Sondheimer: Fully vaccinated, group of retired coaches resume poker games

·4 min read

Red, blue and brown chips covered the dining room table. These weren’t potato chips. They were poker chips worth 5 cents, 10 cents and 25 cents for a “high roller” card game among a group of mostly retired high school coaches who have been gathering once a month for years.

This game deserved to be sponsored by Pfizer or Moderna, since it was the first one in 14 months after the participants had been vaccinated. COVID-19 forced them to hunker down at home. Now they were talking nonstop about memorable games of the past, debating top players and making wisecracks about anything and everything without needing to wear a mask. It was a glimpse of normalcy.

“It’s nice to be back,” said 76-year-old Al Bennett, a former basketball coach at Lake Balboa Birmingham and North Hollywood. “Everybody is healthy. That’s the main thing.”

“Hey, I’m still alive,” said 81-year-old Jim Woodard, a former Taft High basketball coach whose Woodland Hills house served as the gathering place for the resumption of monthly games.

In this monthly game, the host is responsible for supplying the food. Woodard had chips, soft drinks, candy and served lasagna bought from a supermarket and heated up in the oven. Others have had pizza, shrimp rolls or catered dinners. This game started at 5 p.m. and would last past 9. There was no tequila in sight, only Coke and Diet Coke.

Bennett had the funniest story in the opening hour, talking about the days when he was attending high school in the 1960s when teachers were allowed to swat students for bad behavior.

“I walked my girlfriend to class,” he said. “I was about 30 seconds late. And he says, ‘Come here, Bennett.’ He had this paddle with holes in it. And in those days we wore [athletic] supporters. There was nothing back there. I did everything I could to stop from crying.”

“I got swatted in high school so hard,” Woodard added.

“My girlfriend the next day, ‘How come you’re not going to walk me to class?’” Bennett said.

Rick Prizant, a former teacher at Birmingham who continues to serve as athletic director, was the big winner even though there were far better poker players around the table.

“Poker is a game of … some people say luck, some people say chance and some people say skill, where you play against other people and either try to think them out. That’s called bluffing. Or they’ll have the best hand.”

It’s also a game where people sit around a table and reminisce. Bennett once had future NBA players Gilbert Arenas and Jordan Farmar in his programs. Both left for other schools.

Woodard insisted the best player he ever coached was Kevin Franklin, who in 1987 led the state in scoring at 31.6 points per game.

Former Woodland Hills El Camino Real basketball standout Lewis Cohen, 64, who graduated in 1974 and was drafted in the 10th round by the Phoenix Suns in 1978, was the youngest participant.

Former Chatsworth soccer coach Richard Doran, 80, told the story of a phone call he received from a reporter seeking the name of a player who made an error that cost his team a playoff victory years ago.

“I said, ‘No, when these kids don’t do well, they don’t get their name in the paper,'” Doran said.

Bennett launched a debate about who was the best athlete in the history of the City Section.

“Marques Johnson.”

“Willie Davis.”

“Willie Crawford.”

Woodard’s memory is legendary. He used to win thousands of dollars in prizes appearing on game shows. Asked how he used that memory for coaching, Woodard said, “I can’t think of anything. I can remember trivia, history, literature, movies. I’m trying to figure out how that helped with coaching.”

The night ended with a winner-take-all game. Everyone put $3 in the pot. Prizant came away with $18.

“He was lucky,” said one of the participants.

No one offered a toast of soft drinks. They’ll be plotting their revenge later this month.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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