Camps return Orlich to the game he loves
Walking through the gym doors at South Tahoe High last weekend was like stepping back in time.
The gym was packed, albeit with excited young players instead of loyal followers of the program. Everywhere you turned, former Viking basketball players like Bobby Lunsford, Travis McCollum, Andy Butcher and John Giannoni III were sharing their knowledge with children like so many alums before them.
The reason hundreds of campers came to the secluded gym tucked between pine trees is a tribute to one middle-aged man. The 26th annual South Tahoe Basketball Camp clearly belonged to Tom Orlich, who put South Tahoe High on the map by passionately driving them to a No. 19 national ranking during a glorious 1991-92 season that climaxed in the school’s last state basketball championship.
A little more than a year removed from coaching, Orlich, the camp director, had no less command than when he transformed prep basketball in Northern Nevada from a three-month activity into a year-long commitment and obsession.
When he raised his voice like he did while straightening out an out-of-line player during his 25-year coaching career at STHS, the campers obediently followed his directions.
As stern as Orlich still is with his basketball players, many of them learn that his unyielding structure serves its purpose later in life.
“He was basically a father figure growing up,” said Lunsford, a member of Orlich’s 1987 state champs. “All of my coaches up here were great and I learned everything that prepared me for life playing sports.
“It’s nice to come back and coach, not necessarily alongside, because I can’t get that high.”
Orlich resigned twice last summer after compiling a 521-177 record, two state titles and nine zone championships in 25 seasons. South Tahoe High officials denied him a one-year leave to develop his own youth league, prompting the first resignation. A rejected proposal to coach the freshman team while overseeing the bookkeeping and equipment of the entire basketball program ended in a final resignation.
A year away from coaching has taught Orlich what he already knew – that he misses being in charge of a program. If, when and where he returns is anybody’s guess. But it’s obvious that from the spirited way he still operates his camps, basketball remains his passion.
“It certainly helps me stay in the game and we had a great time,” said Orlich as he was putting the finishing touches on his fourth local camp this summer. “It’s a good staff and it’s good seeing the ex-players and a lot of my old friends who are coaches.”
His former players sense it, too. Giannoni, who engineered Orlich’s ninth zone championship during the 1999-2000 season, has been coming to the summer camps since he was in the fifth grade.
“From when I talked to him, he’s really missed being out of it,” said Giannoni, who is vying for a starting spot at Dixie College. “So these things fire him up.”
Loyal players like Giannoni come back to help him run his summer camps. This summer has been no exception as there have been appearances by former Kansas Jayhawk star Jerod Haase and coach Drew Hibbs. This past weekend’s camp also attracted Chico State players McCollum and Butcher and Lunsford, who served 10 years in the Army after playing two years of ball at Lassen College in Susanville, Calif.
“It’s funny. All the things he used to say when I was a kid, he still says them,” Giannoni said. “I learned a lot from him about being a good person, a good citizen and a good student counts way more than anything you can do on the basketball court. In reality, basketball is going to last a short while, no matter what level you go to.”
Orlich’s three-day camp also helped Giannoni accomplish a long-anticipated goal.
“I finally got to play in one of the pickup games at lunch time,” he said. “Usually you get to sit down and eat your lunch and watch all the older guys play. I guess I’m one of the older guys now. “
For McCollum, the camp gave him a chance to show Orlich how much he’s learned about his post position over the years. But more than that, the forum allowed McCollum the opportunity to showcase how effort made him a better player.
“Coach is letting me do more and more instruction with the post play,” McCollum said. “He likes me to get out there with enthusiasm and get them to hustle. I get them diving on the floor.”
When the last ball was rounded up and the gym lights were switched off, Orlich was again without a team.
“Oh, yeah, there’s no question I want to coach,” said Orlich while campers were breaking for lunch. “During the summer you really miss it because you don’t have your own team. You know, you cope and you move on.”
Lunsford expects that South Tahoe’s loss is going to be another program’s gain.
“Obviously, somebody is going to pick him up. I’d rather it be Tahoe since he pretty much put the school on the map,” Lunsford said.
“When basketball is in your blood, it’s in your blood, and he’s got it,” Butcher said. “I hope they’ll want him back here.”
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