HIS CAREER is sequestered in an office near the gym. Or, to be proper, his gym. There are yellowing photos wallpapering the office. They show triumphant, smiling, sweaty basketball players embracing a small, roundish man who grows progressively older as the photos grow progressively newer.
In his office near his gym, Joe Gallagher is no prime-time act. His ratings are local, his melodrama black and white. His values are tuned to the straight and narrow. He has been the basketball coach of St. John's College High School for 33 years, winning a grossly disproportionate number of his approximately 900 games. Local 12-year-olds dream of playing for him.
In the D.C. area, Joe Gallagher is legendary.A graying "White Shadow."
This shadow has been permeating the most inaccessible corners of young men's lives for all these years. And now his areas of expertise are necessarily wider. When his players call him "Coach," the word takes on a universe of new horizons.
Gallagher is unique only in his noritiety and success. The alter egos encased in "Coach" apply to almost all who carry the title. High school coaches are inevitably getting caught in the flotsam and jetsam of the times.
"Kids have a lot of diversions nowadays," said Gallagher. "You have alcohol and drug use, then there's the freedom of spirit and so forth. It's made coaching tougher and tougher."
Realistically, it has made actual coaching one of the more superfluous demands of the job. Coaching high school basketball means traffickicking in the entire persona of 10 to 15 high school students.
Coaches struggle to form teams from the young bodies and fragile egos of teen-age athletes. And in the nonstop hours of practice and personal attention, they often mean more than basketball to their players.
Wootton's Dale Miller can feel the burden.
"I don't think I come off as a father figure," he said."I would hope not. Being a father is not my responsibility and I don't want it to be. But it has been occasionally in the past and my players feel free to drop by my house and talk."
Whatever the extent of the relationship, one fact surfaces: from November through March, the high school players usually sees more of his coach than he does of his parents. During these five months, the interrelationship among parents, player and coach can be a dynamic menage a quatre.
Bebe McGainey, a stone cold talent of a guard for Potomac High School, considers his coach, Ron Hart, part of his family. An integral part. "Shouldn't it be that way?" asked McGainey, not waiting for an answer.
The mother of a player from Montgomery County high school had an answer for McGainey: "All I ever hear is, "The coach said this' and 'The coach said that.' Yeah, I feel like the coach is part of the family. To tell you the truth, I can't wait for the season to end so I can have my son back."
The woman did not want herself identified because her son "has been getting a lot of playing time lately and I don't want the coach to take it out on him."
Psychiatrists endure 10 years of education so they can sell life improvements in a series of 50-minute hours. Coaches, however, don't sell it, they have to give it away.
"I've had three situations where players have come to me with their pregnant girlfriends asking me what to do because they couldn't go to their parents," said DuVal High School's former head Coach Bob Tucker. "I tell them what I'd do and then tell them they have to make up their own minds."
Not wanting to divulge what he would do, Tucker just said, "It's hard enough to make it getting married when you're 30. These kids are 16. The only thing that qualifies me for advising is that I'm a parent."
Tucker is known as a "player's coach." He says he's had only two players he has disliked, "And they didn't know it."
The players he does like, know it. "One guy lost his college scholarship and he was real poor, so I paid his scholarship. You don't even think twice. You really get to love these kids. That kid graduated from college and has a job now."
Gonzaga Coach Dick Myers, a warm, infinitely approachable person, said, "One kid was having problems at home. His father was drinking pretty heavily and I heard about it first. Then a priest here got involved. It's a lot of responsibility, but it's also an incredible feeling that you're so trusted."
Gwynn Park's Larry Gandee considers himself a coach who is respected but not paternal toward his players.
"I have good rapport with my player," he said. "They won't play for you otherwise. If you want a coach whose players play so well because they love him so much, Ron Hart is one."
Potomac's Hart admits to getting wrapped up in his players' lives.
"I had this one kid who got in trouble in a shopping center," he reaclled without specifying the trouble. "So I sat down with his parents and tried to reinforce it that he'll be hurting himself if he keeps doing these kind of things. It's like going to court. You want as many witnesses as possible, and when it comes to players and their parents, I'm considered a key witness."
Bladensburg's Ernie Welch admits that the times have made coaching "much tougher." And while he considers himself a strong positive influence, there are extremes. "In the offseason I encourage kids to get out from under my influence. I don't try to run personal lives."
But, occasionally, there is no other answer. Skip Speaks, an all-Met from 1978, now is playing at Niagara.
"Before Skip got serious he was a wasted talent," recalled Welch. "In ninth, 10th and 11th grade he was under a 2.0 average and wouldn't have gotten a scholarship. He got a 3.0 in his senior year. Without our guidance he'd be on the streets now . . . an unskilled ex-basketball player."
"My player got in trouble trying to steal a battery from a junkyard," said Pinkney. "I went to the preliminary hearing and then to the court date. The judge let him go but told him if I wasn't there, he might be doing time."
Pinkney is more than a father figure to his players. He's a father figure to everyone. He ends a telephone conversation with "God Bless You." He's a deacon.
"I'm constantly reminding my players about God. I tell them they need spiritual food as much as physical food. I tell my players one more thing. I tell them 'my job would be much easier if you guys would go to church.'"
Discipline. It's the coaching circuit's buzz word. The coaches stress it. The parents watch for it.
Jane Sass, whose son, Bud, is Gallagher's point guard, said, "He (Gallagher" seems to follow the values of my home. With Joe, the boys learn disciline the way they should."
