Down 14 years, he can still rally; Frank Rhodes: Wilde Lake legend returns to bench to help ill former player and finds he hasn't lost his winning touch.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The chirping of sneakers against the polished wooden gym floor sounds like a chorus of crickets.

Off to the side of the three-decade-old Wilde Lake High School gym, once painted an ugly ocher and dubbed the Yellow Submarine for its stifling effect on visiting teams, Frank Rhodes watches a group of high school basketball players execute a drill.

He's a compassionate, humorous 66-year-old gray-haired man wearing a black ski cap, plaid shirt and baggy brown pants. From a corner of the now-more-subdued, beige-painted gym, his wife, Arlene, smiles. She suffered a stroke in 1991 and comes to practice in a wheelchair.

Rhodes retired as Wildecats coach 14 years ago, but this season he agreed to return on an interim basis and has wasted no time in proving that the game hasn't passed him by. He took over the Wildecats when they were 0-3, and after two more losses, led them to victories in seven of their past 10 games. Newcomers to Howard County basketball are learning why Rhodes is a coaching legend.

The last time Rhodes coached, in 1985, the Wildecats capped his brilliant 27-year career (329 wins, 153 losses) by giving him his first state basketball championship trophy.

After winning in Cinderella fashion throughout the state playoffs -- and erasing a nine-point deficit late in the fourth quarter of the championship game to win by two points -- the players lifted him onto their shoulders as he shed tears of joy. Many Wilde Lake fans cried with him that March day in College Park.

It was a well-deserved moment for a man still rich in family, friends and goodwill.

Last December, Rhodes learned that longtime friend and coaching protege Lester Clay was ill and needed someone to coach the Wildecats. So Rhodes responded as he has his whole life -- he offered a hand.

What Rhodes thought would be a short-term favor has stretched into a longer commitment. Now, two months later, Clay is still hospitalized with a rare inflammatory disease that attacked his spinal column, Rhodes is still coaching and Wilde Lake players are still enjoying the benefits that only a coaching legend can offer.

Three of their opening five losses came without their best player. Now, the Wildecats are 7-8 and suddenly competitive with the best county teams.

Only attitude has changed

Rhodes redux is a mellower version of the one-time spitfire coach known as a larger-than-life teacher and human being.

His was an era when in-your-face-gruff was OK. But he's older and wiser now; he knows that intimidation no longer works with most of today's athletes, many of whom haven't the foggiest idea of the Frank Rhodes legend.

Ed Hinkle knows Rhodes well. He played for him when Rhodes coached at Atholton in the late 1960s -- before Rhodes left to help open Wilde Lake in 1971.

"That he's able to adjust to a new era is fantastic," Hinkle said. "I never thought he'd be able to get through the way he has to today's kids, most of whom are more concerned about playing time and their points than about winning."

Hinkle owns a sandwich shop that Rhodes has frequented for years with his wife for breakfast. Hinkle also has put in successful stints as junior varsity coach at Atholton and Wilde Lake.

Hinkle knows that coaching basketball, although a passion for Rhodes, is only one aspect of a person who has known only too well life's unpleasant hues.

"He's an incredible human being. He's done a lot of stuff for underprivileged kids, many of them minority kids -- and not just basketball players," Hinkle said. "He'd pick them up in his old green truck and bring them to school when they didn't have a ride. And he took them home and fed them because he knew they wouldn't get fed otherwise."

After his wife's stroke, Rhodes took her out of a nursing home and insisted on taking care of her.

"He has a full-time job taking care of Mrs. Rhodes," said Hinkle. "We lift her out of the van into a wheelchair when she comes for breakfast. And he ties a bib on her and cuts up her food. He never leaves her side."

The Rhodes have two children, Tina and Frank Jr.

"He's No. 1 in my book," said Tina, 36. "She is everything to him."

Frank Jr., 42, who runs a family farm, produce stand and greenhouse operation, played basketball in the 1970s for his dad and Wilde Lake. "There's no one I admire more," he said of his father. "He's fantastic. I never thought he could do what he's done."

'Kids sense his sincerity'

Wilde Lake football coach Doug DuVall has known Rhodes for almost 40 years.

"He marks you with an indelible mark," DuVall said. "I've always admired him and held him in high regard, but it's at a whole different level now. To see how loyal and devoted he's been to Arlene after her stroke. That stroke changed his perception of life. He's more mellow than in 1985, and a much different man from the one I first met in 1961 when he was hell on wheels.

