Remembering Coach Christian

Published 3:48 pm Saturday, April 9, 2011

For many years, Charles Christian towered over the sports community in Hampton Roads. First at high schools in Suffolk and later at Norfolk State University, his leadership and positive example inspired many winning basketball teams and countless impressionable young men.

On Saturday, the community mourned his loss to cancer at the age of 83, but the people of Suffolk also remembered a man who helped shape the place in which he lived. After hearing of his death early in the week, folks all over his hometown of Suffolk, and in Hampton Roads’ broader collegiate sports community, were sharing their favorite stories about Coach Christian.

Some remembered his intense, physical practices that had a special focus on defensive drills. Others recalled strict curfews, an exemplary work ethic or a sense of humor and the knowledge of when to put it away. They also recalled a man committed to helping his charges achieve their highest potential by helping them to believe they could accomplish anything they set their minds to.

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What nobody who was around at the time could forget was the incredible run that Booker T. Washington High School’s basketball team had under Coach Christian’s leadership. The team’s self-confidence, coupled with his coaching and the players’ skills, resulted in an incredible 101-1 record from 1962 to 1968. Booker T. was famous as the team to beat during that time. But his record there proved that the goal of all those other teams was all but unachievable.

Sometimes a coach, sometimes a mentor, sometimes a friend, Coach Christian spent 43 years coaching basketball. During that time, he did more than just lead teams from Booker T. Washington, John F. Kennedy High School and Norfolk State to excel on the hardwood floors of Hampton Roads gymnasiums. He led teenaged boys and young men to believe in themselves, to challenge themselves, to achieve more than they had dreamed possible.

“He always stood for what was right,” said Clint Wright, who played for Christian at Norfolk State and now coaches at Nansemond-Suffolk Academy. “We had lots of conversations, and not always about basketball.”

“He was a tremendous mentor,” said Ronald Hart, who played for Booker T. Washington until his graduation in 1960. “He really instilled in all of us a sense of being able to accomplish anything. He was like a second father.”

At the high school level — and, to some degree, at the college level, as well — coaching sports is about far more than just winning games. Coaches help their young protégés develop character. Judging from the things his former players had to say in his memory, Coach Christian was just as successful in that regard as he was in the stat books.

He was a great man, and Suffolk is the poorer for his loss.