Basketball and all that jazz
Catching up with legendary former U of W coach Bruce Enns
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/08/2020 (948 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Bruce Enns, the man who laid the foundation for the men’s basketball program at the University of Winnipeg, is more than three decades removed from coaching in his hometown but he can still draw a crowd.
In 2017 and 2018, large groups of former Wesmen players and coaches congregated for the chance to catch to up with their old boss on visits to Manitoba.
The gatherings were cross-generational, representative of the teams he guided from 1973-74 until his departure for the men’s basketball job at the University of British Columbia in 1985.
Current U of W athletic director Dave Crook, who served on Enns’ staff for four years in the early ’80s, says his old mentor was special in many ways.
Intense, competitive and outspoken, Enns had an uncommon ability to raise the level of those around him.
“He was never the kind of coach that pals around with his players — he wasn’t that kind of guy, right?” says Crook. “But you were totally comfortable with him and he made the environment totally comfortable. With me, he was really inspiring.
“I was there as a manager (for one year before becoming an assistant coach) and he just trusted me to do so many things. He gave me so many opportunities, and it was the same with the players.”
In an era when sports were rife with hazing, those rituals didn’t exist on Enns’ teams. Instead, rookies were required to make speeches on hand-picked topics and it seemed to encourage a sense of camaraderie. Enns was shrewd with the media and a pithy post-game interview.
“He wasn’t your typical sort of rah-rah jock guy, that wasn’t who he was,” says Crook. “He was a thinker and an innovator in many ways about basketball, especially. I think he brought that out of people and it was one of the things he did really well. He always used to talk about basketball as jazz.
“It wasn’t classical music where you had to play by the rules or it wasn’t rock and roll, which was wild. It was jazz, which was open and creative. It had patterns and things you had to do but at the same time it allowed players to express themselves.”
At 76 and retired from UBC since 2000, Enns, who has been inducted into both the Manitoba and B.C. basketball halls of fame, lives with his wife Edie in Bremerton, Wash., where he still helps coaches as a consultant.
While his love of the game hasn’t diminished, the physical challenges of aging have ratcheted up considerably.
Several years after leaving UBC, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the nervous system that primarily affects motor skills.
We caught up with the four-time national university coach of the year recently on the telephone:
Mike Sawatzky: How is your health?
Bruce Enns: My health is a combination of things, I’m fortunate. I have Parkinson’s and I’ve had it for 10 years or so. It’s a strange disease but I consider myself to be so lucky.
Mike: How did it present itself?
Bruce: I knew strange things were happening but one day I was in Germany coaching the national wheelchair team and… one of the guys with spina bifida wanted to have a race to see who was fastest. Went to the baseline, took off and got to centre (court) and we were about even and I thought, ‘OK, turn it on’ and I fell on my face and laughed. Everybody was worried but I thought, ‘Make a joke of it.’ I went home and decided later on that I was 65, I’d better go get tested. So I went to see the doctor and he gave me some exercises to do and he said, ‘Oh, you have Parkinson’s.’ I said, ‘Sounds good, it’s better than not knowing.’ I felt relief that I knew what it was.
Mike: It still must have come as a shock.
Bruce: Yeah, shocked but as I said, I knew I had problems. The problems I have more than anything else are a lack of balance and my communication skills, as you can probably tell, are shaky. I can still write. I used to draw a lot, but my hand-eye co-ordination has sort of gone out of the window.
Mike: Are you doing any coaching now?
Bruce: I’m working with individual kids right now and talking to them a little bit about their games. There are coaches all over the world I have contact with and, you know me, I’ve got some strong opinions.
Mike Sawatzky: Do you travel much?
Bruce Enns: Not much. About three years ago I decided driving was not really safe. My wife works and takes me wherever I need to go.
Mike: What prompted the move to the U.S.?
Bruce: I got remarried to a lady I knew back in Winnipeg and she lived down here (in Bremerton), so that’s where I moved. That was about 15 years ago.
Mike: You left UBC in 2000. How much do you miss coaching there?
Bruce: I miss the people. It’s the same story everywhere. I have a lot of friends in Winnipeg — probably more than any place in the world — and you miss the people. The same thing with coaching; you miss the daily interaction with players, the ability to help them learn to play the game. That’s been a bit of a struggle but, fortunately, a lot of the guys from UBC have come to visit.