St. John's is a military school on Military Road. Brother John Herron, the school disciplinarian, said, "Coach Gallagher disciplines his players well. He knows how to keep them from having to deal with me."
Potomac High School is just slightly closer to military school than lotus land.
"When my kids leave me, they have the necessary discipline to make it in the working world," said Potomac's Hart. "I consider my players to be lucky. They learn discipline the rest of the kids don't usually get."
Leo McGainey said Hart means a lot to his son, Bebe. "Education-wise and social-wise. I'm not at the school all day but I know Mr. Hart keeps him from getting out of control."
Pinkney's disciplining is nearly ulcerous. "I have to discipline 10 to 12 of my 14 players a year. Kids are sitting out games for not controlling themselves. There's a constant undercurrent of discipline that just wears me out. I wonder how long I can go on like this."
"We're not as tough as St. John's." said Gonzaga's Myers. "But there's discipline. I'd much rather have my kid coming here than a totally loose place. You need some discipline to learn . . . and to have a successful basketball team."
And that's what many consider the bottom line. If you watch 10 area high school games, you'll be convinced a lot of parents covet winning right alongside cleanliness of mind and body.
Most coaches, on the other hand, no matter how demonically possessed they seem during a game, try to deflate the value of winning.
Hart, who says winning "has to be secondary," feels the pressure anyway.
"Frankly, I'm disenchanted," he said. "You're trying to coach and pull kids together for one cause and these parents are screaming at you and the players.
"I've seen them screaming at 10-year-olds, so you can imagine what high school is like. We can't go out and have fun anymore. If you lose, you're no longer a person. You're an entertainer. If they don't laugh, you're a bum. I like to win, but keeping it all in perspective is important."
The year before Myers came to Gonzaga, the Eagles won "about four games and lost about 26. Everyone said winning isn't everything -- and it isn't -- but it's nice to win. Those kids didn't know what winning was. The next year we traveled all over to these schools we could beat. It's just as important to get kids accustomed to winning as it is to accept losing."
Every high school basketball game is a separate drama. But every drama bleeds. The loving and loathing between player and coach usually hinges on the two times a week that the team is on stage.
Many coaches agree they form closer ties to their key players than to their substitutes. "The kids on the bench definitely don't come to me with their problems as much as the starters," said Hart.
"Kids get angry with their lack of playing time but we explain everything very carefully," said Gallagher, producing an efficiency-rating chart complex enough to daze three-fourths of Wall Street. "We show them these figures and, while they may not like it, they accept it."
A Prince George's County coach said, "Right now I have a problem with this one kid. He's a great one-on-one player but he kills the team, so he isn't playing much. The kid won't even talk to me. His grades have fallen off, so I asked him to come to my office and chat recently and he told me what I could do with that idea. I swear, I'm a little scared of the kid."
Tom George, of Woodward, said he has little problem with his bench residents. "When they get in, even if we're ahead 20 points, I give it to them if they make mistakes. I want them to know I care as much about their play as (that of) my starters."
On the other hand, coaches occasionally get a Godsend. A unique talent. The fling between coach and superstar is often the most intense of situations.
"Getting a great talent is like getting the joker in a deck of cards," said Hart. "It's nice to have but how do you play it?"
Bebe McGainey is a senior. People are watching him. Mostly college people. Hart knows he has influence on McGainey's future. "One day I was joking with Bebe and said, 'You know it's my decision where you go to college,' and Bebe said seriously, 'No, it's our decision.' But we both know it's his decision."
McGainey's father said Bebe "told me he will sit down with me and Mr. Hart before making a decision."
Bebe McGainey, Leo McGainey and Mr. Hart. The Potomac Triangle.
"I just know," said Hart, "if I influence a kid to go to a school and he came back and said the place wasn't for him, I'd feel terrible. But if a kid like Bebe needs my help, I'm there."
Dick Myers coaches Tom Sluby, a strong, intelligent blue chip forward. Myers got Sluby an unlisted telephone number. Myers became Sluby's answering service. Any meeting between a college representative and Sluby had to be arranged through Myers. But Myers refused to sit in on the meetings. The borderline of influence must be drawn somewhere.
Said Sluby, who since has chosen Notre Dame, of Myers, "I talk to him every day between 10:15 and 11. He tells me about schools he calls factories. I don't talk to those schools because I trust him and he might get mad. Actually, I wouldn't mind him sitting in on the meetings. He could ask questions. As it is he takes all the phone calls so I guess he gets the worst of it."
Postscript: It wasn't simply that Potomac High lost 77-70, at DuVal on Jan. 29. It was the way the team lost. It was, as Bebe McGainey put it, "The straw that broke the camel's back."
Potomac Coach Ron Hart, 35, waited until a team meeting Jan. 28 to tell his players he was to coach them for the last time the next evening. Hart, who had undergone heart surgery two years earlier, could no longer handle the strain. His players knew of his condition. They knew this was to be his last season.
But they thought it was to be his last full season.
Bebe McGainey, who though of Hart as a father, now sounded like a child feeling responsible for his parents' divorce.
"I think we hurt him . . . we. For us to win, everyone's got a responsibility and people weren't doing what they were supposed to. Mr. Hart told them over and over and I guess he just felt he wasn't teaching us anymore. That made him hurt more. I know it.
"We were pretty shocked. We tried to figure it out and some people started saying, 'Maybe I had something to do with Mr. Hart having to leave.' Yeah, we hurt him."
McGainey shook his head.He stared at the gym floor. Ron Hart was the last person in this world Bebe McGainey would want to have disappointed.
"Yeah. Right. The last person."