When I first started coaching high-school basketball, a well-known coach here in town gave me this advice: Just teach them the game; don’t get to know them. Be there for a couple hours each day, give them your best, then go home and forget about it until the next day.

I’ve always remembered that advice because it was probably the worst advice I’ve ever received. What a load of hoo-hah! These are people with whom you are dealing, people with hopes and dreams, silly quirks and interesting stories to tell. That’s why I got into coaching in the first place and it’s why I continue to coach long after my expiration date. 

But every now and then, getting to know your players as people has a downside. What would have elicited a shrug from the aforementioned advice-giving coach is instead a gut punch for someone who took the time to get to know his players. And those players aren’t supposed to die before you do, especially if they’re in their 30s.

Charron Campbell was a goofy kid with a crooked smile. She walked kinda hunched over, probably the result of having been taller than everybody else at an early age.

She and my daughter, Darlene, were in the same class at Amphi High. Their first year of basketball, Charron was the star of the freshman team. Darlene had been a member of the varsity volleyball team that went to state, so she got to basketball late and was afraid that she wouldn’t make the freshman team. She instead got put on the junior varsity team because she dove for a loose ball during tryouts. (Coaches LOVE that stuff!)

All three Amphi teams (varsity, JV and freshman) had crappy records that year. In fact, nobody at the school could remember when an Amphi girls’ basketball team had had a winning record. But there was just something about the kids in that freshman class. Coaches will tell you that at every school in every district in every city, there are classes that come along every now and then that are simply special. You can see them coming off in the distance, like a huge swell that will crash especially hard on the beach. Such was this class of girls, winning championships in cross country and track, going to state in volleyball and winning the school’s first (and still only) big-school Southern Arizona championship in basketball, clinching the title on the road as they ruined Salpointe’s Senior Night.

Those kids wanted it. As soon as their respective freshman-year seasons were over, they started working for the next year. At Amphi, school didn’t start until 9 a.m. on Thursdays. They’d show up at 7:30 a.m. to play ball for 75 minutes. During the summer, they’d show up from nine to noon, five days a week, in the Old Gym (with no air conditioning). Then they’d play summer league games at night. Charron and Darlene would room together when they’d go to tournaments in Prescott or Flagstaff.

By the end of their sophomore year, they were varsity players on a winning team. Their junior year, it all came together. I was coaching at Amphi at the time. It was one of my favorite teams of all time. We had four African-Americans (including Charron), three Latinas (including Darlene), two Anglos, a Pacific Islander and a Native American. I always said that our fast break looked like a fire drill at the United Nations. We spent the entire year in the Top 10 in the State and won the aforementioned conference championship. 

Charron was a vital part of that team—blocking shots, grabbing rebounds, running the floor. But, as soon as the game was over, she’d revert to mellow mode, shoulders stooped and shuffling along at half-speed. I told her that she walked like an old white man. She laughed and asked, “What old white man?”

I gave her the persona of Earl, a retired corn farmer from Iowa. She embraced the shtick, but also said that she was going to marry Tupac Shakur (who had already been killed by then). 

Serious injuries on the team prevented them from repeating as conference champs their senior year, but they still made it back to the state tournament. Charron played a year at Pima, but college really wasn’t her thing. We got to hang out a few years ago when Amphi got around to raising the championship banner.

Charron died last week, still in her 30s. She had been having health issues with her liver. Many of her former teammates are going to gather at Amphi on July 25 in her honor to play some ball and release some balloons. I’ll be there. I’ll probably play the Dixie Chicks song, “Goodbye, Earl.” 

Charron would have gotten a kick out of that. 

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