"It's interesting to see him back coaching and how the kids respond. They sense his sincerity and knowledge of the game and concern for team play," said DuVall, who has become a legend himself at Wilde Lake, coaching five state championship teams.

One current Wildecats basketball player, Nyema Wilson, sees Rhodes as a teacher first and foremost. "He's a great coach. The best I've seen. He knows what he's talking about. And he doesn't just tell you what to do. He shows you. He walks you through it. He taught us the game."

Rhodes is a humble man, from humble roots. He learned early that life is hard and unfair -- that the world breaks people -- and that afterward the survivors are strong in the broken places.

The youngest of 12 children, he grew up on a sharecropper's farm in Florence, S.C., during the Depression. His parents, Lawrence and Fannie Rhodes, owned a three-acre tobacco farm and scratched out a meager living.

In 1929, his parents lost the farm because of $150 in unpaid fertilizer and grocery bills, Rhodes said.

"My father worked 15 years to get the farm back and had to pay $5,000 to do it," he said. "A lot of days all we had to eat was sweet potatoes and grease, and we were glad to get it."

Rhodes' mother died in 1936, when he was 3 years old, of pellagra, a chronic disease caused by a lack of protein in the diet. .

"We didn't even have any pictures of my mother. I don't know what she looked like," he said.

Rhodes said he was greatly influenced by a role model coach named C. B. Mooneyhan who he had at Spartanburg (S.C.) Methodist College, a two-year school.

Rhodes, like his role model, has a knack for getting the most out of his students. One of those was Clay, who ran away from his Harlem home and ended up living with a great-grandfather and attending school at Atholton, where he was a star player for Rhodes.

"Because of Coach, I saw I had so many more things inside me than basketball," Clay said. "Before Coach, I just did enough to get by. He taught me to use the same energies in the classroom that I used on the court. It was a big turning point for me. I'm happy he could take over the team for me."

Clay eventually earned a physical education degree from the University of Kansas and a master's degree in supervisory education from Bowie State thanks to the inspiration of Rhodes.

Stricken with sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease involving the lymph nodes that has attacked his spinal column and left him weakened in his arms and legs, Clay said he hopes to return in some capacity by the playoffs the end of February to help Rhodes finish the season. The disease is treatable with medication.

Drawling up laughs

In addition to Rhodes' coaching ability and compassion for others, one of the things people like most about him is his sense of humor. "He's not only doing a great job coaching, but he's funny," said River Hill coach Tom Schneider.

Rhodes, who speaks with a Southern drawl, enjoys spouting colorful cliches.

After a recent loss to Oakland Mills, he said: "I'd rather run naked through a brier patch than lose that game."

One of his favorite sayings is: "If you lay down with dogs, you get up with fleas."

He used to describe his guards as "slicker than pigs on ice."

After Rhodes retired as a physical education teacher and coach in 1985, his replacement coach at Wilde Lake was Jerry Keith, now the assistant at River Hill.

Keith, Rhodes' assistant coach at Wilde Lake from 1979 to 1985, said: "I miss Lester and want to see him healthy again. Frank is doing this as a favor to an ex-player. He's a wonderful man. This is the most excited and happy I've seen him since Arlene's stroke. It has given him new life. And he hasn't missed a beat as a coach. Wilde Lake plays good defense."

Keith recalls a lot of good times with Rhodes, who chewed tobacco habitually until giving it up after his wife's stroke. "He would drag one of those tan industrial trash cans from one end of the gym to the other to spit out his tobacco juice. I used to laugh like heck.

"One day he got really mad and kicked the players out of the gym and slammed the ball on the floor so hard it bounced way into the air and then landed on his [Rhodes'] head," Keith said. "None of the players dared laugh until they got to the locker room. Then Frank and I both laughed our heads off."

Hinkle, who remembers what a tremendous turnout Rhodes had for his retirement party, says he's not sure the current players understand what a privilege it is to play for Rhodes.

"We used to play DeMatha every year, and [coach] Morgan Wootten would come over to the shop a few hours early and he and Frank would go in the back room and eat their sandwiches and talk. And as famous as Morgan Wootten has become, I'm not sure he doesn't have more respect for Frank than the other way around.

"He can make you a basketball player. He's someone who gives to the game and wants the best for everyone," Hinkle said. "He's coached a lot of great players, and he's built a lot of men out of boys."

Pub Date: 2/08/99

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