The best basketball player I’ve ever seen is someone not named Michael or Magic. His name is Dana Coggins, and he never played college ball or the NBA even though he easily would have done well in either venue.
I had the pleasure of being on the same grade-school team with him when he was a year my senior. I barely played then. The only time I was on the same court with him, Coggins implored me to shoot the ball after I grabbed an offensive rebound. With his encouragement, I scored my first career two points and my only basket of the season.
Coggins went on to Detroit St. Martin DePorres High School, where he was a freshman starter on the varsity team. He quickly became the stuff hoop legends are made of — he could shoot, dribble and pass effortlessly.
It was oft-told around the Motor City during Coggins’ heydays of the early 1970s that his passing skills were such that he could drop a dime and get five dollars’ change in return. If you stopped him from driving to the basket, he simply killed you with his jump shot. If you stopped him from shooting, he drilled you with his pinpoint passing.
Coggins left DePorres during his junior year after being kicked off the team by the coach for an infraction. He transferred to another school but never played there. Instead, Dana Coggins became a dropout.
His former coach, Ed Rachel, once told me that of all the players he’d ever coached, there were only three he would ever pay to see play. Coggins was one of them.
The last time I ever saw Coggins was in 1979 during my first and only season as a varsity assistant coach at my old high school, DePorres. The young man, now deep in his off-the-court lifestyle that involved drugs, stopped by practice and asked Rachel if he could “run with the boys” during a scrimmage.
The coach consented. After he took off his shirt, Coggins — who still knew the plays — proceeded to score about 30 points in about 20 minutes, looking like he’d never left.
Coach Rachel finally stopped the practice and asked Coggins to leave — it was embarrassing that someone so clearly out of shape was beating his supposedly-in-shape younger players. “Oh, Coach, just let me play some more,” pleaded Coggins unsuccessfully before putting his shirt back on and “tripping” out the door.
I’ve seen other greats: Wilt Chamberlain, who is the best NBA player I’ve ever seen; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had the most prolific shot, the sky hook, in basketball. Dave Bing, now mayor of Detroit, was the best NBA guard I’ve ever seen in person, along with Walt Frazier and Earl “The Pearl” Monroe. Earvin “Magic” Johnson could play with four nuns and win championships.
The best college team I’ve ever seen was the 1976 unbeaten Indiana squad. The 1988-89 Detroit Pistons was the best pro team ever.
A high school teammate called me late in the 1980s and said that Coggins, who had changed his life for the better, had died a victim of a traffic accident, hit by a car that ran a red light while he crossed a street in Detroit. He was around 30 years old at the time.
To this day, whenever anyone asks, I tell them Dana Coggins is the best player I’ve ever seen.
That same teammate called me last Friday and said that our coach, Ed Rachel, had died of natural causes at his home the day before at age 75 after battling several health concerns, including dementia.
Rachel was a high school legend among Michigan high school coaches. He gave me my first high school coaching job in 1978, and his first advice was to write everything down in a notebook, upon which Rachel gave me one.
He gladly served as my mentor over the years, and that notebook grew several volumes long as I tried to soak up as much knowledge I could from a man who began his coaching career in 1954 just out of high school at a grade school in Detroit.
As DePorres head coach (1970-1992), he amassed a 413-131 win-loss record, four state titles, three Catholic League titles, 16 district titles, 10 regionals, seven state semifinals appearances and a city title. He later coached at another school for five seasons, and then served as an assistant at five others.
Before being honored by his former players (including this Twin Cities columnist) during my 30th-year class reunion in Detroit, Rachel said during a November 2003 interview, “I really loved my kids. I hope I had some influence on a lot of them.”
I wrote back then that I’ve not yet met anyone who knows more basketball than Rachel. That makes him the best-ever coach I’ve ever known or seen.
Mr. Rachel, rest in peace.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.