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A letter by an old friend finally reached me from the 'other side'

May 12, 2020 By Randy Tucker

The envelope sat for more than four years in my rarely used mailbox behind the Ranger front desk.

I don't work from the office. I get a letter there once in a while, but somehow I never noticed this one.

It was dated April 15, 2016.

Reminiscent of those stories of notes floating in a bottle in the vastness of the ocean before being discovered on some faraway shore, this one was special to me.

My friend and mentor Dick Cotton passed away in July 2018. This letter was from Dick, dated two years before from near his home in Horton, Kansas.

The flood of memories this two-page, handwritten note brought was one of epic proportions.

Dick related a bit of his life story, a story I shared with him for almost two decades.

He mentioned his lifelong friend Chuck Wells early in the letter, briefly lamenting of Chuck's passing before he delved into the competition that made them such great friends.

For those not associated with the blessing, and the curse that is the competitive spirit, it drives you to places you never thought you'd go.

Dick, Chuck and I had a mutual friend in Harold Bailey. I've written of it before, but a poster on the wall in Harold's classroom said it well.

It read, "Competition is a blessing." And in hand-written, broad, felt-tip script, the "blessing" was crossed out. and "curse" was scrawled over it.

A blessing and a curse. Those were the views Dick and Chuck shared with the wide-eyed young coach who relished these tales from the 1950s and 1960s.

Dick coached all around Wyoming, from Mountain View to Morton, St. Stephen's, and Shoshoni. Chuck coached in 29 different schools in his long career, including Pinedale and Shoshoni. Yes, their teams met on the basketball court many times.

Dick usually had the upper hand. He was a master of the game.

We traveled with St. Stephen's to the Mesa State camp in Grand Junction, Colorado in 1987.

One memorable afternoon the three of us walked across the Mesa State campus on a blistering July day.

As we talked Dick would say, "Buick," then go back to what he was saying, or Chuck would say, "Cadillac" and do the same thing.

After a half-dozen or so models of cars were mentioned, I finally caught on. As a college co-ed passed us, these old boys were doing a little comparison game, Detroit style.

Men of a different era, you might say.

One year, my Shoshoni Wranglers and Dick's St. Stephen's Eagles met in the Saturday afternoon championship game of the Wrangler Invitational. Dick had a great team, one of the best in St. Stephen's history. The kids on both teams were friendly from our trip to Mesa the summer before.

The friendship stopped when the ball was tossed in the air to start the game.

Dick's kids could cut, give-and-go, drive and make those amazing, acrobatic shots that so many Wind River reservation kids always seem to know how to do.

Dick had introduced me to Doug Schakel, the Mesa State head men's coach that previous summer. Doug he told me about an off-set zone defense he had used against teams just like St. Stephen's.

We jumped into it on the opening possession and stayed in it the entire game. Our zone extended almost to the sideline when the Eagles took the ball to the corner. Our kids were too tall to pass over with anything except a lob to the backside. When they did reverse the ball, we just overloaded the other side.

The result was an 18-point Shoshoni win.

In his letter, Dick called me a lucky, little (expletive) for taking a team to the state championship as a first-year coach, then winning the title. He lamented his own record.

Coach Cotton took teams to the state title game in Wyoming and Kansas four times. He related the results in his letter: "We lost by one, two, four and 13 points. I never won the big one."

I was there as a Ranger sports reporter at the Casper Events Center when the Wranglers tied up the Cokeville Panthers with just seconds remaining in regulation, only to see a Panther break the length of the floor and hit a layup at the buzzer for a two-point Shoshoni loss in the Class 1-A 1997 championship game.

It was Dick's last appearance coaching a high school basketball game.

We wrote back and forth for the next 20 years and had a few phone calls, but we never met in person again.

Basketball was his life's work. He coached junior high girls for a decade back in his home town of Horton before retiring for good in 2006.

Dick's letter took me to another time, to an era when I thought I might be a basketball coach forever.

In 1991 I turned down a high school coaching position in Windsor, Colorado, an assistant men's coaching position at Concordia College in Seward, Nebraska, and didn't follow up on a second interview at a Kansas junior college.

Coach Cotton was the reason.

When I mentioned Kansas JUCO basketball, Dick knew all about the league they competed in.

These were his words of wisdom: "You'll have four kids who shouldn't be on the team, but their parents are big boosters, and they expect them to play.

"You'll have four more kids who have tremendous potential, but they need developed. They'll be from

"Kansas, maybe Eastern Colorado or Nebraska. Then you'll have four kids from somewhere back east, Detroit, Chicago, or Birmingham. These guys can play, but they're in a small town in Kansas for a reason.

"You'll get to know every deputy sheriff, town cop, and probation officer on a first-name basis with these kids," Dick said.

"The secret is keeping your stars out of jail, the booster's kids on the floor occasionally, and developing those four boys in the middle. Develop those guys and you'll win."

In the end, I didn't want to coach that way. I stayed two more years at Shoshoni before resigning from the basketball position.

All this, along with dozens, perhaps hundreds of more stories came to mind when I read the letter that I finally saw two years after Dick was gone.

Thanks, Coach Cotton, for reaching out from the other side.

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2020-06-03

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