The bleachers are full of high school kids, screaming and stomping their feet. They are waiting for their basketball team to come out.
Bill Frieder is waiting, too, leaning against a wall outside the locker room door.
“Why here?” he is asked.
“I want to make sure they see me,” he says.
Frieder is head coach at Michigan, the second-ranked college basketball team in the nation. He could be doing anything he wanted. A TV commercial, perhaps? Talking with CBS? Giving a speech for a few thousand bucks?
“Sophomores,” he says.
“Twin brothers,” he says. “Both 7-foot-4. Can you believe it? They play here. Names are Jim and Mike Lanier. I want to see them.”
Jim and Mike Lanier are only 15 years old. They don’t start. They are just huge kids, really. But kids grow up. And go to college.
Which is why Bill Frieder is here — why he is always at some high school gym, shaking hands, or in his office, writing letters, sending telegrams, talking to parents on the phone.
It is called recruiting. And he is the master.
“Will you talk to the kids? ” he is asked.
“You can’t,” he says. “NCAA rules. But you can let them see you.”
He laughs, but keeps his eyes on the door. He is 43 years worth of nervous energy, with a thin body, and a face that seems to be made up of borrowed parts: a large nose, thick lips, eyes that spin when he gets excited. But it’s a good face. When it smiles it makes you feel at home, and that doesn’t hurt in this line of work.
“Have you ever met these kids?”
“No, but I’ve written them,” he says.
“How many times?”
“I don’t know. Maybe 30 times, maybe more.” Being there is what counts Suddenly rock music jolts out from the loudspeakers. The Birmingham Brother Rice team runs out past Frieder, one player at a time. Here comes a guard, then a forward, then another guard and
— woo-oh, here come the giant Lanier brothers, ducking under the door frame. They lope past Frieder and head for the lay-up lines.
“Wooooo-eeee!” Frieder squeals. “Did you see those guys?
“They are big, aren’t they? Holy smokes . . . they make Roy Tarpley look like a midget!”
His hands are in his pockets now and he’s laughing, bobbing up and down like a kid who can’t wait for the ice cream.
“I like them already!” he says, watching lay-ups. “Can you imagine them in a few years?”
“But they barely saw you,” someone says.
“They know I’m here,” he says. And they do.
The game starts. Frieder takes a seat. Everyone knows him. Kids come up to stand near him. Adults lean over to whisper about this terrific guard whom nobody has ever heard of.
Frieder listens. He is the undisputed king of recruiting in these parts because he never misses a stop. It is a major reason for Michigan’s success in his six years as head coach. He is everywhere. Watching seniors, juniors. Watching sophomores.
“Why so much?” someone asks.
“Because the other schools are out there, too,” Frieder says. “You have to go see so-and-so play because if you don’t, four or five other schools will be out there. That’s what it’s become.
“I’m lucky. I like it. To me everything’s basketball. You can’t do this job from a golf course.” He has landed this year’s prizes
Frieder has already won this year’s recruiting wars. He got Terry Mills from Romulus and Rumeal Robinson from Massachusetts — two of the best high school players in the nation. Mills received a letter a day from Frieder before signing.
And oh, yes. Frieder also coaches a team that is undefeated, 16-0, and ranked behind only North Carolina in the national polls.
“Don’t you ever want take a night off? Maybe take your wife to a movie?” he is asked.
“The last movie we saw was ‘The Godfather.’ I think that was 1969.”
“Did you like it?”
“Yeah,” he says, grinning. “It was good.”
Frieder has to leave at halftime. It’s already 8:45 p.m. He shakes hands, pats kids’ heads and heads out to the snow-filled parking lot.
He never said a word to the Lanier kids. He left before they got in. All told, Frieder spent four hours for two seconds worth of eye contact.
“How do you do it?” he is asked.
“It could have been worse,” he says. “It could have been a five-hour drive.”
“Would you have driven five hours for this?”
He grins and sort of shrugs his shoulders. He doesn’t say anything. But the answer is yes. CUTLINE