Mike Sawatzky: What prompted the decision to retire from UBC?
Bruce: There were some differences of vision with my bosses as to the future of the program.
Mike: Did you consider coaching somewhere else?
Bruce Enns: I did. I coached in (Ennis) Ireland, Austria and Germany and in 2005 I started coaching wheelchair basketball…. I started in Europe in 2001 and finished in about 2014.
Mike: What about now?
Bruce: Where I live now I’ve been helping out with high school teams. I got out on the court until three years ago, which was my 60th year of coaching.
Mike: As I recall, you started coaching when you were attending (Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute).
Bruce: I was 14.
Mike: Perrie Scarlett was a particularly good player for you in Winnipeg and at UBC, right?
Bruce: Perrie is really kinda special in my mind. I don’t think anybody better represents what I believe is that the name on the back of the uniform doesn’t matter too much. Perrie had a way of making everyone else better. He would come to the bench and say, ‘Bruce, give me such and such off the bench’ and I would say, ‘Who do you want me to take out?’ It just might be his best friend but most of the time he was right. I’d take his advice because I knew that he knew that he would take it, understand it and go with it.
Mike: Do you think you’ll be back in Winnipeg?
Bruce: I’d love to see Devon Daley, who just retired. He was my first-ever recruit and I still talk to his mother. I phone her a couple of times a year; she’s a wonderful lady. And Wade Bilodeau, one you might not expect to be good friends with me; we’ve become quite close. One guy we haven’t talked about is (former Wesmen women’s coach) Vic Pruden.
Mike: What made him so special?
Bruce: Well, where do I start? Vic knows what he knows and he can stand up to any kind of criticism and he does not suffer fools greatly. He understands the game from his perspective and he was open to anyone interested to learn, and I was. Everything I know about basketball basically comes from Vic and he’s still a good friend.
Mike Sawatzky: What are your favourite memories of people like Ken Opalko, Dave Crook and Gord Tucker?
Bruce Enns: Ken Opalko — great, great shooter and scorer — any distance. Kenny passed up on the chance to play at the University of Tennessee to play for the Wesmen. I was later likely as happy as he was when he followed me at MBCI. He loved the school and the kids and really grew up as a man while there. Very high on my list of friends. Dave Crook started as a walk-on manager, became a trusted assistant and friend, then a respected coach at three Canadian universities and a Canadian national junior men’s team and now the athletic director at his old school, the U of W. Gord Tucker (was) a truly humble, terrifically talented and skilled player and teammate who I believe could play at any level, and at any position, but only for me because I would never even consider trading him. One of my great disappointments is having lost contact with him since ’85.
Mike: Did you have a favourite game with the Wesmen?
Bruce: Though I have but a “selective memory” regarding games, one that comes to mind was the final game in an Edmonton tournament where we surprised a lot of people, especially the powerhouse Saskatchewan Huskies and the great Byron Tokarchuk, when Perrie Scarlett convinced me to play a 1-1-3 zone defence — I didn’t believe in playing zone — and because of the brilliance of our five starters: Scarlett (and) three guys from Dave Guss’s Westwood team, Willy Parker, Mark Johanson and the aforementioned Tucker, and either Art Koop or Blaine Acton, we walked off with a trophy.
Mike: Which opposing coach was the toughest to match wits with?
Bruce: Perhaps it was my ignorance, but I never felt that your so-called “wits” of one coach or another very often determined the outcome of many games. I felt, and still do, that the best coaching is done before games, as you teach and prepare players for competition. I still believe, in the words of Vic Pruden, that “tricky players win games more than tricky plays.” However, one coach who I feel often got the better of us was Jerry Hemmings from Brandon. Without a doubt, Jerry usually had great players, too, and he always had them ready to play well. It seems that every year we would pull out a win on Friday night, only to lose on Saturday or vice versa. I think it was in (’87), my second year at UBC, we had a great win against the Bobcats in the final of the U of Manitoba tourney. But wouldn’t you know it in the national final later in the year in Halifax, Jerry and his team beat us to win his first Canadian championship. Hats off to Jerry.
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.