Prep ball is sweet spot for Valentine
Veteran basketball coach happy to close out career at Columbia Christian
During a recent cold snap, Bart Valentine commented to his wife that it would be nice to be someplace warm. Say, Hawaii.
"I turned around and said to him: I thought at this point in our life that's what we would be doing," Becky Valentine recalls, laughing.
Truth is Valentine has found his winter escape in the gym at Columbia Christian High School. There, between Glisan and Burnside streets in Northeast Portland, Valentine's passion for coaching basketball has been rekindled.
It's been five seasons since Valentine stepped away from coaching at Warner Pacific College, where he built a program from scratch into a consistent NAIA Division II national tournament team. He had coached for 36 seasons, starting as an assistant at Molalla before building successful high school programs at Colton and West Linn and then coaching 12 seasons at Warner Pacific.
When he learned that Columbia Christian — a school with about 100 high school students — was looking for a new coach, the opportunity felt right.
"To be able to come to a Christian school to finish up is special," he says. He values the ability to pray with his team and to discuss his faith with the players.
Becky Valentine says her husband is loving his new gig.
"It reminds me of when he first started coaching. There's just an excitement," she says. "Not that he didn't have it throughout the years, but I think he likes the challenge of building and taking a team and seeing them grow."
Valentine did plan to change one thing this time around. Early in his coaching career, he developed a nervous habit of holding a role of athletic tape during games and tearing off pieces and sticking them to his chair when agitated.
"If the game is going poorly, there is definitely more tape on the chair," Valentine says.
In this season's opener, Valentine tried to go cold turkey. He did not take tape to the bench. That experiment lasted about three minutes.
This Columbia Christian team has lofty expectations. The Knights return the core from a team that finished second in the Class 1A tournament last season. The school grew just enough to move to 2A this season, where it is a member of the competitive Northwest League.
A year ago, the Knights had a first-time head coach, Vince Hicks. Columbia Christian athletic director Jason Housley says Hicks did a good job getting the team to the state final but wasn't the right fit for the long run.
Housley says his search for a basketball coach started in the spring and was still underway in the summer when Valentine's application arrived.
"I will admit my words were: 'This is a game-changer,'" Housley says. "I went to the administration and told them this is going to be something that will set us apart from many other schools."
Valentine has connections with families of several players in the Knights' programs through the Warner Pacific and basketball communities and says some of those friends encouraged him to apply for the job. The current Knights have the talent to have a big year, but this is a longer-term commitment.
Valentine plans to coach at Columbia Christian for at least five seasons — he notes that he'll be 69 in five years, the current age of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Housley says Valentine is just what he was looking for — a veteran coach to mentor younger coaches at the school in addition to helping student-athletes.
This season's Knights are doubly blessed with experienced coaches. Jim Flint, who coached Columbia Christian boys basketball to more than 350 wins in 18 seasons, including a 2010 1A championship (and whose name is on the Columbia Christian basketball floor), called Valentine and asked to be involved as an assistant coach.
"He was kind enough to say yes," Flint says. "I like the school. I wanted to be around Bart. Bart's a great human being, and he can coach a little bit."
Players on a senior-laden roster noticed the attention to detail from the first day of practice.
"We had to run lines, and we weren't touching the line so we had to keep running them," senior guard Hunter Endresen says. "We eventually got the details down and started touching the lines."
Columbia Christian is off to a strong start. The Knights were 7-1 entering the week, and Valentine believes they can challenge for the title in a league that includes top-rated Life Christian and No. 6 Knappa. Columbia Christian's lone loss entering this week was by three points to Life Christian in a nonleague game the Knights led by five in the fourth quarter.
Valentine says the daily interaction with students was what he most missed when he retired.
"The primary focus is to help young men grow as people," he says.
Sure, Columbia Christian has its differences from coaching college athletes — or at a large high school like West Linn. The budget, supplies and facilities are smaller.
But the game is the same.
"The same fundamentals win games at every level," Valentine says. "If your team is using sound fundamentals and playing solid defense, your team is going to win games."
So he puts his Knights through daily drills on the proper defensive stance, and constantly reviews proper defensive rotation.
"It's not super fun, but we need to do it to get better. I'm definitely getting better," senior Levi Dalzell says. "After the first week of practice, I felt like I was getting better."
Guard Robert Wagner, who transferred to Columbia Christian from Benson before Valentine was named coach, says the focus on defensive fundamentals has taught him to better close out on opponents. And when the execution is sloppy, Valentine "will let us know. He'll go over it again and again until it's perfect, or almost there."
Valentine calls Columbia Christian a perfect fit for a 64-year-old with plenty of teaching left in him. Becky Valentine agrees.
"He loves it. He has a passion for it," she says. "It doesn't matter what level he's coaching at, he's meant to coach. And it's been good for him."