It was the winter of 1979, and Jeff Bower was winding up his basketball playing career as a seldom-used reserve at Hollidaysburg Area High School.
As a junior, he mainly watched the likes of Bruce Gwin, Steve Gildea and Donnie Stubbs lead the Golden Tigers against Mountain League competition. As a senior, the team was carried by Joe Focht, Bill Waryck, Jeff Benton and leading scorer Greg Griffith.
While his teammates saw almost all of the meaningful minutes, Bower made the most of his experience - relishing being part of a team, studying, absorbing and listening intently in every huddle.
Did his commitment ever pay off.
Today, at the Christmas season and time for reflection upon us, Bower, named head coach of the New Orleans Hornets on Nov. 12, finds himself where no other Blair County high school graduate has ever been - as a coach or manager in one of America's three major sports (NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball).
He is, indeed, grateful - especially to have been molded here by the many who touched his life.
How often does he reference his roots?
"More often than you ever imagine," Bower said in a phone interview the other day from New Orleans. "So many of the things I talk about and try to teach our players are the lessons that I learned and experienced growing up [at Hollidaysburg] or in my coaching days at Marist or Penn State."
The Golden Tiger basketball program, in the late 1970s, was led by Jim Pfingstler and John Wiberg. The football team was coached by Tom Irwin and then Harold Price.
Bower still refers to each of his former mentors as "coach" or "Mr."
"I go back to the influence of Mr. Pfingstler, Mr. Wiberg and my high school days and being part of a team with that emotional attachment," he said. "You're dealing with men now, but if we can build a team that cares about each other and tries to play for each other, I think it will have been a successful process. I still remember the messages from coach Irwin about the first step toward becoming a team, and then a good team, and the execution of coach Price - the idea of doing just a few things very, very well. I look back at those things all the time. That's my frame of reference."
In trying to relate to today's NBA player, Bower attempts to simplify and unify.
"I've tried to go back to a fundamental approach to everything - with passing angles and defensive stances as opposed to NBA complexities," he said. "I've tried to take our players back to their roots - being a good teammate, sharing the ball, all the things that are part of the foundation for so many other things to build off of."
Though he was "not a good player in high school," he loved the game and wanted to coach. Bower was introduced by Pfingstler to Dave Magarity, then a young coach at St. Francis. Magarity took Bower under his wing, and the two spent most of the next 16 years together at St. Francis and Marist.
"That opened up every door I've had," Bower said. "If it wouldn't have been for that experience, I wouldn't be involved in college coaching and the ability to meet people and learn things and take advantage of situations that presented themselves. The opportunity Dave created for me was a life-changing opportunity."
Bower was content as the Hornets' general manager, a position he held most of the past decade and still holds. But when the team got off to a bad start, management wanted the man who drafted the players to coach them.
"It is different because of the need for the GM to step back and look at the best interest of the franchise, and you have to make very difficult decisions without letting your emotional attachments or personal feelings affect the team," he said. "Coaching is all about relationships and connecting with people on a personal level. It's been an interesting period for the players to get to know me in this light. I feel like they're seeing who I really am as an individual, and I've been really encouraged with their responses."
Bower is taking one game and one week at a time. He was not designated with an "interim" label and said he'll return to the GM duties exclusively if he and management are not satisfied with him on the bench.
"I look at it as putting everything into this season to get where we want to be," he said. "I'm not prepared to have any discussions beyond this season. I want to get a sense of everything and what's best for our franchise."
He's been too busy to bask in his good fortune.
"I'm sure at some point I'll sit back and say, that's really kind of neat,'' he said. "But given the nature of the events, there has been too much going on to step back and look at that perspective."
Bower, 48, said his wife, Lisa, and daughter Lindsey (7) are "having fun" with his enhanced role and celebrity.
"They know as well as I do the downside of coaching in the NBA is the travel and the hours away from your family," he said. "That was part of the reason I enjoyed the role of GM so much that I had total control of my schedule. There are sacrifices on the family level, which I'm not crazy about, but we're all in it together to be successful."
Following the death of his father a couple of years ago, Bower's mother moved to Oklahoma City, where the Hornets played following Hurricane Katrina. Consequently, he doesn't get home "as much as I'd like to" anymore.
But if he closes his eyes and listens, surely he can hear Hollidaysburg and all of Blair County rooting for him.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.