Column: 32 years tarnished, but not forgotten

Posted: Sunday, January 12, 2003

Like most Juneau residents, I was shocked on Tuesday when I heard former Juneau-Douglas High School basketball coach Jim Hamey had just pleaded guilty to stealing $1,000 from the program because he wanted to make the new coach and school administrators look bad.

It was an act of selfish, vindictive rage, and the theft will forever overshadow the good things Hamey did during his 32 years with the school.

Hamey has shown remorse for the theft - he had already returned the money when he was questioned about its disappearance - and he has taken responsibility for what he did. He will serve 18 months of probation, complete 150 hours of community service and take anger management classes, which he initiated himself.

"I take full responsibility for my actions and I am disgusted by them and embarrassed by them," Hamey said Tuesday.

This is a forgiving town and I think people will remember Hamey's good years. From the letters to the editor we've received at the Empire, I think many people in this town already have forgiven him. But Hamey's story should serve as an object lesson about how one unthinking act can shatter a reputation that took years to build.

Since arriving in Juneau in 1970, Hamey has been a fixture in this town. He coached the boys team for 22 years, posting a record of 451-161 while leading the Crimson Bears to the 1973 and 1982 state championships. He retired from coaching for two years, then took over a struggling girls team and led it to a 157-51 record in eight years and the 1996 state title.

Hamey was optimistic about this season after leading the Crimson Bear girls back into the state tournament last year following a two-year absence. He worked with the girls over the summer, taking them to camps in the Lower 48 to prepare the team for this year.

As the start of the basketball season approached, Hamey still thought he'd coach the team. But in November, he found out his top assistant, Lesslie Knight, had applied for the head coaching job. Since Hamey was no longer a teacher at the school - he retired from teaching in 2000 because of health issues with diabetes and arthritis - and Knight is teaching, school district policy meant she automatically got the job.

Hamey felt as if he had been pushed out of the coaching job by a conspiracy between JDHS principal Deb Morse, athletic director Sandi Wagner and Knight. That, combined with some more recent health issues, left Hamey a hurt, frustrated man.

Like many people who are hurt and frustrated, Hamey did a very human thing - he lashed out.

He took some team fund-raising money stored in Wagner's office against school policy, put it in the desk in his office and took a scheduled trip to Anchorage. When he returned to town, Hamey put the money in a bag and returned it to the school, saying it had been found by a parent in a student's room. Police were brought in and, on questioning, Hamey confessed.

"I wanted to make (school administrators) look stupid and embarrass them," Hamey said. "I'm not this person."

For the last 32 years, the person Hamey's been was someone who lived his life for his beloved Crimson Bears. The mailbox at his house is black with "Crimson Bears" written in red. The license plate of his car reads MVYRFT, which stands for "Move your feet," Hamey's frequent bellow during games and practices.

I've known Hamey since 1977, when I was a student at Anchorage's Bartlett High School traveling through Juneau with a music group. To shake out the kinks of the road, several members of my group used the JDHS gym for a little basketball game and Hamey watched.

When I worked at the Anchorage Times in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hamey was the Southeast representative for a Class 4A state basketball coaches' poll I compiled. I watched his sons play for the Crimson Bears - first Jer, then Chris and now Bryan, who is a senior on the current JDHS team - and then go on to college. Hamey was one of the good guys in Alaska high school sports, and he lived for his teams.

When the Empire found out Hamey wouldn't be coaching this year, we tried to put together a feature story honoring his 32 years of service with the district. But Hamey asked for a little time to pass before he would consent to an interview. "I'm undergoing some anger issues right now, and I don't want to say anything that will hurt the program," Hamey said in early December.

When asked about Hamey, Knight made a brief comment about Hamey's dedication to the team. "He lives for the Crimson Bears," she said. Wagner declined comment and referred all questions about Hamey and his service to the school to Hamey.

The Empire didn't know about the theft then, because school officials and the Juneau Police Department didn't report the Nov. 25 theft until after Hamey was sentenced on Tuesday. But now it's obvious Hamey knew it would be hypocritical for a glowing feature about his career to run before his court case was concluded. He knew that could hurt the program.

Whether or not there was a conspiracy to remove Hamey from his position, the school clearly mishandled the situation. You don't treat a dedicated 32-year employee that way. If he's not going to leave on his own terms, you still find a graceful way to end his tenure.

Even if the school wanted to send Hamey out to pasture, Wagner and Morse should have let Hamey know much earlier in the year, not a week or so before the start of practice. Why wasn't he informed this summer, before he took the team to camps? It seems that could have saved a lot of grief, and it wouldn't have left Hamey feeling like he'd been strung along and stabbed in the back.

Hamey's actions can not be condoned. They can be understood, but what he did was wrong and he will have to live with the consequences. Still, I think most people in Juneau will look at his 32 years of dedicated service to the school and not his one impulsive moment of anger when they remember "Coach Hamey."

Charles Bingham can be reached at cbingham@juneauempire.com.



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