Steven Thomas was a sixth-grader and no different than anyone else who had ever seen but not spoken directly to Robert Hughes.
“I thought he was mean as hell,” Thomas said. “I really did. Even when I met him the first few times, he just looked like someone you didn’t want to mess with.”
Because Robert Hughes was a man you didn’t want to mess with then.
“Absolutely, I was scared of him,” said Michael Byars, another Hughes protégé. “He had that respect like your mom or your dad when they’re serious. He had that anger. There were guys who were bigger than Coach, and I never saw anyone give him back talk.”
Thomas is a grown man, and the former UTA forward is the head boys basketball coach at Mansfield Summit. He still doesn’t want to mess with Coach Hughes. Because, although Hughes is 89, Thomas is smart.
But Thomas made the same mistake most of us made about Hughes: We confused stern as mean. Today, too often the two have become inseparable.
As the former Dunbar boys basketball coach prepares for overdue induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday in Springfield, Mass., the scope of his career will be reviewed, cherished and celebrated.
His 1,333 victories are the most ever by a boys basketball coach. But he did not achieve the level of fame as fellow inductees such as Kansas’ Bill Self, NBA All-Star Tracy McGrady or others, but Hughes’ impact on young people is multi-generational, and his place in a community — Stop Six — is as important as a man could hope.
While his legacy is revered, it should also be lamented. He is truly the last of a generation of coaches and teachers.
We as a society would never let Robert Hughes get away with some things he did for so long, which is what made him so good and allowed him to have the impact he did on so many people.
There should be more like Robert Hughes, but today it’s simply not allowed.
“Coaches Hughes had the ultimate respect of everyone,” said Byars, who played for Hughes in the 1990s and now lives in Southern California.
He plans to attend the ceremony on Friday night, and is putting together a documentary on Hughes that he hopes to release in 2018.
“He coached at a time when being a good black coach was not respected or popular. He never backed down from those challenges, but he never talked about them, either,” he said. “The culture we live in today, with so many policies in place and parents trying to be everything, a coach could not do it the way he did it. He was Frank Sinatra — he did it his way, every day. It was his way or the highway, and that was with players, the parents of players, fans, or the administration of the district.”
How many high school coaches can say that today?
How many coaches would even want to stay in the same spot, the way Hughes did, first at I.M. Terrell and then at Dunbar, for a combined 47 years?
He coached kids. He coached their children. Then their grandchildren. Then their great-grandchildren. He coached brothers, cousins, uncles and friends of friends.
He taught classes. He even coached the Dunbar girls volleyball team.
For decades people in Stop Six had their life affected, and likely improved, by the presence of Robert Hughes.
Demetric Shaw grew up wanting to play for Hughes at I.M. Terrell, but the school shut down and instead he went to Eastern Hills.
His brother, Lee, played for Hughes at Terrell, and is the player the coach regards as the finest he ever coached. Demetric Shaw’s son would go on to play for Hughes at Dunbar.
“You had to understand that if you were going to play for him, or your son was going to play for him, you do it the way he wants,” Shaw. said. “I knew that, so I trained my son for that. You have a lot of parents who want to interfere, and they never played the game. And it would be suicide for a parent who tried to interfere with him.
“I’ve seen situations that parents had a conversation (with coach Hughes) and it didn’t fare too well for the kid.”
If you were OK with this arrangement, Hughes would take care of you. He was going to yell at you. Many players have tales of missing dunks only to hear Hughes chastise them for trying to be flashy; they knew his favorite player was Larry Bird.
“You all couldn’t throw a rock in the lake and you’re here trying to dunk it!” Hughes would yell.
“We all got it at some point,” said Sheldon Tate, who played for Hughes at the turn of the century and now works at TCU. “I would say he was an equal opportunity with it. He was so respected, and the atmosphere he created was about that without being assertive. That was the beauty of the culture there; stories were passed down and they became folkloreish. Even when we were not with him, like practicing at the MLK Center, we all understood the way we had to practice because we were a part of Dunbar.”
If you were respectful, if you cared, if you tried, you did what was asked, you always had a home in his gym. You had a mentor. You had a teacher. You had a coach. You had a secondary parent. And, eventually, you had a friend.
During Mike Byars’ senior year, he had an English assignment that required writing 10 letters to colleges telling them why he would be a good fit for their school. On the day it was due, he realized he didn’t have the required stamps. The assignment was 55 percent of his grade. So he asked Hughes for the stamps.
“Mike, I’m going to give you these not because I want you to have them or you deserve them, but because this is your future,” Hughes said and handed him 10 stamps.
Hughes always had a keen interest in Indian culture, and the stamps were of famous Native Americans, including one of Geronimo.
“They were collector’s items,” Byars said. “And he gave them to me because he cared.”
Hughes wasn’t mean. He just cared. Which after all of those wins, district titles and state championships, is the man’s everlasting legacy.
Mac Engel: @macengelprof