Lancer Legend Integral Part of Miami Heat Success
In the National Basketball Association, no team is under a larger microscope than the Miami Heat. After bringing in superstars LeBron James and Chris Bosh to team up with Dwyane Wade this past summer, the Heat immediately transformed from a playoff afterthought into a formidable championship contender.
But behind all the highlight performances and jaw-dropping plays on the hardwood, a Grace College graduate named Chet Kammerer serves with the same humility and charm that helped define him when he was the original “Coach K” for Grace decades ago.
Chet Kammerer is a big deal.
He coached collegiate basketball for over 30 years, been inducted into numerous halls of fame, served as an assistant coach for the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers and currently is Vice President of Player Personnel for the NBA’s Miami Heat.
He has been blessed with a gift for recognizing basketball talent and has been a key influencer in bringing in superstars like Wade or less-than-recognizable but solid performers such as Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony.
“My job is basically evaluating players,” Kammerer said. “I have access to a lot of statistical information about players, and I’ll often be asked for my opinion on whether or not a player would fit our team. Some times I’m right, and some times I’m not, but (Heat president), Pat Riley leans heavily on myself and my assistants for our input in determining our roster.”
While Kammerer does not interact with the players as much when they are a part of the Heat, he is integral in adding fresh talent to the roster and finding players that fill the gaps on the team. Kammerer said, “It’s my job to get [the players] here. It’s the coaches’ job to develop them into NBA players.”
But before Kammerer could even fathom working at the highest level of professional basketball in the world, he was just a self-described farm boy not far from Grace College who simply loved the game of basketball.
Judging by his upbringing, Kammerer should have a pitchfork in his hand rather than a pen and computer. Growing up, the Kammerers were farmers. No one from his family had ever been to college, so his career path seemed to be farming by default. But his high school principal Ed Trexler motivated him to try something different. “[Trexler] said to me: ‘Chet, you’re not a farmer. Your dad is and your brother is, but you ought to go to college.’ He is 90 percent of the reason I went to college,” Kammerer recalled.
The other 10 percent was most likely sports. But for a player who would finish his basketball career at Grace as the top scorer in Lancer history, Kammerer surprisingly was not recruited for his play on the basketball court but rather on the baseball diamond.
As Kammerer recounts the story, then-Grace coach Dick Messner attended one of Kammerer’s high school games at Leesburg High School (now a part of Warsaw Community). After a less-than-superb performance by Kammerer, Messner approached him about attending Grace. “[Messner] didn’t ask me anything about basketball,” Kammerer recalled with a laugh. “He said, ‘I understand you’re a pitcher on the baseball team.’ I’ll never forget that.”
After promptings from Trexler and his high school coach (Bud Lantz), Kammerer enrolled at Grace and was instantly struck by the emphasis on each person’s spiritual life, a concept that was foreign to him. He credits his friendship with Ron Henry, the former “voice of the Lancers,” for challenging him in his Christian faith and for leading him to Christ on the third floor of McClain Hall.
Another important steppingstone in his life happened on Grace’s campus – he met his future wife in a class called “Recreational Leadership.” Opposites seemed to attract for Chet and Sherill, or as he likes to call the two of them, the “converted rascal” and the “preacher’s kid.”
“Grace College was a very important part of my life,” Kammerer continued. “It’s where my life totally changed in that it’s where I became a Christian. My two biggest decisions in life happened there, and it’s where my foundation happened.”
Grace is also where he embarked on his collegiate coaching career – at the ripe age of 22. After a year as an assistant under Messner, Kammerer took over the Lancer basketball program and began to lay the foundations for the storied program. He described himself as a student of the game, attending clinics, talking to coaches and even starting the Lancer Basketball Camp (which still exists) in the late 60s in part to learn from the top high school coaches in the state.
“Grace’s administration showed a lot of confidence in giving me the opportunity to coach and the responsibility of directing the program. At first it was a trial-and-error process, and sometimes it was painful,” he said. “Because I was young and inexperienced, I was determined to become the best coach I could be.”
And that’s exactly what Kammerer did. He led Grace to eight winning seasons, zero losing seasons and a record of 173-88 during his time from 1966-75. His winning percentage as a coach (.663) remains the all-time best, and he coached Grace to its first three 20-win seasons in program history.
It’s impossible to deny the legacy Kammerer left on Grace’s basketball program and on the students he coached. One of Kammerer’s athletes was a young man named James Kessler, affectionately known today as “Jim” or “Coach K,” the current head coach for Grace’s team. Kessler remembers a point in the program’s history when nearby schools like Taylor and Manchester would refuse to play Grace (“the little Bible school”). But under the era of Kammerer and later Kessler, that all changed.
“Coach Kammerer took over as a young coach and took Grace’s competitiveness to the next level,” Kessler remarked. “He used a high-post offense, which I still like today, and he was ahead of his time in terms of defensive concepts. As a coach, we often coach as we were coached, and Kammerer had a definite influence on me.”
Kammerer’s accolades at Grace led him to a head coaching job at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., where the college eventually renamed the playing surface Kammerer Court due to his outstanding 17-year career there.
But for all his professional success, Kammerer has not forgotten his roots and how Grace shaped who he is today. He described his Christian perspective as directly affecting his priorities and his ethics in the professional world. He is dedicated to influencing the hearts of people rather than solely impacting the win/loss record of the Heat.
“There’s no question that Grace was a very important part of my life. I know other players over the years can share something similar, but the basketball program is where lives have been changed. That’s the thing I’m excited about,” Kammerer continued. “I will forever be indebted to the leadership of Grace and to the school for taking a chance on a local kid who needed direction.”
By Josh Neuhart
This story was published in the April 29 issue of Grace’s student newspaper, The Sounding Board.