Teacher, coach, father figure.
That’s the way hundreds of players from Palm Desert High School describe their longtime basketball coach, Don Brady. All are in agreement, he’s an old-school style disciplinarian whose approach to the game added life lessons learned both on the court and in the classroom.
RELATED: Coach Don Brady had impact off court, too
On Monday night the retired English teacher met with his reigning Desert Valley League champions in a huddle for one final time. He talked about his team, his players, his “kids” but he wanted to let them know it was his time now.
The dean of desert basketball coaches decided to step away after 28 seasons, all with his Aztecs.
“I was talking about it mid-year and said maybe it’s time,” said Brady, 66, who closed his career with a 408-292 mark. “When it cropped up again, I said it was a nice season, one of our best, the team over-achieved. We just had some real coachable kids. When I decided (to tell the team Monday) I was speaking with a heavy heart, that it’s no reflection on them. Having the season go as it did made it easier.”
When Palm Desert opened in 1986, Brady was there to develop a program that would become one of the most stable and consistent for almost three decades.
He opened a new school then and was around years later when a new campus was built. That often included him overseeing the construction of his home away from home, the gym.
He worked plays and players with notebooks and whiteboards, and while maybe not all were winners, Brady’s teams would compete until that final buzzer.
He remembered a shaky start. Brady fielded his first varsity squad in 1987, struggling through growing pains and finishing his first two years 10-31.
“We were awful,” said Brady, who retired from teaching three years ago but continued his basketball job and even helped coach track.
We were the worst basketball team in the valley and I had kids that didn’t even know what the baseline was.”
So the teacher went to work on a lesson plan that would help Palm Desert rise in the rankings, win six DVL titles, make 24 CIF appearances and earn a spot in the two state tournaments. Along the way, Brady picked up his 400th career victory.
He accomplished that feat this season when the Aztecs beat league rival La Quinta, then proceeded to run the table to an undefeated DVL mark at 12-0. Palm Desert finished 21-6 this year.
He’ll never say which team was the “best” or maybe hint at a “favorite” because he remembers all of them for something. He can pick a year and talk about a certain game or a player, discuss how Palm Desert won or how much it improved.
“I’ve been very fortunate and it’s been a good long run,” said Brady, who plans to join the basketball staff at College of the Desert as a volunteer. “I love the game. The kids are great. I’ve worked with great guys. I’ve made long-lasting friendships.”
And alongside him every step of the way was his wife, Vanessa.
“And she’s been a great partner and a great coach’s wife. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
His most successful team, record-wise, may have been his 2001-2002 squad which advanced all the way to the CIF title game at the Arrowhead Pond, now Honda Center.
His son was on that team and Donald Jr. has followed in his father’s footsteps, straight to the gym.
He is a coach at Bellevue College in Washington.
Current Shadow Hills coach Aaron Wiltrout joined Brady’s staff the year after that record-setting season. He said nothing changed from the first time he met Brady until this year. It never would.
“When he is on the court, he’s a drill sergeant in the worst way, a Bobby Knight in-your-face coach,” said Wiltrout.
“When he’s off the court, he’s the kindest, gentlest person you’d ever meet. And he’s extremely generous.”
Wiltrout said Brady’s counseling background made it all work. He said the coach could get in a player’s face to discipline, then be quick to pat him on the back for a job well done.
“It’s never one way,” he said. “This guy is genuinely there to help kids. And I’ve never been around a guy who loves a sport more than he loves basketball. He’d watch film, write a 12-page scouting report and talk about what we could do to defend this one guy. He was the consummate professional.”
Palm Desert athletic director Darol Salazar, who worked alongside Brady for almost 40 years at Jefferson Middle, Indio High and then Palm Desert, joked that the two out-lived the old school and stayed on for the new campus.
“We’re old-school guys but he’s definitely the most prepared coach I’ve ever met in my life,” said Salazar, the school’s only baseball coach. “His work ethic is unbelievable and he demanded the same from his players. You could see that on the court and for what he did outside of basketball with his (players) tutoring young kids, talking during an anti-drug campaign or Red Ribbon Week. He promoted his sport so well.”
Senior Daniel McCown says he’s been fortunate enough to play for two of Brady’s best teams; the 2011-12 CIF Final Four squad (23-7) when he was a sophomore and this year as a team captain.
“He’s such a hard-working guy that gives his best doing all he can all the time,” said McCown.
“He’s ultra-passionate about the game.
“He’s been around so long he’s developed a program and a family. I know I wanted to play here since I was about eight years old, and I went to his camps. He made me part of a family and brought us together. The program is set in stone and it was a good year for him to call it a career.”
Brady said that these are the same teenagers who played sports, but volunteered at elementary schools, spoke to middle schoolers about athletics and academics and helped run his youth summer camps. They were all performing in one way or another under Brady’s watchful eye.
Brady was all-Aztec all the time.