NEW BRITAIN - When the final buzzer sounded during the New Britain junior varsity boys basketball team’s contest with Somers last Thursday, head coach Darwin Shaw had reached another career milestone.
The Hurricanes’ victory over Somers was No. 500 for Shaw’s coaching career, with every last ‘W’ being recorded as a coach at New Britain. Having been at the helm of the JV squad for 35 years, Shaw’s historic win served as another forum to celebrate the accomplishments of a New Britain native that has been a pillar of the city for decades.
But for Shaw, the most meaningful moment of that evening came after the win was recorded and the celebration had subsided. It was when Shaw was seated on the Hurricanes’ bench during varsity warmups, and the Somers’ faculty manager walked up to share a word.
“He came over and said ‘Your team is well-behaved, well-mannered and I like the job you’re doing with them,’” Shaw said. “I had never got that before. For him to come over and say that meant a lot to be, because I had never gone up against [Somers] before. That made me feel good.”
For Shaw, compliment No. 1 held far more weight than win No. 500. Those victories may represent his coaching success, but those words from an opponent helped represent New Britain High School in the way Shaw has wanted the school and basketball program to be seen since he was hired by former athletic director Bill Huber and superintendent Dr. Marie Gustin as a coach in 1984.
“He’s New Britain through and through,” varsity head coach Kurt Reis said. “He brings that up all the time about representing New Britain, and when we’re on the road making it known that New Britain is here and we will be the toughest team they play all year. The kids take to him really well.”
Shaw took over as the freshman coach before the 1984 season with no basketball experience, but a load of experience in the Hardware City and the people that represent it. A New Britain native and New Britain High School graduate, Shaw was an All-American in track who began working with kids on the basketball court during the summer months. Two of those kids happened to be Jerry Carter, the father of current varsity guard Justice Carter, and the father of Symone Roberts, who would go on to be one of the most successful girls basketball players in school history. Shaw didn’t have basketball wisdom to impart on those kids during those summer months, but in his eyes, he had something more powerful in his ability to relate, which ultimately landed him a job with the Hurricanes.
“New Britain needed a freshman coach, and [Carter and Roberts] told the coach about me,” Shaw said. “They were seniors at the time. Who knew one day I would be coaching their kids? It’s a small world.”
STARTING FROM SCRATCH
Shaw took over the JV team a year after coaching the freshmen and he’s been there ever since, learning his way through the early years long before his wins began to rack up in the hundreds. Shaw was learning the game along with his players during the 1980s, watching college basketball games whenever he wasn’t out at another high school contest, studying defenses and offensive schemes.
“My first year when I came in … it was just ‘get the ball and run up the court, play good man-to-man defense and stop the other team from scoring,’” Shaw said. “That was all. Then I go into practice and I’m looking at Tom Gaudette and he’s writing up all of these plays, and I was like ‘man, I’ve never done that. I never wrote on a clipboard.’ It was a learning process.”
Shaw also learned his most valuable coaching lesson in those early years when he realized drawing up the fanciest play wasn’t the most effective way to get his players to buy in to his message. The best way to reach his JV squads was to remind them that he had stood right where they were, and knew New Britain High School inside and out from his years as a student, teacher and eventually a coach.
“It's not always what you know as a teacher,” Shaw said. “Kids aren't worried about what college you went to or what degrees you've got. Kids just want to know you can relate with them, and once you relate to them, the kids will do almost anything. I'm fortunate because I grew up in New Britain, graduated here and was able to come back having never played basketball, but I was always involved with the youth. I try to let them know that before they were even born I was doing all of this stuff. I think because I came through here as a student, it's easier for me to relate to the kids because I know what it's like.”
Shaw’s most efficient path to relating to his players comes through his ability to identify with nearly every one of them thanks to some sort of family tie. After all, when you’ve lived in the same city for so long and have been a part of a school for nearly half a century, you meet a fair amount of people.
“Every player that I have, I know somebody that's a part of them,” Shaw explained. “I have kids right now that had uncles and fathers in my class. I've been able to build relationships because I see kids before they even get to New Britain High School. A lot of the kids that play for me, I know their parents from somewhere.”
Shaw’s roots go back to watching Reis as a player, and now as a part of his staff, it isn’t hard for Reis to see how Shaw’s deep local ties aid him in his coaching ability.
“He’s a role model for our kids having been here so long, and all of the things he accomplished here, from being a track star and coming back to his community to teach,” Reis said. “He’s been a plus and a role model for a lot of our kids.”
SAME OLD SHAW
Through all the wins and on-the-court success (Shaw has had just two losing seasons in his 35 years and currently holds a career record of 500-141), Shaw takes the most pride in his ability to remain the same through the decades. The game and the times have changed, but to Shaw, his method of identifying with the kids of New Britain has not.
