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They Call Me Big House

Clarence E. Gaines with Clint Johnson

John F. Blair, Publisher
978-0-89587-303-3
$21.95 hardcover
6 x 9
256 pages
black-and-white photographs
Published in 2004

The coach they call Big House won 828 college basketball games, 12 conference championships, and one national championship, but he would rather talk about his Winston-Salem State University teams’ high graduation rates.

He won more games than any other African-American coach, more games than all but four other college coaches, and nurtured talents such as NBA hall-of-famer Earl “the Pearl” Monroe, but he is more proud of the educations his players received and the careers they built away from the basketball court.

Winning games, building character, and crossing over the divide between black and white are the dominant themes of coach Clarence Gaines’s autobiography, They Call Me Big House, written with Clint Johnson.

College teammates and coaches started calling the 6’5” Gaines Big House because, as one of them said, “the only thing I’ve seen as big as you is a house.” His admirers still call him Big House because few can measure up to his influence.

“No single person has been better for basketball or meant more to the sport than Big House Gaines,” said retired coach Bob Knight, one of the few with more career wins than Gaines. “Very simply, Big House Gaines is very special.”

Though Gaines displays an impressive memory of individual games and almost every player who suited up for him, relatively little of They Call Me Big Housetakes place on the court. Gaines’s autobiography is as much a look at a crucial period in history as it is a study of X’s and O’s.

Gaines recounts growing up and beginning his coaching career in the segregated South, where black colleges were so strapped for cash that he and opposing coach John McLendon made recruiting trips together to save money.

“When we headed to my territory . . . John would sit beside me and not say a word,” Gaines writes. “When we got back in the car and drove on, the roles were reversed. No coaches today would trust the others not to steal their prized prospects.”

Gaines believes that his players’ skill on the court played a role in integrating the town they played in. Billy Packer, then a star guard for Wake Forest, convinced his white teammates that they could improve their game by informally (and illegally) scrimmaging Gaines’s players. Before Winston-Salem was officially desegregated, Gaines’s teams drew white fans across the color line.

“I came along at just the right time in history to witness and to play a small part in the crossing over of black sports talent,” Gaines writes. “What I experienced . . . was an awakening on the part of white people that the time had come to let black people compete on equal terms.”

Praise:

“College basketball disciples speak the names Dean Smith, Lute Olson, and Jim Phelan with reverence. They, along with a few other hardwood gods, like Bobby Knight and Mike Krzyzewski, are worshipped for their high number of career wins. One peer who never gets talked about in the trivia breaks of televised sports is Clarence Gaines, of Winston-Salem State University. As the only black coach on the list for years, he was often treated as if in a footnote. But his autobiography reveals an astute and stoic coach, cognizant of the importance of sports in the larger context of life. Gaines is actually humble, decent, affable, and kind, so his book is remarkably unaffected and smooth. He doesn’t need to fake it, as do lots of retired coaches. Gaines’s approach and mastery of the game come through as well, and the reader is treated to genuine insight and a probative history of the game rather than bland coaching aphorisms. An interesting story of a brilliant coach, of sports and men in the segregated South, and of pure basketball. Highly recommended for all collections.”
—Library Journal
“Professional sports, the cliché goes, are plagued by spoiled superstars, billionaire owners and fans who feel priced out of the games they love. That’s why Gaines’s autobiography is so refreshing. The coach of little Winston-Salem State in North Carolina is a basketball legend, having racked up 828 wins while running his team between 1946 and 1993, putting him fifth on the all-time college win list. He’s won national championships and mentored future NBA stars like Earl ‘The Pearl’ Monroe. But his book’s real engine is the social narrative that surrounds the basketball court. The story of being a black coach helming a team through years when colored bathrooms still existed and black and white teams were banned from competing against one another is fascinating. ‘Today’s sports stars believe being welcomed into expensive restaurants and high-class hotels is just part of the benefits of being a good ballplayer,’ Gaines writes. ‘The young men I coached in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s knew better.’ He meshes sporting memories with charming personal vignettes of growing up in Paducah, Ky., with a father who cooked for local hotels and a mother who ran the household of a white family. While the writing style is unadorned, it works. Like the book’s subject, it’s amiable, unpretentious—and winning.” —Publishers Weekly