Scott Lang was 41 years old when he died last month. He was not married. He had no children. He spent almost all of his adult life as the basketball coach at La Roche College, a tiny Division III school in the north hills just above Pittsburgh. He had an apartment and eventually a house but he might as well have lived in his office at the Kerr Fitness and Sports Center, the one he kept tidy with each picture perfectly lined on the wall and every file in order on his desk.
Because it was in this office and the gym just outside where he was happiest; where he could be found until well after midnight watching tapes of opposing teams, washing uniforms and endlessly searching for the perfect drills to use in the following day’s practice.
Some men are lucky like this. They discover what they love and they never leave. La Roche is not the kind of place a young basketball coach aspires to stay. Lang had offers to become a Division I assistant, to move himself toward the bright lights and the big games on television with student bands booming and announcers screaming. There were chances to be known, to make real money to maybe someday be a star.
And on a few of those occasions he allowed himself to live the dream, feeling the lure. Yet he always said no. He had the only job he would ever want.
“I’d rather be a big fish in a small pond,” he told his brother Mike. “I can do more here. I can make a bigger impact on people’s lives.”
Then when Scott Lang died on Dec. 10 he did it doing the thing he loved most: coaching basketball. He stood courtside at the Kerr Fitness and Sports Center that day, instructing the Redhawks forwards and centers when suddenly he gasped for breath. He asked for water, stumbled for a few steps, then fell to the floor. An ambulance came fast. Paramedics whisked him to the UPMC Passavant hospital, which is so close to La Roche you can see its buildings from outside the gym. But it was too late.
He was already gone.
Later that night after the La Roche players heard their coach died, they did an unusual thing. They returned to the gym. Some sat quietly on the bleachers. Others walked in aimless circles around the court on which he died. They were stunned. Most said nothing. But then into that silence came the dribbling of basketballs, the squeak of shoes and the empty clunk of shots hitting rims. And one-by-one, the La Roche players came onto the floor, picked up balls and began to shoot baskets through the senseless night.
Midnight arrived, then one, then two … and still the sounds of basketball filled the gym wafting over the foldout bleachers, across the elevated track and through the corridors to the little office that weeks later would still bear Scott Lang’s name.
“It’s exactly what Coach would have done,” senior Laronn Mann says. “For us basketball is a sport but it’s also an outlet; it’s how we get over things.”
And there is this too:
In the six weeks since Lang died La Roche can’t lose, winning all nine of its games, two in overtime. The most recent victory came last Saturday when it beat Hilbert on the afternoon the school held a ceremony to name the court for him. The Redhawks are 16-1 and in first place in the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference. This week they received votes in the Division III top 25 poll for the first time ever. It is easily the best season in the program’s history.
Suddenly there is talk about the NCAA’s Division III tournament, about going all the places that Lang spent all those nights and all those hours dreaming of someday being able to take La Roche. Anything seems possible. And it is all very much still him.
The players say they are sure Lang is watching. He wouldn’t miss a year like this. The four men who have taken over the coaching all have other obligations; they have families and full-time jobs. They can’t dedicate half a day let alone an entire life to La Roche. They say the players are winning themselves, that the lessons from Lang were so deep that the team has simply absorbed them.
“The foundation he built the team on is here,” says Hermie Carmichael, one of the assistants, sitting at a small conference table outside of Lang’s office. “All we are doing is laying some blocks and putting the framework up. We’re just adding to it.”
Another assistant, Andy Bott, nods.
“It’s all the players,” he says.
Seeming to understand this, the players push on without emotion. “His legacy,” senior guard Nate Wojciechowski says. There are few tears. There are never any speeches about what Coach Lang would have wanted them to do. It is an oddly stoic pursuit they have and yet a beautiful one.
“We’re not doing it for him, we’re doing it with him,” one player shouted before the first game after Lang’s death.
It was the last thing the assistant coaches heard the players say about Lang.
