By Jack Hunger
The Good Sign Man,” or “Six Foot Seven Kevin?” If you know who I am talking about, you are most likely smiling right now, because you’ve had an experience something like this… you have been at a Tiger game, or maybe a downtown beer festival, or an outdoor concert, and been negotiating your way through the crowd, when suddenly, you noticed a handlebar-mustachioed head, bobbing above the masses, sporting an ear to ear smile. Above his head covered in a hat barely hiding a blonde mop of shoulder length hair,, this eccentric giant carries what first appears to be a yield sign. It’s a yellow diamond, which upon closer inspection, you discover reads, “This Is a Good Sign.”
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For some inexplicable reason, you find yourself drawn to this folly, and you voyuersticly veer a bit closer, to figure it out. You notice that this character is dressed in tights, cutoffs, and a cape. He sees you checking him out. He heads in your direction. “Oh shit,” you think to yourself!
But before you can negotiate an escape plan, he is on you like white on rice. Enthusiastically, he shakes your hand, and more than likely gives you a hug. He is huge, and his smile seems even larger. He thrusts a miniature, sticker version of the triangle he has been holding over his head into your hand. You are sure he is about to ask you for a dollar, just like those beggars who accost you and try to get you to buy bootleg CD’s, or little paper flags. But instead, he says. “I’m just trying to make the world a better place, one smile at a time.”
Unwittingly, you are instantly a member of The Good Sign movement, because you have met Kevin Lamb, The Good Sign Man…a.k.a. Six Foot Seven Kevin.
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I met him when he was 13. He was only six foot Kevin then. I was his grade school basketball coach.
I’ve been coaching kids ever since I was a kid. My first experience being my younger brother’s Little League team. I was 15. I didn’t have a clue. Sure, I knew about baseball. But I had yet to learn the value of being a “coach.” But, I knew that I liked it.
So years went by. I coached baseball, football, and basketball all through high school. By the end of my high school career, I earned a deal at a small school in Texas, to play basketball. While playing in college I also coached hoops down there at a program for troubled youth. I thought I was teaching those kids to be winners. My ambitions were honest, but, misguided. Still, that experience would serve to eventually make me realize that the title of ‘coach’ is a title that is earned. And while the focus of what we do is on the games that we coach, the true mission of a coach is the life lessons that we teach.
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My college career ended early, much earlier than I wanted it to, and I was pissed; so much so, that I vowed to never even watch basketball again. So, for some time, I didn’t. I loathed the game that I had loved, because I was too scared to keep loving it. Then a dear friend, one who understood my angst, asked me to help him coach an eighth grade team in ’93. He knew me and saw the therapeutic value, though I wasn’t smart enough to see that fact. The following year, his day job took him elsewhere, and I was back in the head basketball coaching biz again. I was older, smarter, and had a far better life perspective. I fell back in love with the game, because I had come to understand how powerful coaching could be. My first success story, thanks to the understanding of a dear friend, was my own. So, I developed a system. Not just a basketball system, but a learning system that used basketball as a tool. I based it on three words. Effort. Attitude. Enthusiasm. To me, understanding and utilizing those three concepts would promise you success. They wouldn’t necessarily get you what you wanted, but they would promise that you would find success.
And a few years after that, Kevin made my team.
He was a good hoopster and a natural athlete, although baseball was really his first sporting love. He sometimes took shortcuts in practice, which was an more exercise in his cleverness, than an accusation of laziness. He was always the type of kid that would mentally challenge everyone around him, including teachers and coaches. Come game time, though, he was always a focused competitor, always playing hard. What I noticed about 13 year old Kevin, was his sense of perspective. He hated to lose, hated to fail, but I was always impressed that such a young kid could take a failure and turn it into a positive. He’d laugh at his shortcomings, but still answer them with a solid effort to improve. His attitude, was always upbeat. He was a great locker room guy because his enthusiasm was infectious. He was a team leader, because everyone liked him, and because he was an example setter. The important words that were central to my learning system, seemed to be innately built into this 13 year old kid. He became the kid on that team that I went to when I needed to gauge who I needed to push, or who I needed to lay off of, because they needed space. He seemed to have his finger on the pulse of everyone. I would often find myself in conversations with him that seemed more adult to adult than adult to kid. I identified with Kevin as an old soul. He was the prototypical example when I would tell my kids that, “effort, attitude, and enthusiasm would bring you success…not necessarily what you think you want, but, success. I found myself tweaking my system, and using him to gauge the validity of a new tactic or phrase. He ‘got it’ and I appreciated that he did.
So, as I do with all of my kids that are former players, I bid them adieu at our last practice. I promised that I would be watching them. I explained that they were standing in a bucket called grade school, and that bucket was nearly filled. Their other foot, I said, was just about to step into another bucket, called high school. And they now had the power to fill that bucket with anything they chose, good or bad. It’s an analogy I always use at the end of a season. The speech ends the same, every year, as I vow to always answer their phone calls, always keep the door open for ‘my teammates,’ even if it is only to hear them say, “Coach, I need help. I really screwed up.” It is always very emotional for me. And it always inspires a few wet eyes. It is close. It is real. It is what it means to love your brother.
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It was Kevin, who nicknamed that talk, “The Foot in the Bucket Speech.” And subsequent to his grade school days, so long ago, as I have watched his body of life work unfold, I’ve realized that my three words, Effort, Attitude, and Enthusiasm, are not the complete picture. There is one more important thing that is critical to be on that list. And that is Love. Love for the sake of love. Love life. Love people. And striving to understand unconditional love.
I’ve watched Kevin work crowds on many occasions. I’ve seen the skeptical looks as approaches new ‘victims.’ I have seen, time after time, that skepticism melt into laughter, and smiles, and hugs, and high fives. He’ll crash a small group of say, eight friends standing in a concession line, and in two minutes, it becomes a group of nine friends. I’d like to selfishly claim that three words I teach to kids playing basketball was a part of Kevin’s magic. But I know what the magic really is in his mission. It is something he has shown me. And something that every life he touches as “The Good Sign Man” feels. Kevin genuinely, unconditionally loves everybody.
So, a decade and a half after ‘only Six Foot Kevin’, stepped through my gym door, as as he has walked through life and grown to ‘Six Foot Seven Kevin,’ I’ve watched him striving and growing into his success. He doesn’t pitch for the Yankees, or play power forward for the Celtics. He is not a CEO of a major corporation, or a lead singer in a stadium band. He is a guy, who lives by an example. He is subtly teaching and touching us all with that example. He is living by loving. He has taught this old schooler something. And that certainly is a good sign for me. I have former players who are making careers in professional sports, but Kevin might be the most successful guy that I have ever coached. That crazy guy walking through a crowd is more in touch with what is really important in life than anyone I’ve ever known.
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