Remembering Coach Gilbert
Passing of a legend
By Brian Gomez
Bob Gilbert would have liked it more than a dozen doughnuts. Coaches, former players, friends and family packed the stands at Sammy Duane Gymnasium on Monday for a memorial service honoring the former Corona del Sol High School boys basketball assistant coach, who died Aug. 1 of complications from pancreatic cancer.
It was an evening filled with memories, many of them as sweet and delicious as the trademark treats he carried with him to almost every occasion. There was a lot more to remember.
Corona baseball coach Ron Davini revealed the unforgettable time that Gilbert brought a bottle of champagne on campus, hoping to pop it after the Chicago Cubs won the pennant and after he earned his teaching certificate.
Former Corona center Andy McClelland told stories of the 1993-94 state championship team, which dedicated its playoff run to the ailing Gilbert.
And Sammy Duane Sr. eased watery eyes and weeping hearts by recalling the Saturday morning practices when Gilbert would bring doughnuts for the freshmen, much to the chagrin of varsity players who went hungry.
“He could make everything right with everybody,” Duane said from his courtside seat at the ceremony. “He was the kind of person that everybody could open up to, and after you talked to him, you felt better.”
Gilbert, 82, worked at Corona from 1983-96, leaving after Duane retired. He was an assistant on the 1989 and ’94 state championship teams, and was in the dugout with Davini in ’93 when the Corona baseball team captured its lone state title.
Known most for his knack of helping players turn negatives into positives, Gilbert, a retired principal from the Chicago area who served in the Navy during World War II, was never short on words of advice that could be used both on and off the court.
“He had the most uncanny ability to be there at the right time when you needed him,” Corona Principal Jim Denton said. “He was the kind of guy who was always positive. I never heard a negative thing come out of his mouth.”
Said Corona Athletic Director Dan Nero:
“Sam had a lot of assistants that were great coaches, but as far as someone who could give him good guidance, that’s what Bob Gilbert was all about.”
In failing health, Gilbert addressed Corona’s boys basketball team last spring before the Class 5A state tournament and attended a summer league game at McClintock High School.
Corona boys basketball coach Sam Duane Jr. said most players didn’t know of Gilbert’s legacy because Gilbert came before their time, but they understood the meaning behind his inspiring words.
“His name could be on that wall,” said Duane, claiming that Gilbert impacted Corona’s basketball program as much as his father. “He was a huge part of the success here.”
The Corona days
McClelland remembers watching Gilbert receive the 1993-94 state championship trophy at America West Arena after Corona downed Phoenix Carl Hayden 84-60 to capture its fourth crown under Duane.
However, his most vivid memory of the late coach came earlier that season, when he was bawling in the locker room, having played poorly against Marcos de Niza, his former school. Gilbert was quick to console McClelland after the loss.
“I know I walked out of the locker room with a smile on my face,” McClelland said. “From that point on, I knew he was a special individual.”
Gilbert, who once supervised study hall at Corona, figured a bottle of champagne would be an appropriate way to celebrate if the Cubs made it to the World Series and if he received the teaching certificate that had eluded him.
But Davini didn’t find much humor in Gilbert bringing alcohol into the coaches’ office, so he wrapped the champagne around a pile of clothes and buried it in the back of his locker.
The Cubs, not surprisingly, faltered down the stretch, although Gilbert finally passed the test, only to be greeted by a head-to-toes champagne dousing from Davini.
“You’re crazy!” Gilbert screamed. “You’re crazy! You’re crazy, you son of a gun!”
That was just the beginning.
Gilbert showered and left campus wearing an outfit from P.E. class, with his soaked clothes in a garbage bag.
Later in the afternoon, an administrator confronted Davini and former Corona girls basketball coach Larry Hughes, wondering why the towel bin wreaked of alcohol. Davini and Hughes convinced him that it was a broken bottle of old cologne, not champagne.
“He brought a lot of motivation,” Davini said of Gilbert. “He took care of young people like nobody could ever take care of young people. He was a good person to all of them. If they didn’t get a note or a telephone call, there was something wrong.”
Keeping it in the family
A University of Michigan graduate, Gilbert once took his son Steve to the Rose Bowl to watch the Wolverines.
Included in the trip was a stop by Disneyland, where Gilbert left Steve, then 8, in the car outside the parking lot while he bolted for a nearby doughnut shop.
Gilbert didn’t know that Disneyland officials would open the parking lot before opening the theme park. Steve was left hanging.
When Gilbert returned to Disneyland with a bag of doughnuts, he found Steve still sitting in the car, as angry motorists honked their horns and whizzed around him.
“Now, we don’t need to tell your mother about this,” Gilbert said.
At the service, Steve and his brother Rick both wore basketball shoes, symbolic of the scathing review Gilbert received upon running for a position on his local school board.
“We just don’t think this fella in the gym shoes is what we need right now,” wrote a school board member in response to Gilbert.
Rick wrote a poem for Gilbert, proudly boasting about how they attended the 1965 game in which Hall of Famer Gale Sayers scored a record-tying six touchdowns at muddy Wrigley Field.
The poem included Gilbert’s ping pong triumphs as a teenager, as well as his loyalty to the Cubs. It also mentioned how Gilbert never struggled to pin faces with names.
“He has always retained every name he attained,” Rick wrote.
Duane developed a deep friendship with Gilbert, but not only because his former assistant would leave doughnuts and bagels on his doorstep. Gilbert provided the perfect alternative to Duane’s stern coaching style. Plus, someone needed to be there to cut off Duane during his infamous postgame tirades.
Resistant to change, Duane even adopted some of Gilbert’s positive catch phrases.
Duane would say he’s “mad.” Gilbert would say he’s “upset.” Duane would see troubled youngsters as “bad people.” Gilbert would see them as “misguided youth.” Duane would call players “knuckleheads.” Gilbert would say they have “behavioral issues.”
“It wasn’t so much about winning,” Duane said. “It was about helping young people.”
Gilbert and Duane often took morning walks together, discussing everything from basketball to politics to their struggling major league baseball teams.
About two weeks before Gilbert died, Duane visited him, but Gilbert was in no condition to leave his bed. Nevertheless, Gilbert mustered enough strength to walk around the mall.
Then, two days before Gilbert died, Duane visited him again, knowing the end was near. Gilbert couldn’t leave this time.
He grabbed Duane’s hand and squeezed it, before delivering a message that will last a lifetime.
“Walk one for me,” Gilbert said.