Retired Airman helps coach ABQ team

Retired Airman Jim Halsten, Eldorado High School’s volunteer assistant coach, used to play for and work with UCLA coach John Wooden, who was known as the “Wizard of Westwood.” The 81-year- old is in his second year at Eldorado.

OK, New Mexico, pop quiz:

How many of you played for (and worked with) the late John Wooden, guarded Bill Russell, coached Gregg Popovich and roomed in college with an Olympic decathlon gold medal winner?

Please, let’s have a show of hands. We’ll wait.

In the meantime, let’s introduce you to a man who has done all of this: 81-year-old Jim Halsten.

If you’ve been to Eldorado High School boys basketball games last season or this season, you’ve probably seen Halsten sitting on the end of the Eagles’ bench as a volunteer assistant.

He joined coach Roy Sanchez’s staff before the 2016-17 season.

And what a life he’s lived.

Born in Minnesota but raised in Southern California, Halsten — who played at North Hollywood High and Valley Junior College — played three seasons for Wooden at UCLA (1956-58) and was on Wooden’s coaching staff in 1959.

“I just wanted to play basketball, and I knew I could play basketball,” said Halsten. “I didn’t really care where.”

Halsten was recruited to UCLA long before there was a Pauley Pavilion or before Wooden inherited his “Wizard of Westwood” moniker. Heck, back then, the men’s basketball team was sharing the gym with the wrestlers and cheerleaders.

And like so many people, Halsten — who was a terrific scorer in his day — has his share of Wooden stories and anecdotes.

Like the time, he said, when he called a timeout while he was on the floor. That broke a rule.

“What are you doing?” Halsten said, recalling Wooden’s words to him as he came to the bench. “We never call the first timeout.”

Asked about it today, Halsten laughed. “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” he said with a smile. He got benched for the rest of that half. “I never did it again.”

Being at UCLA also offered him a chance to guard the great Bill Russell when Russell played at the University of San Francisco. Never mind that Halsten — then about 6-foot-4 — was a guard/small forward, and Russell was the premier big man in the country.

One time, Halsten said, Wooden caught him on film tugging at the shorts of a player he was defending — something Wooden detested, as it was not part of his teaching on how to defend.

“He showed it on film. He ran it back and forth, and he didn’t say anything,” Halsten said. “I didn’t start that night.”

Being at UCLA also afforded Halsten the chance to room with Rafer Johnson, the 1960 gold medalist in the decathlon and a man who later lit the Olympic cauldron at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

But from his UCLA days, it is Wooden that was, and remains, an active force in Halsten’s life.

“I thank him every day,” Halsten said. And he remembered what Wooden — a man who relied on reason and not emotion when he coached — would say to his team before they left the Bruins’ locker room.

The tie-in to Popovich is no less interesting.

Halsten only spent one official season coaching college basketball: 1959. But, he did continue to coach active duty Air Force teams, in the States, Germany and Spain.

Popovich, the longtime coach of the San Antonio Spurs, played on one of those Air Force teams for Halsten in 1970 in California. Nobody called him “Pop” then.

“It was Gregg,” Halsten said. “He was a damn good basketball player.”

Halsten also had a chance to coach players in the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1972 in Colorado Springs, alongside such college coaching giants like Bobby Knight, Joe B. Hall and Don Haskins. Halsten was coaching at Altus AFB in Oklahoma at the time.

Halsten came to Albuquerque to serve at Kirtland AFB in 1986 and retired from the Air Force in 1993. A couple of years ago, his wife passed away, and he “knew I had to do something,” he said. “I was lonely.”

He lived not far from Eldorado, and had heard good things about the boys basketball program and about Sanchez, himself a coach who’s won multiple blue trophies with the burnt orange. So through an intermediary, the two men met, and Halsten joined the Eagles’ coaching staff.

“This is great for me,” he said. “The boys are very nice, and they know I’ve got a good playing and coaching rèsumè. I think we’ve got a great team.”