hawkhoops.com | Perry Reese Jr 1952-2000
Hiland grieves for Reese


MILLERSBURG — Kurt Kaufman turned the page in the scrapbook. What he found would tell anyone all they needed to know about Perry Reese Jr.

The picture of Reese was from a 1992 Repository article about the beloved Berlin Hiland High School boys basketball coach. Reese was wearing a black sweater trimmed in red, blue, aqua and gray.

"You know what," Kaufman said, biting his lip. "He gave that sweater to me."

That was Perry Reese Jr. — a man who would give his players the shirt, or sweater, off his back.

Kaufman, 23, was among former Hiland players who joined others in filling the small chapel at St. Peter church for Tuesday's funeral service. Reese, 48, died last Wednesday from brain cancer.

"He was always giving us clothes and things of his," said Kaufman, who played for Reese from 1994-96. "He would take us fishing. He would have us over to his house to watch movies. He took me under his wing. He took us all under his wing."

Reese's love for his players, students and the community of eastern Holmes County erased even the most visible of dividing lines.

He was a black Catholic man in an overwhelmingly white, Amish and Mennonite community. He grew up in northeast Canton, not on a working farm. He came to Berlin in 1982 only at the urging of Ohio basketball coaching legend Charlie Huggins, then two years away from retirement.

It wasn't easy at first. Reese once estimated that, in the first few months after his arrival, people would drive by and hurl racial insults at the rate of about twice a week.

"There were things that took place when he first came that he never told poeple about," Hiland Athletic Director Colin Mishler said. "But this is one thing I took from Perry from knowing him for 17 years — no matter how differently they thought from the way he thought, he would never say anything bad about them. Never."

Reese fought hatred with caring, fear with consistency, mistrust with trust. And, eventually, he won.

"He broke down barriers by the way he lived his life," Mishler said. "I remember one of his players, came home, walked up to his dad and said, 'I don't care what you think about blacks — this man is OK.'"

The Hiland community eventually not only accepted Reese, but revered him. An amish man, Joe Miller, began calling Reese "the black Amishman," and the nickanme stuck. A memorial service that took place Sunday at the high school drew a crowd estimated by Mishler at 1,200 to 1,500.

Reese's life was a script so improbable that a screenwriter from Hollywood once visited with Reese about turning his story into a movie.

"His life was never about Perry Reese... it was about everybody else," Hiland girls basketball coach Dave Schlabach said. "He not only touched the lives of kids, he developed relationships with adults all over this community. When you are that genuine, the respect will come."

Winning basketball games helped, of course. Hiland was 304-85 in 16 years under Reese, advancing to the state Final Four on five occasions and claiming the state championship in 1992.

Hiland's success opened opportunities elsewhere. Some in Canton urged Reese to apply when Dave Cady retired as head coach at Canton McKinley. University of Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins, Charlie's son, once talked with Reese about becoming a Bearcats assistant.

Reese had found his home, however. He stayed.

This summer, not long after he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, Reese wrote some thoughts about his life and his philosophy. His sister, Audrey Johnson, read some of those thoughts Tuesday.

"My role was/is to teach, love, care (and) disclipline our young people so they, in turn, can pass that on as a positive experience to their society," Reese said.

"When one or two kids expresses an experience in conversation or action that they were involved in that was positive, those are memorable experiences for me."

Kurt Kaufman is now an assistant basketball coach at Wadsworth High School. He no longer owns the sweater his high school coach gave him. What Kaufman passes on to his players form Perry Reese Jr., however, is something much more valuable than any article of clothing.

"He lost his voice a couple times from yelling at me, but I never had to wonder if he cared about me," Kaufman said. "He was everything a coach, and a man, should be."