Once a year, he sits down. All alone. In the middle of an empty basketball arena.
Arenas are synonymous with noise, adrenaline and emotion. But in this moment there is none of that. There is quiet; and there is clarity.
In that solitude, he asks himself: “Do I want to keep doing this?”
The answer this year for Grace men’s basketball head coach Jim Kessler was clear. As he sat alone on Kessler Court in late December, Kessler decided this season would be the last in his legendary 42-year career. The time had come.
With the Lancers qualifying for the NCCAA National Championships this week in Winona Lake, Kessler has the finish line in sight. Three games remain this week in his Hall of Fame career. Yet no sign of indecision has crossed his mind.
“There comes a moment when it’s time,” he said simply. “For me, it’s time.”
Passing of a friend
Kessler has seen the basketball world transform countless times during his 42 seasons. His Grace coaching debut in 1977 predates the 3-point line.
He began coaching when players with the last names of Maravich, Malone, Gervin and Walton dominated the landscape. He outlasted players like Magic, Bird, Jordan and Bryant. And he will end his career in the midst of LeBron, Durant and Curry.
One of the main reasons Kessler realized it was time was simply age. He recalled, whether in jest or not, watching film of his team and wondering who the old man near Grace’s bench was.
A dear coaching friend of Kessler’s was Ralph Hodge from Olivet Nazarene. Hodge and Kessler were No. 1 and No. 2 in coaching wins for NAIA Division II during the past few years. Hodge confided to Kessler that his retirement was nearing, and Hodge detailed his plans for his post-coaching career: plans which included traveling, using more of his St. Louis Cardinals’ season tickets and being with family.
Unfortunately, Hodge was not able to live out those plans. On short notice, he developed health issues and passed away on Nov. 29, 2018.
Hodge’s passing weighed heavily on Kessler. “Hodge didn’t get to enjoy that time off,” Kessler said. “Coaching is so demanding physically. It’s easy to coach too long without realizing it.”
Leaving an undeniable legacy
Lining the walls of Kessler’s office are dozens of framed photos. Every one of Kessler’s teams is hung on display, making blank wall space in his office a rare commodity.
The team photos dominate those white walls, crowding out Coach of the Year awards and the 1992 NAIA national championship memorabilia.
For Kessler, developing his players into young men of character and faith has always been central. He is quick to diminish any awards or accomplishments he has received — and there are plenty of them.
Rather, he wants his legacy to reflect his eternal goals. Through tear-filled eyes he remembered a saying his father kept written on a piece of paper: Only one life, ’twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.
“I don’t care how good you are as a player or coach, you’ll be forgotten over time,” Kessler said. “Your true legacy lives on through the people you’ve impacted. That’s good enough for me.”
Handing off the baton
When Kessler started coaching, his first assistant coach was named Ivan Schuler. Schuler was far more experienced as a coach than Kessler and “knew far more about basketball than I did.”
But Kessler was not threatened by that fact. He referred to a quote from Abraham Lincoln that said “Others have brains, too.”
Over the years, Kessler has not shied away from sharing duties with his assistants. But no assistant was ever given what Kessler referred to as the “final test.”
Scott Moore, a former Lancer and longtime assistant coach under Kessler, was given that final test last summer. Moore took Grace’s team by himself on an overseas mission trip to France. When the trip went well, according to Kessler, Moore passed his test. Moore was named Kessler’s replacement on Feb. 18, a fitting handoff to the helm of the Lancers.
“I’ve often thought that if you do your job well, you should be able to slip out the door and nobody knows you’re gone,” Kessler said. “In a relay race, you run your part and then pass the baton. It’s Scott’s turn now, and I know he will do a great job.”
Ending in a familiar place
The NCCAA tournament championship has been elusive for Grace. Considering Grace’s deep history with the tournament, Kessler was quick to note the irony of wrapping up his career at NCCAAs.
Grace has been the runner-up six times in the tournament. There are enough near-misses and missed buzzer beaters in that history to make an onion cry.
In fact, Kessler’s final game as a player also happened to be Grace’s first championship defeat. In great detail, he recalled the postseason injuries that left the Lancers short-handed and short on the scoreboard 107-102 to Azusa Pacific (Calif.) in the 1970 NCCAA title game.
For the Lancers to win the NCCAA crown this year with a 16-15 squad seems almost too unbelievable. But stranger scripts have been written before in the world of basketball.
“This will be a very challenging tournament as always, but if we’re in it then we have a crack at it. I just want to take it one game at a time,” Kessler said.
Scores of Kessler’s graduates and fans will flock to the Manahan Orthopaedic Capital Center this week, a sort of basketball pilgrimage to see “Coach K” one last time on the sidelines of Kessler Court.
But for Kessler, he wants these final three games to be business as usual. His mantra of “take it one game at a time” will certainly be put to the test as he approaches the final week of his career.
Kessler, ever humble in his words, said “it will probably be an emotional thing” when thinking about the final buzzer.
“There will be a little bit of emotion, but I want to coach them the way I’ve always coached. It will be a little harder than usual, but I just want to finish well,” he said. “And at the end of the season, I’ll finally get to finish like all of my seniors over the years. Regardless if we win it all, I want to finish well. If we played well, that’s all I ask.”
*Grace’s first game of the national tournament is Wednesday at 5:15 p.m. at Grace’s Manahan Orthopaedic Capital Center. Visit gclancers.com/NCCAA for more.