Les Eathorne: A legend now for the ages

More than 20 players surrounded Les Eathorne during halftime of an alumni game in Bremerton in December 2009, when the gym at Bremerton High School was renamed Les Eathorne Gymnasium and Ken Wills Court. - Wesley Remmer/file photo
More than 20 players surrounded Les Eathorne during halftime of an alumni game in Bremerton in December 2009, when the gym at Bremerton High School was renamed Les Eathorne Gymnasium and Ken Wills Court.
— image credit: Wesley Remmer/file photo

What Les Eathorne hoped of his players, he also promised in return.

Dedication. Hard work. A winning attitude. Loyalty.

Above all: trust.

“Les was fair, Les was honest, Les was truthful and Les was there for you,” said John Sitton, who met Eathorne in 1965 and coached both with and against him. “He built those things with his players — trust and loyalty — and then asked them to do things, and they did it.”

Bremerton’s winningest and perhaps most influential basketball coach earned the respect of his players, and motivated them, by giving his word and keeping it. He created a team-first mentality in the locker room, turning it into success on the court.

Eathorne died Monday of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He was 86.

Bremerton had never seen a coach quite like Eathorne. He may be best remembered for winning 502 games in 41 seasons of coaching — 32 in Bremerton — but those who knew him could quickly recall his ability to motivate his players.

On the court he preached an up-tempo style of play, encouraging aggressive, relentless defense that forced the opponent into running and making hasty decisions.

Although that style of play may not have been his players’ first choice — there was heavy conditioning required, namely— they bought into the system because it worked and they believed in their coach.

“Les Eathorne was the type of man who you’d run through a wall for,” said former player Bruce Welling, who graduated from the former East High Bremerton in 1967. “He was a man who everyone trusted and everyone respected. We knew under his leadership we could find a way to win every game.”

Eathorne won more games than any coach in Bremerton history, winning two state championships in 22 seasons at East. He was the only coach in the history of the closed school, where he won consecutive state championships in 1973 and 1974.

The mystique of East basketball spread beyond the hallways of the high school and into the elementary schools, where some children talked and dreamed about playing for Eathorne.

Bryan Garinger, who graduated from East in 1974, realized he wanted to play under Eathorne the day they met in 1965. Garinger was in fourth grade at the old Olympic View Elementary School, and Eathorne’s team had come to visit.

“I saw the guys walking down the road toward the school, wearing their warm-ups and uniforms,” Garinger said. “And I knew I wanted to be an East High Knight.”

When East merged with West High in 1978, Eathorne became the coach of the combined school and stayed for a decade. His career, which began at Camas High School, ended with a two-year stint at Olympic High School.

He was inducted into the Washington State Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1993.

Even in his last years, confined to a wheel chair as his health deteriorated, Eathorne never stopped loving basketball.

In December 2009, he coached the East team for an alumni game against West, leading the Knights to a 24-point victory on a night when the building was renamed Les Eathorne Gymnasium and Ken Wills Court.

Eathorne exhibited the same infectious passion he did for four decades throughout that final game, pacing the sidelines and even throwing his clipboard in protest of a second-half foul call. The sold-out crowd of more than 2,200 roared each time he stood from the bench.

During halftime, Eathorne walked to mid-court for a gym-renaming ceremony. He also accepted a plaque on behalf of fellow legend Ken Wills, for whom the gymnasium’s floor is now named.

“This fills me with emotion,” he said at the time. “I hope this starts the beginning of a new era in Bremerton.”

Eathorne’s final public appearance came at the 2010 Les Eathorne Annual Golf Classic in June.

Although he had been bedridden in the weeks leading up to the event, he made it to Gold Mountain Golf Complex and traveled the course in a motorized cart. He was confined to a wheelchair and attached to a breathing apparatus during his last days.

“I think he willed himself to be there,” Garinger said.

A former smoker, Eathorne’s health took a turn for the worse about a year ago when he began having heart problems. He moved into an adult home a few months ago.

The final weeks were difficult, said youngest son Mark Eathorne, which in a way made the ending easier.

“It was almost like a relief,” Mark Eathorne said. “He went out the way he wanted to, he went out with dignity and he had 85 darn good years.”

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