“I've been the same coach since I started in ’84,” Shaw said. “I coach the same style. The kids are different, but it's a good feeling to know you're relatable to them. People ask how long I'm going to go, and I tell them as long as I'm able to reach the kids, I'll keep going.”
Shaw’s coaching style hasn’t changed, but his fashion style sure has. Having owned just two suits when he first took the job 35 years ago, Shaw overheard himself explained by opposing coaches as ‘the coach that always wears the sweatsuits,’ when he was out scouting a future opponent. After that, Shaw began to solidify his wardrobe, and his own reputation in the process.
“I want my kids to know there’s a regular outfit and a work outfit,” Shaw said. “I wanted them to see a professional side. I started wearing suits, and my reputation around the state, I have people come up to me and say I must be the best-dressed coach in the state. I went from two suits, and right now I own about 150 suits. I put a note in my front jacket pocket and write down the date I last wore the suit, so if I wear it again, I make sure I don’t go back to your school and wear the same suit. I don’t repeat suits. That cracks people up.”
THE CITY SHOWS ITS LOVE
Shaw has been racking up suits like he’s been racking up wins, but it appeared that win count would come just short of 500 after he was fired in 2017, shortly after Reis took over. In a move that caught him off guard, Shaw’s faith in the school that he had called home since he was a teenager had been shaken. In October of 2017, Shaw thought his time as New Britain’s JV coach had come to a frustrating and abrupt conclusion.
“They told me I’d been there 32 years and they weren’t getting rid of me,” Shaw remembered. “Then when it came down to it, they said the coach could do whatever he wants. That wasn’t what they originally told me. That was how I was supposed to go out? From New Britain, being a New Britain resident and a New Britain High School graduate, it was tough. I was being betrayed by other people, not coach Reis. Just other people who should have told me that whoever they were bringing in can bring in their own people.”
While Shaw’s trust was rattled, his faith in the city as a whole only grew stronger when he saw the response from the people of New Britain, who rallied behind the longtime coach to show their support.
The fathers, mothers, aunts and uncles that Shaw had come to know through decades of living and working in the same community took to social media and other outlets to express their disdain for Shaw’s removal. Back in 1984, Shaw got the job thanks to his relationships with young seniors like Jerry Carter. In 2017, those relationships helped him keep the job. Three days later, Shaw was offered his job back, and had it not been for the wave of support from the city, Shaw isn’t sure if he would have ever gotten to 500 wins, at least not at New Britain.
“If it wasn’t for the community, I wouldn’t be coaching,” Shaw said. “But the community came out and supported, and everything has turned. It’s been great. My relationship with Kurt is great. He’s great for the kids. Everything worked out.”
NO SIGNS OF SLOWING DOWN
Having turned the page, Reis and Shaw helped lead the New Britain varsity team to the state final last season, the program’s first appearance since 2002. The JV team has just three losses this year, as Shaw moves beyond 500 victories. On Saturday afternoon, in the team’s first home game since No. 500, Shaw was acknowledged before the varsity game and presented a plaque to honor his career milestone. It was a far cry from the turmoil of 2017, and while Shaw was appreciative of the gesture, he felt plenty of other names belonged on that honorary plaque.
“It's never about me,” Shaw said. “It's about us. This is our program. It's all about us and we, and not about me. People will say 'Coach, you're doing a great job,' but how about the kids? They're the ones performing.”
For Shaw, last Thursday’s win and Saturday’s celebration was as much about his first team in 1984 as it was about his 2019-20 squad. His 35 years as head coach has seen plenty of constants, from his cemented coaching style to the certainty of seeing a new suit every time he takes the court. The names and players have changed, but most importantly to Shaw, his sense of fulfillment has never wavered.
“I've done it with so many different groups, but 500, you sit back and think 'man, have I really been here that long?'” Shaw said. “You look back at all the wins, and they all have different meanings. But it's really rewarding because it seems like the kids appreciate it. There aren't too many coaches in the nation that have won 500 JV games, only because most would have moved up to varsity or gotten out of it. I guess I'm the different one that stayed in it. You really have to enjoy it if you're doing it.”
The enjoyment is what keeps Shaw coming back every season, even after a brief but tumultuous breakup just over two years ago. His 500th win was a means of celebrating an otherwise harmonious relationship that has spanned decades. In many ways, Shaw is a face of New Britain High School, finding success as an athlete and a coach, while experiencing genuine enjoyment through it all. Until the stops, Shaw won’t.
“Everyone always asks how long you're going to go,” Shaw said. “I'll just stop when the good Lord says it's time. As long as I'm enjoying what I do and the kids are buying into what I preach, I won't be going anywhere.”
Ryan Chichester can be reached at (860) 801-5094 or firstname.lastname@example.org