“We’ve had so many people, including his family, come up and tell us that’s exactly the way he wanted it,” says Carmichael, who once played at La Roche for Lang. “He wouldn’t want anyone talking about his death. He wouldn’t want us sitting around moping. That’s what he instilled in all of us.”
Scott Lang would have hated the memorial service they held for him four days after his death. He would have hated the fact 1,000 people filled the Kerr Fitness and Sports Center to talk about him. He would have hated the bench set up along the side of the court on which each of his players sat in a chair, the last one -- the coach’s seat -- empty with a spotlight shining down. He would have hated the giant picture of him resting on an easel. He would have hated that this was about him. He would have hated the attention.
And most of all he would have hated that they put chairs on the middle of his court.
The court was sacred. He cherished it so much that sometimes visitors to practice still pull off their shoes as if walking into an ancient temple as not to sully the floor with their outside dirt. Once Dick Cheney came to speak at La Roche and since the gym was the only logical place to hold an event that large, a tarp was laid down, chairs were lined up. And Lang cringed at the thought of what would happen to his beautiful floor.
“He kept saying ‘do they really have to put those chairs on the court?'” Mike Lang says.
But this was Scott, forever a coach, forever the caretaker of La Roche basketball. Nothing else mattered. LaRoche and basketball. That was it. His whole life was lived in a tiny radius surrounding the school. This is where his mother and stepfather stayed. It’s where his brother Mike manages a TGI Friday’s in the shadow of the La Roche campus. He played his high school basketball in nearby Mars Township, went to nearby Butler Community College, then played point guard at Clarion College about 100 miles away. Upon graduation, he was hired as an assistant at La Roche by then head coach Matthew Driscoll. When Driscoll left for a job at Wyoming, Lang became the head coach. Lang was 27 and one of the youngest coaches in college basketball.
Those who know him say Lang always seemed so much older than his age. He had a plan, an idea of exactly what he wanted. He wasn’t impulsive the way many young men can be. There was an order to everything. Players were not allowed on the practice court unless their shoes were already tied, their jerseys tucked in their pants and drawstrings pushed into their shorts. When the team stopped at McDonald’s on the road, everybody left the bus in single file with headphones off. After they ate the players had to push in their chairs, go to the restaurant’s manager and thank him for taking care of the group. Only then could they leave.
He spent hours searching for the ideal flow in which each practice drill would move seamlessly into the next as if practice drills could do such a thing. Then after creating that perfect routine he tested it on the court in the minutes before practice, lining up coaches and moving chairs to see if it worked as precisely as he imagined in his mind.
It’s not like Lang went without a social life. He had one indeed. But basketball kept getting in the way. He loved the Pittsburgh Pirates and in the summer -- when things were lighter and easier -- he’d watch their games, just as he’d drag DVDs of old Clint Eastwood movies to his office. He had girlfriends and some of those relationships grew serious. Several times Mike got excited thinking Scott finally found the perfect woman and that soon there would be nieces and nephews. But then came Oct. 15, the first day of basketball practice and Scott was gone again, back into the office, back to the game films. The women drifted away.
Scott’s relationships never ended badly. His old girlfriends still liked him; it was impossible not to. “I really don’t think Scott had an enemy in the world,” says Kay McCourt, the La Roche athletic department secretary.
But ultimately he picked La Roche basketball over love. As if it would be any other way.
He picked La Roche basketball over everything.
He had chances to leave, to move up. Someone remembers Cleveland State needing an assistant coach and asking Mike if he wanted to come. Mike recalls a Division II school in Ohio begging Scott to be its head coach. The athletic director called as Scott was driving back to Pittsburgh to increase the offer. Still by the time Scott pulled into the La Roche parking lot he knew he was staying. He called the Ohio school and said no. The closest Scott came to leaving was less than two years ago when Driscoll took the job as head coach at Division I North Florida. He and Driscoll always dreamed of working together again, Mike says. And if Scott was ever going to leave La Roche he would do it for Driscoll.
Yet again he stayed.
