Prairie Memories by Gary Heintz: Life Lessons, 101 | TSLN.com

Prairie Memories by Gary Heintz: Life Lessons, 101

Al Winckler was the superintendent, coach, bookkeeper and teacher for the Harrold school when I entered high school. He was a hometown boy who returned to his roots and influenced a generation of students through his teaching and coaching.

The 1960 basketball season saw one returning varsity player with any playing experience, followed by four middle classmen, and a half dozen freshmen, including me. Coach had his work cut out. We did the conditioning on the dirt track behind the school and by running the streets of Harrold, always followed by passing, ball handling, defense, rebounding and shooting drills. These drills went on all season long, and got pretty repetitious for most of us. We won one game that year.

Before school let out in the spring, Coach Winckler came into our freshman algebra class to talk about next year’s basketball season. He informed us that the school had to offer an elective math class in order to remain an accredited school and be allowed to participate in high school athletics, so, next year he was going to teach an advanced algebra class and we were going to take it. If we wanted to have a basketball team, we would have to fall on our swords and struggle through the class. The key word was struggle, for many of us. Coach was an excellent teacher, but as with his young basketball team, he didn’t have a lot to work with in this algebra class. Midway through that basketball season I was hit in the mouth during a game, and a week later I was suffering with a severely abscessed tooth. I was out of school for over a week recovering, and dreaded falling behind in the algebra class I was already struggling in. Coach Winckler came over every night to tutor me, making sure I grasped the material. I didn’t ever shine in the class, but have always been grateful to Mr. Winckler for his concern and help.

The basketball drills continued every day of every practice through my four years of varsity ball. As a senior, I began to realize what those drills had done for the team. Our muscle memory let us perform in games like we had drilled in practices, reacting quickly, without thought in game situations, hearing our coach walk us and talk us through the drills in our heads. We won the district tournament that year.

I love basketball, the science of it and the basics that make it a beautiful thing to watch. I watched my grandson’s team in eastern South Dakota flounder for several years because of not being taught the basics of passing, defense, rebounding and ball handling. I realized that Coach Winckler was a great teacher and coach, teaching those basics to us way back then, not only as lessons in basketball, but as lessons in life. I had the chance to thank him when he attended our classes’ 50th year reunion. Hard work pays off, and the basics of living up to our individual potential need to be practiced throughout our time here. I will always be grateful for Mr. Winckler and the life lessons he taught us on the basketball floor, and yes, in advanced algebra.