It was October of 2016. I was at Munster High School covering the boys tennis state tournament. On this day all eyes were on Crown Point’s Bryce Bonin, pounding smashes all day, all over the court, in the singles tournament.
Remarkable, it was.
But my eyes drifted to the south a bit and saw a guy I’d known for many years sitting in a lawn chair. He was enjoying the moment. It was former Merrillville boys basketball coach Jim East.
This snapshot of “a day in the life” perfectly summarizes the life of Coach East. He loved high school athletics. At a higher level he loved his family even more. Bonin was East’s grandson.
East smiled and waved and we chatted for a minute or two. Then, we said good-bye. It was the last time the two of us would talk.
The Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame coached died last weekend at the age of 79. I will never again be able to see a purple suit coat without it conjuring up great memories and a tear.
East’s name and resume belongs in the Who’s Who of Hoosier Hysteria. The native of Selma, Indiana played volleyball at Ball State before he put a whistle in his mouth. He coached at Chester Center, Center, Connersville, Lawrenceburg and Merrillville, where he coached the Pirates since 1980-81.
His record was 653-337 in 43 years as a head coach, with 16 sectional championships, six regionals and the 1995 state runner-up trophy, losing a heartbreaker to Indianapolis Ben Davis. He won 12 Duneland Athletic Conference championships and owns the DAC’s consecutive win streak mark at 25.
These digits all point to No. 1.
Jim East was the best boys basketball coach I ever covered. Period.
That doesn’t mean he was easy to get along with. The first time I met him in the mid 1990s he told me to get a haircut. He didn’t like my Freak Flag flying. He was right. There were times he refused to speak with me He was right a couple times. There were arguments and yelling matches in the coaches office from time to time.
But I never lost respect for East. And I believe that street ran in both directions.
He was old school. He said exactly what he felt. His passion could be seen on frigid Friday nights inside packed gymnasiums. His teams, all of them, played great defense and worked the half-court offense like the ticking of a clock.
East built Merrillville’s program into one of Indiana’s finest. He will be greatly missed.
After a very tough loss in the 2011 sectional at Michigan City, East’s last game, I wrote a couple of lines about how I felt one official did his best to end Merrillville’s night. And he did. In the middle of the night East called me, which didn’t happen that often, to say thanks.
That meant a lot. It still does.
My prayers go out to Jim’s family. His wife of 59 years, Marlene, who was side by side with him through all the ups and downs and games. His daughters Kelly and Kara (Bonin) and all the grandchildren.
And to all the former Pirates who had their lives touched and shaped by East. Let his legacy live on in your daily steps and breath. Such things are eternal.
Region basketball will never be the same. Neither will Hoosier Hysteria. Merrillville High School will never be the same. I hope very soon East is honored by the naming of the gym or the floor after this legendary man.