Wednesday, February 14, 1996
Coach knows life's bigger than basketball

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Eric Snow says he feels blessed just to be here.

Actually, we're the ones who should feel blessed there are people like Eric Snow.

He gives his time, money and heart on and off the court to coach the West Side Players, a teen basketball team based at the North Avondale Recreation Center. But few would have known about Mr. Snow's efforts if not for an accident.

A speeding car slid down an ice-glazed street a couple of weeks ago and ricocheted off his legs. Mr. Snow ended up with bruises, a limp and one knee in a brace.

''I feel blessed to be here and not have any broken bones,'' he says.

Tracie White, his fiancee and the team's manager, was with him. They were on their way to meet the players' parents.

After he got hit, she worried out loud to some of the parents about hospital bills and how he was only getting disability pay because of an injury at work. She also mentioned how he had spent close to $3,000 to put this team on area courts, where the Players are undefeated in three recreation leagues.

''No one knew he was spending all of his money,'' says Ernestine Jackson, mother of the team's center, Londale Gaither. Everybody just assumed he was getting his money from the city.

Ernestine Jackson can't ''explain or understand why he does this. He's just willing to put himself out for the community.''

Her son has an explanation. Eric Snow is ''more than a coach. He's a father to those of us who don't have one.'' The coach shows them by words and deeds he is ''concerned about what they do on the basketball court and after the game.''

After the game means learning lessons in life. Two Saturdays ago, after another Players' victory, he coached them on how to treat a woman with respect.

''We threw a dinner party that night for the team. We had chicken, greens, potato salad. It was all spread out right here,'' Mr. Snow says, sweeping his arm around his Price Hill living room.

''They had to bring a date and dress up. No sweat pants. No jeans.'' Sneakers were permitted. ''Some guys don't have any dress shoes.''

Even though this was no full-dress affair, the coach ordered a full-court press on manners.

''They had to pull the chair out for the girl, hold the door open for her, hold her coat. This was different for them. They said to me, 'Coach, I don't know if I can do that. Everybody'll be laughin' at me.' ''

The coach did not laugh. He told his team: ''If you can't pull out a chair for a girl, you don't care about her.''

The dinner party, like all of his coaching, was on the house. ''The parents have contributed some money,'' he says. ''But they don't have that much to give. I've written letters to companies asking for donations. But no one has written back.''

The man the players call ''Coach Eric'' and the woman they call ''Ma'am'' are not well off. He drives a truck. She cleans offices.

Yet, together they keep the players in uniforms, sweat shirts and shoes. They treat them to dinner after games. Take them bowling. Get them library cards. They drive them to games, take them to school and keep them there.

''I like to pay surprise visits,'' the coach says with a smile of pride. ''One day, I caught two of my players in the hall at Aiken High School. They were cutting classes. I asked them: 'What are you doing here?' They said they were going to ask me the same thing.'' He walked them to their classroom . . . ''and I went in. Now, they never know when I'm going to show up.''

When he does, he's always ready to teach them the difference between what he calls the long and the short picture.

''I tell them: Get an education first. This is hard to tell some guy who's 16 and has nothing. He sees other guys who are 16 and have money from dealing drugs. That's only the short picture.

''In the long picture, the drug dealers are going to be locked up or dead. But you're going to finish school - and maybe be a doctor, a lawyer, a judge or a teacher.''

Eric Snow is none of the above. He never graduated from college.

''I don't have a degree,'' he says.

''But I care.''

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax to 768-8340.