Way back in 2006 I was working as a curriculum consultant and school counsellor. It was the second time in 13 years that I wasn’t planning on coaching basketball. (The other year was when I backpacked in Fiji, New Zealand, and Australia.) I was busy starting my first year of a master's program in educational psychology and I was in a new role as a consultant. But then the phone rang; it was Jim Lazaruk!! He wanted to discuss the possibility of me being an assistant coach with the Grant MacEwan Griffins Women’s Basketball team competing in the Alberta College Athletic Conference. I had met Coach Laz a few times and although I was flatter by his call, I said no thanks. A couple of years prior I was an assistant basketball coach at NAIT and I knew the workload - 4 two hour practices, Friday and Saturday night games, regular meetings and workouts, from September to March. The schedule and the commitment of coaching at that level is massive! But it was Jim Lazaruk…. and I knew of his sterling reputation, I had a sense of his approach to basketball, and it nagged at me for an hour or so before I called him back. “Ok,” I said, “lets meet”.
We met at Boston Pizza Capilano in the lounge, sports playing on the TVs, and we chatted. It took no time at all to realize we had a similar vision for basketball, and complimentary styles. We both agreed that basketball was just a vehicle to teach life skills, but it was a vehicle that we both really liked and we knew well. He graciously offered for me to be one of two assistant coaches. A short while later I met with Stephanie Stolk, a former MacEwan and University of Alberta basketball star, and the coaching staff was locked in - Jim, Steph and Joe. For the next three years we coached together, and shared lots of fun, dinners, road trips, sidelines, bus rides, drills and laughs over the next three seasons. We spent nights in Grand Prairie, Lethbridge, Hawaii, Calgary and got to know each other very well! It was an amazing opportunity for me to learn and it was just so much fun! Stephanie and I were chatting recently about that time and we both miss it tremendously. Getting to work with Coach Laz is absolutely a lifetime highlight for us both, as it has been for so many people.
Just recently, Laz was honoured by being inducted to the Millennium Place Sports Wall of Fame - in the builder category. His resume is packed with championship seasons in both football and basketball. As a young math teacher at Salisbury High School in Sherwood Park, he coached football, following up on his playing days as an offensive lineman with the Golden Bears. But as the football season ended back in 1975, the school was still looking for a senior girls coach for basketball. Laz told me that he decided to step up and for most of the next 30 plus years he coached football and then coached basketball - back to back! That feat in itself is extraordinary, as each sport requires a massive commitment from its coaches and players. But he coached both teams, and he was amazing with both teams. Here is his list of athletic achievements:
Won the Vanier Cup as a player with the Golden Bears in 1972
Coached the Wildcats from 1973 - 1977 (Finalist of the Championship in 1977)
1st Head Coach of the Salsbury Sabres Football in 1974
Finalist of the High School Football City Championship in 1975
Coached the University of Alberta Golden Bears from 1979 - 1985
Won the Vanier Cup with the Golden Bears as a coach in 1980
Western Intercollegiate Coach of the Year in 1983
Coached Salsbury Sabres Senior Girls Basketball Team from 1975 - 2005
4A Women's Basketball Provincial Champions in 1987
Coached the Grant MacEwan Womens Basketball Team from 2006 - 2011
Named ACAC Coach of the Year in 2007 & 2009
As a basketball coach, he believed that every player deserved to show what they have learned in practice by playing in games. His philosophy was clear, all players will play in each game unless they are injured. And as much as he could, he ensured the playing time was even. All of his athletes knew Laz was fair, honest, and committed to their development, and thus his players were motivated to grow and learn and fulfill their potential as athletes and teammates. It goes without saying that his team were extremely successful on the court, and many of his athletes continued on with sports beyond high school. The Sabres won the 4A basketball provincial championship in 1987. But the life lessons he taught his athletes went well beyond the field or the gym.
As his assistant coach, I saw this first hand. He never yelled, and rarely showed big emotion. He was always calm and caring, he had a unique way with words. His eye contact meant everything and he could silence our teams with just his expression. He knew how to manage personalities and how to relax our teams with his sense of humor. Laz was an absolute master communicator! I learned so much from him - the importance of language, the tone, the approach to preparation and planning. He was absolutely brilliant in how he worked with each player, our team as a while, and our coaching staff
In our second season together, we were in Hawaii for a tournament and we had a team meeting at the hotel around 9 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. Laz explained the details about curfew and the schedule for the next morning (early morning run and practice). We all put our hands in the middle to do our team cheer and just then one of the girls was brave enough to ask what will happen if they break curfew. A few of our players giggled at the question and then it was silent, as we all waited for Laz’s response. He quietly said, “dont let anything but fear stop you”. Then we did our team cheer and off the players went to enjoy the evening. Everyone was back on time, and the next morning’s practice went as planned (it wasnt pretty, but everyone was there.) When I think back to that moment, Laz’s comment was simple, but meant so much. Sure, if any of our players were to break curfew, there would be consequences. Maybe they would miss a game or two, etc. But it was so much more than that… the comment was about the fear of letting your team down, the fear of acting selfishly and feeling disappointed by not being able to prepare for the next game. More than that, our players wouldnt want to let Laz down, they all knew how much he valued their commitment to the team, and how important they each were to the team. It was another opportunity to teach a life lesson, and Laz loved those opportunities.
