. “We ran the same motion offense, and he still bases everything on defense. He doesn’t run a lot of sets, and they defend at such a high level. He has his guys playing so hard — and that’s the same thing he did with us.”
Beard just smiles when reminded of the road he has taken to get to college basketball’s ultimate event. Most would have described a year in the ABA as the low-point, the bottom of the barrel in his coaching career, the place that had him questioning whether to leave the business and try something different.
“It honestly was one of the happiest years of my life,” Beard said. “The basketball was so good.”