Gerry Gimelstob, the new head basketball coach at George Washington University, had been sitting still, answering questions about himself for almost three hours.
It is difficult to say which was harder for him: the sitting or the talking. The conversation ended, he bolted out of the room. Seconds later, he hurtled back through the door.
"Ya know Barbra Streisand in 'Funny Girl?' " he asked. "How she always wanted her name up in lights? But she wasn't gonna tell anybody, and maybe she wasn't sure she was good enough to get there? And maybe some other people weren't, either. But once she did get there, she wasn't gonna screw it up. Does that help any?"
Gerry Gimelstob has been waiting for this chance for a long time. When he was bar-mitzvahed, the centerpieces on the tables were basketballs made of styrofoam. Today you are a man; tomorrow you are a head coach.
His mother says he always wanted to be just like Nat Holman or Red Auerbach. He has pictures of them in his desk. One is Gimelstob with Auerbach, the president of the Boston Celtics, and a GW alumnus; that is on the cover of the university's 1981-1982 basketball guide. The other is a picture of Gimelstob and Holman, the legendary former coach at City College of New York, whom he met last summer at the Maccabiah Games.
"I've got a letter from him right here," Gimelstob says. " 'If one wants to play the violin like an angel, you've got to practice like the devil.' "
The pictures are going up on the wall right next to the one of Coach Knight, he says. He is 30 years old, a former assistant at Indiana University (five years) and Utah (four years), and still calls the man Coach Knight. He will always call him Coach Knight.
There are those who call Gimelstob a Bob Knight clone. To some that is a compliment, to some not. For Gimelstob that poses a problem. How can you presume to be compared to your hero when you're 4-3 as a head coach? Still, when fans yell, "Sit down, Bobby," from the stands, it makes him crazy.
He does not think Knight's negative reputation is deserved, but he doesn't want to be saddled with it, either.
When he was interviewed to replace Bob Tallent last March, one of the members of the selection committee "kept asking me all these negative things about Coach Knight," said Gimelstob, who has a five-year contract reportedly to pay him $30,000 to $35,000 a year. "Finally, I said, 'Let me ask you something. If Coach Knight applied, do you think he could get the job?' "
"Ever read 'Portnoy's Complaint?' " he says suddenly. "That was my neighborhood. There's a part in the book where this old guy is yelling and screaming at the kids on the playground. Lots of people told me that was my dad."
His father was a semipro baseball player who played briefly with the St. Louis Cardinals. His brother was a high school coaching legend in New Jersey. There was his "family's athletic reputation" to uphold.
Practice at George Washington begins at 1:30 p.m. Gimelstob is at midcourt yelling at the players. The players are not communicating. "Communicate! That's what God gave you a mouth for--to talk." He's really yelling now. "It's not a personal foul to talk on a basketball court!"
Perhaps later he will see the irony in that.
Practice resumes and it sounds like a group therapy session on the court. "That's a lot better," he says. "That's the way we want to talk."
A little carrot, a little stick.
This is new to the Colonials. They are adjusting. "I found it intimidating at times," Wilbert Skipper said, "until I said to myself, 'Skip, he's different. You got to suck it up and play harder.' It just motivates me now. Before I thought he was picking me out of a crowd. It took me five weeks to understand what he wants, to understand it's not going to be that bad."
Mike Brown, Gimelstob's prize 6-foot-9 recruit, said, "Some guys don't like to get yelled at. They curl up in a little shell. My high school coaches yelled to get on you, to push you. I feel when he stops yelling, he stops caring."
Guard Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons, who knew Gimelstob when he was Knight's assistant at Indiana, said, "He may like you as a person but as a basketball player he may hate you. I like that. When I screwed up, he let me know it. Some coaches just pat you on the back and say, 'It's okay.' Really, it's not okay, if you're screwing up."
Sometimes, Gimelstob says, screaming "is a form of affection."
This from a man who had three technical fouls in two games, who conducted a 5 1/2-hour practice one day and concluded another by asking with boyish expectancy, "Whadya think? Good kids, aren't they?"
All he ever wanted to do was coach--after he realized he wasn't going to be a player, that is. "He can shoot," Thomas said, laughing. "But he couldn't jump and he wasn't very quick. A typical white boy."
Gimelstob averaged 28 points a game his senior year in high school; for two years, he was the only white player on the team. "He's kind of sensitive to other people," said Thomas, who feels Gimelstob will be a great coach. "He understands a lot of things from the background he's from. He's very familiar with the problems people might face growing up. I would venture to say his path wasn't paved with gold growing up."
Gimelstob sees himself, and talks about himself, as an underdog. When he speaks, there is sometimes an I'll-show-them tone in his voice. A friend, Jack Gallagher, says, "Gerry grew up in a Newark neighborhood where he was the only Jewish kid on the block. On a number of occasions, he had to assert himself. Whether maybe he had to acquire a certain amount of aggressiveness, I don't know. I think he was a rebel, not the kind that ran with the pack."
