BERLIN — It does venerable Hiland coach Dave Schlabach's heart good to see how the story of Perry Reese Jr. still resonates today, more than 17 years after his untimely death.
The Classic in the Country Challenge enjoyed its 14th year this weekend in Berlin, celebrating cultural diversity and commemorating the lives of Martin Luther King Jr. and Reese, the former Hiland basketball coach.
The impact Coach Reese had on the lives of so many is immeasurable, not only in the East Holmes community, but throughout the United States, as the Sports Illustrated article about Reese's life and death was voted among the most memorable ever in the national magazine.
Coach Joe Whalen of St. Rose in Belmar, N.J., a guest at this year's Classic, uses that article, "Higher Education" by Gary Smith as a learning tool for his team, and as a reminder to appreciate life.
"It's a pretty good reminder of just how good that story was, and it still means a lot," Schlabach said. "I think sometimes we forget."
Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, Whalen was a Wall Street stock broker who served as a part-time basketball coach. When he read "Higher Education" in Sports Illustrated in March, 2001, it inspired him to eventually walk away from his lucrative career to pursue his dream of being a basketball coach full time.
It was only a few months later that terrorists attacked the Twin Towers and had he not been coaching, he would have been at work that fateful day. The firm for which he worked just a few weeks earlier was on the seventh floor of the World Trade Center.
"I was a 25-year Wall Street guy and decided I'd had enough," Whalen said. "I never saw my kids. I took a job as dean of students and coaching basketball. Giving up the money from Wall Street certainly changed my quality of life "
But at least he had his life. He lost many friends on 9/11.
Whalen dove head first into coaching and used his coaching job as a way to teach young men important life skills.
"You can always tell someone who played for me, not because of their skill set, but because they shake your hand," he said. "You can tell a lot about a person through a hand shake."
After years of coaching boys basketball, which included coaching Kyrie Irving and Michael Gilchrist, Whalen moved over to coaching St. Rose (girls basketball) five years ago.
"I've been very fortunate to coach some great boys as well as some great girls," he said.
Being able to come and coach in the Perry Reese Jr. Community Center has been the ultimate experience.
"This has been tremendous. It's even better than we expected," Whalen said. "In church today, people were talking about driving eight hours just to watch some girls basketball. This experience has more than exceeded our expectations. We are grateful for the opportunity. After reading the article about Perry Reese, this has been like a bucket list thing for me."
Hiland assistant coach David "Cousy" Borter recalled meeting Whalen and setting things in motion to get them to play here in Holmes County.
"Two summers ago at the Best of Maryland tournament, we walked in for our shoot-around and St. Rose was in the gym for their shoot-around before us. We all had our Hiland gear on," Borter said. "Coach Whalen asks if we're the Hiland from Berlin, Ohio. I said it was, and he said, 'I read that article on Coach Reese that really inspired me. I got back into coaching because of it.' When you meet Coach Whalen, you realize he expects great things and that his team is special.
"We knew they were a nationally ranked team, and I told Tom Jenkins we've got to get them to the Classic," Borter added. "It's pretty neat how he connected with that story."
Borter said once they got talking, he got Whalen information about Classic in the Country and this year, the Purple Roses were playing Lakota West, one of the top teams in Div. I in Ohio.
Lakota West turned back St. Rose, 48-43, in a hard-fought, physical battle.
"It's kind of what we expected," Whalen said of the physical play. "We got in last night and saw the second half of the Hiland-Africentric game. It gave us an idea of what to expect as far as the officiating goes."
Borter said it is great to have met Whalen and developed a friendship with the outstanding coach, who last year won the National Federation of High School Coaches Association Coach of the Year for New Jersey.
"As coaches, whether you are in Ohio, New Jersey or anywhere across the country, you are always trying to learn, and share ideas from the best," Borter said. "That's what we've been able to do with Joe. It's a cool relationship, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for this guy."