As a coach, Laz was a master teacher! His two hour long practice plans were broken down into 10 minute segments, and the segments were progressions, leading to refining and developing skills, team concepts and an understanding of who we would play on Friday and Saturday - how to defend their set offence and inbounds plays. He would send Carol out to video tape opponents well in advance and he knew what other coaches like to run. Laz would make sure our players knew what was coming and how to defend our opponents. At practice Laz would set a quick pace to ensure our players were physically and mentally prepared for competition. Laz knew that having athletes stand around while the coaches yammered on about a skill or drill would slow our pace, so he would give very brief instructions. Once a drill got started and the players had a chance to get moving, he would blow his whistle (or he would just say whistle), laugh and acclaim he was guilty of bad coaching! Then he would make some adjustments, give a little more instruction and get our players moving again. But it was all planned; it was like he was conducting a symphony, with the timing and pacing delicately handled to maximize the two hours in the court. Laz combined instructions, fitness, competition, and skill development like a pro!
Unfortunately, Laz suffers from Parkinson's and he has had a difficult time communicating as of late. When we were at the induction ceremony, Jim was with his wife, Carol, and he was being bombarded by so many former athletes who wanted to connect and to congratulate Laz. When Stephanie and I finally got our turn to surprise him, we were greeted with a big smile and hugs. Laz said that the three of us coaching together were some his best memories, and he started to cry. It was a very emotional moment for the three of us, and it reminded me of just how special the three years of coaching that we shared truly was. The three of us were much more than co-coaches and we have all stayed close. Kalay and I actually moved into Laz’s house for 6 weeks while we waited to take possession of our current home in Sherwood Park a few years ago. Carol and Jim hosted us for many dinners and events, Laz taught me to golf and even helped me jack-hammer my concrete basement! Over the years, Laz and his wife Carol have become family for both Stephanie and myself and our own growing families.
That is what made Laz such an amazing coach for so many of his players and colleagues: he connected with people in meaningful ways. He had a way of working with people and finding a way to connect, making sure they felt valued, important, and worth the opportunity to grow as people. For Laz it was never about basketball, or football, it was about people. I think Laz, literally, could have been successful doing anything, as long as it was with people.
Here is an example. After Laz retired from teaching, I was working at the University and I talked him into working with me as a University Facilitator with student teachers. I was his supervisor, which was awesome! In his own teaching career, Laz had only taught in one school, almost exclusively the academic stream of high school math with a couple of exceptions. But as a University Facilitator, he was guiding and supervising student teachers in elementary, junior high and high school across a range of schools and subjects. How did he do, you wonder? Amazing! He was fantastic at this role, because he did such a great job communicating with his student teachers. If there was a challenge or difficulty, he found a way to share it and to help each student grow and improve. Laz also really enjoyed this role because it gave him a chance to broaden his skill set and learn from others, and Laz was also eager to learn from them.
Laz has many unique qualities as a coach that many of his players and colleagues appreciated. One of these qualities was that if Laz found something that worked well, he stuck with it. For example, at some point while coaching basketball, someone gave him an Etch-a-Sketch instead of a whiteboard. It is cleaner, easier and you never need to look for a pen. From then on he used the Etch-a-Sketch! Genius. Laz used a shoelace for his whistle, why change it, it worked perfectly well! And Laz loved Hawaii - it was warm, and he knew the hotels and the beach. It was the one place he could go to relax, so he only took his vacations there. Going somewhere else would be too stressful!
Laz was also particular about his coaching and teaching attire. Laz preferred short sleeves for his dress shirts, but he found that the sleeves on a short sleeved shirt from the store were too short. So he bought long sleeved shirts instead and had Carol hem the sleeves to just the right length! It is important to feel comfortable when teaching and coaching after all! My all time favourite Laz and clothing story is the one about the football shell jacket! When Laz ordered Salisbury Sabres button up shell jackets for the football team in 1978, he bought two for himself. He knew the first one might wear out after a few years. However, the first one lasted longer than Laz thought and in 2008, 30 years later, he finally busted out the second jacket! He was very proud, as he dusted off the unworn shell jacket out of his basement closet, ready to go!! Laz was always prepared, he took pride in taking care of materials and equipment, and he loved to teach these important lessons to his players and colleagues.
If you were lucky enough to be in Mr. Lazaruk’s math class, you likely learned much and were prepared for the next math course in your academic career. If you were lucky enough to be on Coach Laz’s teams, you likely learned much and were prepared for the next phase of your life. I was so fortunate to have been on his team for 3 seasons, and even more fortunate to have had his guidance and friendship for many since coaching together.
Congrats to coach Lazaruk for being inducted into the Wall of Fame at Millennium PLace, and for his next honour of being inducted into the University of Alberta’s Sports Wall of Fame on September 25, 2017! It is so well deserved and his legacy and his values carry on through all of the coaches and teachers that he has coached and taught in his amazing journey! Now I will stop being a “chatter-box”! Congrats Laz. We love you!