That closed a path in Lang’s mind, his brother says. If he wasn’t going to work for Driscoll there was no way he would ever leave La Roche. Not long after, Scott bought a yellow, brick house less than a mile from campus. And like everything else in his life, he was meticulous about its care, methodically mowing the ample lawn in straight criss-crosses as if it was an outfield at a major league baseball stadium; stopping at the end of each section to make sure it was aligned just right.
It would have been his new obsession, at least until fall when basketball would start and nothing else would matter.
The cruel irony of Lang’s death is that it came the season he had his best team. He spent years sitting in his office inventing ways to pull everything he could from his players -- to make magic from teams that were good but not great. He drove his black 1998 Honda CRV, the one he couldn’t bear to part with, all over Pennsylvania and Maryland and Ohio and West Virginia, scouring high schools and camps looking for players he might lure to La Roche. Either he never found enough or he couldn’t make them as brilliant has he hoped.
His teams usually won more than they lost, but they never finished first in the AMCC. Usually they were somewhere in the middle. The one time the Redhawks won a conference tournament they went 14-14 in the regular season. That was in 2004.
But this group was different. And Lang knew it. As summer turned to autumn he dropped hints to his assistant coaches. He told his players they had a chance to be great. When he set goals with the captains, he didn’t just stop at a conference championship, he wanted them to think about a national title.
“It was really coming together,” Bott says of the team. I think he saw a situation where we are now. It was coming along and he was able to bring it together.”
So much so that in those last few weeks he did something he was loathe to do and imagined victories for games yet to be played. Lang hated looking ahead. This was one of his firmest rules: take every game one at a time. Each team on the schedule, no matter how weak, was nonetheless a challenge and could not be overlooked. He chided players who dared to look ahead.
Then in the final months of his life this is exactly what he did.
Alone a few times with his assistants he pictured a row of victories. He could see 16-1. He could see first place. He could see a conference title even when he knew he wasn’t supposed to look.
Standing at the edge of the court after a recent practice, Mann looks sadly at the floor, then shakes his head.
“(I’m) glad we are winning so many games,” he says “But at the end, on senior night, he’s not going to be there. If we do win a championship it’s going to be the greatest feeling and the worst feeling at the same time. For me to hold that trophy and not have him there it’s going to hurt a lot.”
Looking back, there was probably something wrong with Lang’s heart. Two years ago he had a series of spells in which his heart suddenly pounded excessively fast. A couple of times it caused him to pass out. His brother says the doctors thought he had ventricular tachycardia, which can be a potentially serious acceleration of his heart rate. They installed a monitor in hopes of recreating the condition but it never happened again.
On the night before he died, Scott Lang was busy, as usual. Dave Niland, the coach of rival Penn State-Behrend, emailed with Lang several times over small details about their game in two days. A mutual friend of theirs later told Niland he emailed Lang at midnight only to find the coach still doing laundry.
Earlier in the evening Scott drove to see his brother at Friday’s. Mike was about to leave, he had been there 13 hours and he was tired. But something told him to stay, to talk to his brother. He pulled off his coat. They sat at the bar.
That afternoon Scott had been angry at his players. They weren’t patient, they weren’t listening. It was as if they didn’t understand the greatness he saw sprawled before them. He kicked them out of practice and told them to come back after dinner in hopes a later session would perhaps be better.
“I wonder if I’m doing the right thing,” Scott said to his brother.
Then they talked about dreams, about all the others they knew who left this area in search of the bright lights that neither of them wanted to pursue. Just before Scott left he smiled and said: “Remember Mike, they might be wealthy but we are rich.”
Then he was gone.
So many times Mike Lang has run that next day through his mind: the call from Hermie Carmichael saying that Scott collapsed; the race to the hospital and those horrible 40 minutes as doctors did everything to revive Scott’s heart. He can still see the doctor who didn’t even know Scott, turning away with tears rolling down his face.
And he thinks too about what they later told him at the school, about what happened when Scott fell to the floor.
He was lying at center court on the La Roche College Redhawks logo.
“I’m sure he died there,” Mike Lang says.
That was fitting. For so long it was where he lived.