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Be a Landa Kid

A few days ago, I asked my wife, Allison, “What did Howie Landa teach you as a coach? Did he have a favorite saying, a word perhaps that would motivate you?” We were building a bridge where we have a confluence of storm runoff areas in the back of Rose Haven. Correction — Jeremiah, our veteran volunteer — was building the bridge. I was just helping him by constantly wanting to expand it; now it’s literally a boardwalk. I wanted to dedicate the bridge to Howie.

“I remember resilience,” she said. “Maybe not the word, but he talked about having fortitude, working hard to succeed.”

If anybody would know it was Allison. She went to his summer basketball camp for girls in the Pocono mountains for two decades — first as a gangly 10-year-old camper, then as an early teen junior counselor, then as the head counselor for a decade. She was a “Landa kid.” Like a father, Howie watched her make first team all-state in New Jersey her senior year in high school, excel at Dartmouth College and play professionally overseas for a year. During high school, he took Allison to basketball clinics all over the U.S. and Europe to demonstrate his famous “26 Offensive Moves” as she rarely missed a shot.

“Those are platitudes all coaches say,” I reminded Allison.

Howie also saw Allison coach at powerhouse Old Dominion University.

“What else would he say, or even shout to motivate his players?”

“Be tough — you got to have grit.”

I could hear Howie say that in his Philly accent.

“That describes Howie to a T,” I agreed.

Howie was a scrapper. First, as a point guard he led his small college team to the NCAA championship, losing to LSU in the Sweet 16 but inspiring a nation. Then as a coach, his Mercer County Community College national champion team was full of Landa kids. He moved to Vegas to assist University of Nevada-Las Vegas legend, and fellow scrapper, “Shark the Tark” Tarkanian, then took on the head coaching position with the UNLV Lady Rebels.

“Why do you want to name the bridge after him?” Allison had asked.

“For a couple of different reasons,” I replied. “We’re a nonprofit serving female vets and to me, Howie epitomizes resilience, important for female vets struggling with reintegration, and he liked coaching women the best.”

“They know the fundamentals down cold, they understand without being told over and over to think and play like a team,” he told us from his Las Vegas hospital bed last October. We’d flown out to spend time with him as he recovered slowly from an infection that had taken a turn for the worse. Howie overcame it and once more lived to scrap again.

“The Bridge of Grit” sounded perfect for a name. And this weekend, during our second Total Life Fitness retreat, will be a great time for the dedication. “We can Facetime Howie from Vegas. I can say a word, you a few more. We’ll ask Jeremiah and his wife to come and the female vets at the retreat can take part, too.”

“Hope” she said simply.

“What?” I asked.

During those first 10 years at camp, Howie learned that her mother struggled with mental health and was often hospitalized, and with her Dad having moved away, it often left Allison and her sister alone. When her sister left for college, she moved into a series of foster homes.

“With everything going on at home, those weeks at camp every summer offered me more than grit. Howie gave me something even more important than resilience. He gave me hope.”

The next time you visit Rose Haven, be a Landa kid and walk the very sturdy Bridge of Hope that Jeremiah built.