I lived in Los Altos and graduated from Los Altos High School in 1973. Hopefully, some longtime readers of the Town Crier will remember coach Fred Oppezzo. This is a long overdue tribute to my coach and friend, who passed away last October.
This is the story of a high school basketball team that won a championship 36 years ago. This is also the story of a group of boys and a couple of coaches who created some magic that went beyond wins (many) and losses (very few). More importantly, it is the story of lasting friendships created all those years ago.
At the last minute, Fred took over coaching the 1971-1972 Los Altos High junior varsity basketball team. Fred had only one year of experience coaching basketball. With his football background (he went on to coach then-Awalt High to the CCS championship in 1975), he figured that if we were in shape, we would win a lot of games. He ran us like dogs, but he was right. Not long into the season, Rich Balswick joined Fred as an assistant coach. The combination of Fred’s fire and Rich’s calm was just what we needed. A team that was expected to go nowhere ran many other teams off the court, turning many close games to blowouts in the fourth quarter.
Yes, we won almost all of our games. However, as the season progressed, something else started to happen. We bonded together as the underdog, the team no one wanted, and had a great time playing with friends for great coaches. And here is where my story takes a turn.
If we are lucky, we can look back at our education and remember the one or two coaches or teachers who helped shape our lives in a very positive way. For me, that was Fred. As much as I loved playing for him, we lost touch for 20 years. I found him still teaching at Mountain View High (no longer Awalt) in 1993, and invited him to our 20-year reunion.
That started a renewal of our friendship that included our wives, Georgette and Diane, becoming friends, and a wonderful three years together on the sidelines of Foothill College football games. Fred was coaching linebackers at the time and invited me and my 6-year-old son, Christopher, to a game. At that game, my son and I served as Foothill ball boys and did so for the next three seasons. Christopher and I had a great time those three years, and he got to know Fred and experience the atmosphere of the sidelines. He did ask the meaning of a few words he had never heard before.
Over the years, Fred and I remained in contact, enjoying hikes in the hills and a few dinners and lunches with Diane and Georgette. It was on one of these hikes that I mentioned to Fred that we should have a reunion of that basketball team from all those years ago. I don’t remember the exact year now, but we met and it was as wonderful as I thought it would be.
Fred passed away late last year. It so happened that the day he died, a group of his former Los Altos High athletes were gathered for a mini reunion. We raised a glass (or two or three) in his honor and told stories about playing for him. My love and admiration for Fred was widely and deeply shared.
Fred and I remained friends all of these years, and I was deeply honored to be one of the speakers at his memorial service. I shared Fred’s and my story that day and would like to share it with any reader who remembers Fred. Along with many others, I thank Fred for that friendship and Georgette and their family for sharing him with us.
Bruce Arkley is Los Altos High alumnus.