Four decades of basketball players and coaches reunited to celebrate Cliff Hamlow, the man who started it all.
In 1954, Cliff Hamlow was a junior at Pacific Bible College (before it became Azusa Pacific University). That was the year in which he became PBC’s head basketball coach. Flash forward nearly seven decades, those coached by and those who coached with Hamlow from ’54 to ’88, met for the basketball alumni reunion on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 3-4.
Following Friday’s more private gathering, basketball alumni awoke on a sunny Saturday morning to tour their school. For two hours, the men walked sentimentality down Cougar Walk. They looked into the Cougar Dome, wondering where their gym went.
The Cougar Dome was the gym that held their memories. The teammates shared these past reflections during lunch where there were several speakers.
Many came out for lunch in the Upper Turner Campus Center. The crowd included Hamlow and his family, Hamlow’s athletes and several renowned APU coaches from the past and present. APU’s athletic director, Gary Pine, set the humorous tone for the day when he recounted having to call ex-wives in order to get in touch with alumni members. In fruition of his effort, speakers from across decades were able to tell the story of APU basketball.
Basketball player Bill Jung ’56 spoke first. Jung and Hamlow arrived on West Campus at PBC for the first time, at the same time. It was actually the choir that attracted Jung and Hamlow to the school.
“At the time, I will say, I don’t think there was one person who came onto Pacific Bible College’s campus to be a part of the athletic program,” said Jung.
Before Hamlow was asked by PBC president Cornelius P. Haggard in 1956 to develop an athletics program, PBC only had three sports: basketball was one of them. Jung reflected on building a team without having a gym, and recruiting with no athletic scholarships available. Beginning humbly, during one of Jung’s seasons they won only two games — one being a win by forfeit.
However, as the years progressed, the team went from having no jump shooters and fewer dribble skills to being known for their run-and-gun, offensively aggressive style.
Chuck Boswell ’69, was a freshman when PBC merged with rival LA Pacific. Members of the two teams hated each other. This made things awkward for Boswell in finding his place on the team, and the season proved difficult.
Experiencing this alongside him was Dennis Dickens ’69. He recalled a time when he and a teammate were flirting with a waitress at a coffee shop across from Azusa Pacific. When Dickens told the young lady they played basketball at the school down the road, she didn’t know what Azusa Pacific was, having thought the campus was the maintenance yard for Citrus College. This made Dickens wonder if he had made a terrible decision in choosing his school.
However, Coach Hamlow brought Azusa Pacific together, and the representatives of the ‘69 team wouldn’t change a thing. The team eventually went from a state of division to a family who bought pet alligators and sang (rather offkey) in churches together.
Because of this, Chuck Boswell was able to give a profound statement: “You [Hamlow] have a lot of awards and are recognized nationally as one of the top coaches ever — he’s that great. But your greatest rewards are here. Your greatest reward is that someday you’ll stand in heaven and you’ll see players you touched and brought to the Lord, and they became, through faith, a different person,” Boswell said.
Moving into the last decade of Hamlow’s head coaching career at APU (though he still coaches at the high school level), Gary Johnson ’80 spoke about God’s providence in bringing him to APU. He said that this included the miracle of passing Spanish class, a subject June Hamlow, Cliff’s wife, taught.
Dave Dangleis ’89 added more light-hearted memories to the conversation. However, he also touched on life’s serious events, discussing the moment his teammates and coaches watched the Challenger Shuttle explode right before they were about to watch game footage. In this moment, they prayed and led devotionals, remembering what was most important.
Hamlow was always there for his athletes during life’s highs and lows. When John Heckert ’89 joined APU’s baseball team, Hamlow told him he looked like a baseball player, but then proceeded to recruit him successfully over to the basketball team. Hamlow went on to officiate Heckert’s wedding. Then, when his son went through an illness, Hamlow was there along with other basketball coaches to baptize him.
After these touching dedications, Cliff Hamlow went up to speak. Before he said a word, he received a standard ovation. Immediately upon speaking, it was obvious that he was the same firm, loving, visionary man that each player had described.
Hamlow began by saying, “How’d I get into coaching? I got into coaching because I wasn’t much of a player.” It was his high school coach who invested in his coaching abilities, but he never realized how far this would take him.
In the same year he became head basketball coach, Hamlow said God spoke to him during chapel, and in return, Hamlow promised he would go anywhere to serve Him. He did not want to go abroad, but he would if that is what God and his youth ministry would require. Little did he know that he would work at APU for sixty years, holding ten major roles for the university. Hamlow said that he still believes in the mission of this place, and asked the players to continue to invest in APU basketball.
Following the speeches, players looked through memorabilia before witnessing APU men’s basketball win against Dominican 93-92. While watching from the VIP room, men crossed generations, befriending those who shared the bond of Hamlow. Many of these men met their wives at Azusa Pacific, so several of the wives connected, laughing at the early stages of their crushes on the basketball players.
After the men took a picture with Hamlow on the court at halftime, they got ready to share more stories at open mic.
Fred Vantatenhove, 1950s basketball and baseball player, summed up the theme of the evening when he talked about his lifelong friendship with Hamlow. Vantatenhove was from a small dairy farm in Wisconsin when he came out to California. He never intended to come to Pacific Bible College, but when he got lost on the freeways and stopped to watch a baseball game, he heard of the school from a spectator. The rest was history.
While each player expressed their gratitude for Hamlow, they didn’t shy away from infamous moments too, like letting birds into the hotel room or the times Hamlow hilariously gave them only quarters for breakfast.
Going along with this theme, Rick Jackson ’86 reflected on his team’s winning intramural softball season. It came at a time when they weren’t doing so hot in basketball. They gave it their all, but by the last week, they gave up.
In order to defend their intramural softball team title, the boys had to find a way out of basketball practice early. “We could flat out play softball. Hamlow kicked us out after we were complaining we were just so tired and then we sprinted out to the field,” Jackson said.
Hamlow somehow found out what they were up to. From second base, Jackson witnessed Hamlow hustling towards them. He never yelled or swore, but from a distance, Jackson could see Hamlow’s face turning blue with a bulging vein.
Interrupting the game, Hamlow told the boys they would lose their scholarships if they weren’t back in thirty seconds. While they may have relented on the courts, nothing could break their determination on the diamond. A player hit a single and Jackson ran to home, then to his home in Trinity.
“You can’t replicate Azusa Pacific,” Gary Pine said. Witnessing this event, it feels that even in its founding days God’s eyes were on Azusa Pacific athletics. This isn’t just evidenced in the talent that APU has been touched by, but mostly in its ongoing mission to have coaches that role model what it means to be a follower of Christ. Every coach has accepted this vision, and they have all stood on the shoulders of Hamlow.
The event’s Master of Speakers, Ed Munson, said “I wrote about my father after he passed away. He believed that by listening you can learn a lot; by saying little doesn’t mean you haven’t said enough. I think these teachings can be applied to Hamlow.”
With Hamlow’s willingness to always be a listening shoulder and to love unconditionally, perhaps he was the epitome of our school’s mission of molding godly men and women who go on to serve in every corner of the world.