His senior year in high school, Tom Murphy, whom Gimelstob called his Irish godfather, took him in hand and enrolled him at Newark Academy. "I was a Jewish kid in a black environment, an inner-city, smart-ass kid. Here I was, thrown into an environment where I had to wear a tie and jacket. It was culture shock. I said, 'Man, kids study here. I'm usually home shooting hoops.' That year helped me get squared away."
Gimelstob's players wear ties and jackets on the road, a symbol of the greater sacrifices he expects, the ones he made.
The summer before he enrolled at University of Rhode Island, Murphy took Gimelstob to Knight's basketball camp near West Point. Knight was the coach at Army at the time.
"He arranged for him to help me on defense and work at his camp," Gimelstob said. "You asked if my players were intimidated by me. I definitely was intimidated. He watched me. I played offense very dumb, the opposite of how I coach. I was dribbling the ball between my legs and he told me something and I said something back. And he said, 'If you have all the answers, there is no need for me to be taking the time to do this.' "
He worked at Knight's camp every summer after that except this past one. When he graduated from Rhode Island (in three years with a 3.65 grade point average), he went to Indiana, became a graduate assistant and got a master's degree in college personnel administration.
It's been basketball, basketball, basketball ever since. Twenty-four hours a day? "It's pretty true," he says.
Ask if he has a girlfriend and it prompts a 10-minute soliloquy on the best way to answer the question. Finally: he sees someone maybe once a week. They watch films. Game films.
He doesn't play ball any more. "I don't have the patience to play with the people I have to play with," he says. "Basketball is an art and they're finger-painting . . . A basketball team is always an extension of the coach and the coach's personality. That's why I can't play pickup games any more. They don't know how I want basketball played."
He says he doesn't want to be perceived as "an egotistical crusader," but there are those who think that is how he sounds. "He comes across being a little egotistical and brash," said Jay Williams, an assistant coach at Purdue. "Deep down I think he wants to have the respect of everybody."
Some say Gimelstob is a young man in a big hurry; others say there is a softy behind that brash exterior. Jason Shrinsky, a GW alumnus who has helped raise money for the team, said, "Not only is he a young man in a big hurry, he's looking for jet streams that haven't been found yet.
"That may not be bad. GW is in the doldrums (8-19 last season) . . . Gerry's biggest problem is that he didn't understand how much of an underdog he is here. It took John Thompson a number of years to grow out of Lefty's shadow. It's going to take Gerry some time. Indiana was the only game in town. There's tremendous competition here.
"I like the Mr. Hyde who is Gerry Gimelstob," Shrinsky said. "I don't like the Dr. Jekyll he wants to be. He wants to be king of the hill. He can't be that in one day."
Impatience may also be his greatest virtue. Last spring he managed to persuade Brown to come to GW instead of Syracuse, just 15 days after Gimelstob was hired. "I was so worried about someone else coming in late, I got there at 6:30 a.m.," Gimelstob said. "I was sitting there waiting at 8 when his mother let me in the back door."
Brown says he decided on GW because Gimelstob "was honest with me."
Chuck Machok, an assistant coach at Ohio State, said, "He got Mike Brown because he went to his high school. He is consistently not going to outrecruit (bigger programs) to get that talented a youngster."
Gimelstob does say it helps that he and Brown both came from Newark.
"Gerry is a hard worker, a good teacher," said Auerbach. "I think the biggest problem he's going to have is with my alma mater itself . . . When they are blue-chip kids and they can't apply because they can't get in, that has got to reflect on his ability to coach. Without the horses you can't do it. I don't mean they got to take in dogs. They might lower it for one kid, but you gotta take in four or five."
Gimelstob recruited four players this year who are getting a lot of playing time. The most controversial player development involved Jon Turner, who missed last season because of an injured knee.
Before Gimelstob arrived, the athletic department had recommended not renewing Turner's scholarship. Gimelstob took the blame when he was quoted as saying Turner had a bad attitude. Turner protested. They agreed that his scholarship would be continued through this season and that he would be given a chance to make the team. He did.
Gimelstob is convinced he can recruit within the rules--the NCAA's and GW's--and within GW's recruiting budget (estimated about $20,000). As if on cue, a former prospect calls, wanting to know if he can transfer. Gimelstob asks if he has told his coach he is calling GW.
He hangs up and leans forward, his arms folded, looking just a bit like Bob Knight. "If we can just get one or two of the kids we're recruiting now, we'll be able to play with anybody in the country," he says. "They won't be able to keep us down."
It's Friday night in the big city and Gimelstob is going recruiting. "You wanna go?" he asks. The invitation is politely declined. "You mean normal people do other things on Friday night?" he says, smiling.
Anyway, he promised the kid he'd see every one of his games this season. "It's worth it," he says, "if we win."