Mark Patton – 6/21/2007
The Santa Barbara Breakers were still a few months from their debut in the International Basketball League when club president Curt Pickering took his first loss. Head coach Don Sellers had left the country to take a different job. Pickering scrambled to find a last-minute replacement — “I even talked to Larry Spriggs about it, but that didn’t work out” — when it suddenly hit him: He knew a guy who had been thrown into a similar coaching situation 25 years earlier.
His name was Curt Pickering.
He once had to make the best of a tragic situation at Texas Wesleyan University, but it made him the best man to guide the Breakers through the uncharted waters of their maiden voyage. “It has certainly been overwhelming with all these responsibilities, but there weren’t too many surprises,” Pickering said. “I knew what I was getting myself into.”
By most measuring sticks, it’s been a successful start. The Breakers, 13-5, have won seven straight games to climb into second place in the IBL’s Southwest Division. They are two games behind Salem entering their final regular-season games against Vancouver on Friday and Saturday nights. The games will tip off at 7:05 p.m. in the SBCC Sports Pavilion, where the average attendance of nearly 800 per game ranks fourth among the IBL’s 22 teams. “It’s made me excited about year No. 2,” said Pickering, whose club will also take part in the IBL playoffs in Portland on June 29-July 1. “We’ll have all fall to put things into place that we weren’t able to do this year. And although it may still be an unfinished product, the foundation has been set.”
The workload would have finished off most others. But to understand how Pickering has persevered as the Breakers’ coach, president and director of basketball operations, all you need do is ask why he jots just “CJH” during the post-game autograph sessions. “It stands for coach Johnny Howerton,” he said. “What he did for me in life was much greater than basketball.”
Pickering was a young man in 1980, in between basketball jobs, when he noticed that the listing for Texas Wesleyan’s assistant coach had been left blank in a college directory. He soon left Indiana for Fort Worth, and within two days had convinced Howerton to give him a chance. “He gave me housing, meals, a salary, a free education for my masters degree — all within two days,” he said. “That was the kind of guy he was. Just so loving. When he’d see people with needs, and the need for an opportunity, he’d provide them. Unconditionally.
“Fourteen of the 15 guys on that team didn’t have fathers. But coach Howerton, at 47 years of age, was the dad for them all.” But the sensitive coach, who was also the father of two young boys, had also been struggling to cope with the breakup of his marriage. Pickering didn’t know anything was wrong until Howerton failed to show up to the team bus for Wesleyan’s season-opening road trip of 1981-82.”I kept thinking during the whole ride down that he was going to pull up next to us in his car,” Pickering recalled. “But once we were about 15 miles from the school, I started to get a bad feeling.”
Howerton had in fact bought a gun at a pawn shop, drove to Lake Arlington and ended his deep depression by putting a bullet in his head. Pickering was suddenly Texas Wesleyan’s head coach at age 26.The experience forced him to grow up in a lot of ways. “It really taught me something about dealing with other people’s depression — about how to very tenderly but aggressively address it when you see the signs,” he said. “In fact,I’ve had to do that with two very close friends and a family member.”
He faced plenty of stress during his one season in charge of Texas Wesleyan basketball. The university’s new president had been fantasizing about an upgrade from NAIA to NCAA Division 1 basketball and showed little tolerance for the team’s 3-9 nonconference record against Division 1 competition.”We had gone through all this trauma — and yet, the president told the AD that if we didn’t start winning, he was to start looking for a new coach,” Pickering said.
Texas Wesleyan did begin to win during its NAIA schedule. Pickering’s club even advanced to the district championship game against unbeaten Paul Quinn College, which had been featured in Sports Illustrated magazine for its 105-point scoring average. “The president called me into his office,” Pickering recalled, “and he told me, ‘I don’t
know how you got this team to the championship game, but I want to let you know that if you win (and advance to the NAIA Nationals), I’ll be with you in Kansas City. But if you lose, I’m going to go find myself a Division 1 coach.’
“Talk about putting a little pressure on you.”
Texas Wesleyan lost 105-98, and Pickering was soon talking himself into a new job with the Los Angeles Pro Summer League. It eventually led him to Santa Barbara in 1990 as director of basketball operations for a new Continental Basketball Association franchise called the Islanders.The team lasted just one season, but Pickering remained. He’s been running a youth basketball academy here for the last 11 years. He also decided to give pro basketball another shot in Santa Barbara when the IBL called last year.
He gave himself a challenge after signing former NBA players Fred Vinson, Toby Bailey and Samaki Walker with the understanding that they could skip road games and do most of their training at UCLA. It cemented his decision to take the coaching job himself. “I knew that it would take some real flexibility on the coach’s part to have those players mesh with the others who were living in Santa Barbara and practicing here every day,” Pickering said. “And there was some resistance during the first three or four weeks of the season. “But when Toby and Fred finally committed to go on the road with us, it was a real plus. I named them co-captains for not only their great leadership qualities, but also for making that greater commitment.”
Bailey is the IBL’s 11th leading scorer with a 25.0-point average while Vinson is scoring at an 18.8-point clip. A more recent addition with NBA experience, Lamond Murray, has averaged 25.3 points in his three games with the Breakers. The roster has expanded throughout the short season, but Pickering doesn’t mind being the guy to hold it all together. “We’re growing as a team off the court, too,” he said.