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Sunday, August 28, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Habegger Planting Seeds For Basketball In Germany

FOR FORMER Sonic executive Les Habegger, an offer to coach in Germany in 1987 blossomed into an opportunity to encourage and develop his sport there, and reach back to his roots as well.

Each year he remained away, his reputation solidified and expanded, like freezing water. Three years, four years, five years - that finally was enough. So they asked, then they pleaded, for him to come back.

But Les Habegger told the folks at Steiner-Bayreuth, whom he once guided to three straight German Pro League basketball championships, that he no longer was interested in coaching.

They countered with the deal of a lifetime. Habegger could come in the fall, coach training camp and maybe the first few games of the season. Then he could return to Seattle, where his wife, Anne, teaches. In the spring, he'd go back to Germany to coach the team in the playoffs.

"It was an interesting offer, to say the least," said Habegger, who spent nine years with the SuperSonics as an assistant coach, general manager and player-personnel director. "But ultimately, I told them the arrangement would be unfair to the guy coaching the team when I was not there."

That guy is Aaron McCarthy, whose father, Neil, is head coach at New Mexico State. And now Habegger is his boss. The new general manager of Steiner-Bayreuth, Habegger, who turns 70 in November, has the very same setup he was offered as coach.

Apparently, Steiner-Bayreuth believes that Habegger's presence is magic enough. By the time he arrived in Germany, McCarthy and all the players were in place. All that's left is for Habegger to wave his wand.

"When I first went to Germany (in 1987), the thought of having anyone with any kind of NBA connection was absurd," Habegger said. "I was like a trophy to the guys in Bayreuth."

Soon, Habegger provided them with real hardware.

During his first season, Steiner-Bayreuth compiled a 49-11 record, won the German Cup championship, logged a victory over the then-powerful Soviet team and won three Asian tournament championships, including the prestigious Jones Cup. In three years, Habegger's team won three German Cups, and twice advanced to the European Cup, where it beat a team from Yugoslavia in 1989.

That was back in the embryonic days of basketball development in Germany. Since then, the sport has taken off. The NBA brought the McDonald's Open last fall. A team from Germany won the European Championships for the first time last summer.

This rise is no surprise to Habegger.

"The country is so Westernized," he said. "It gets all the NBA playoff games on TV, and they're up with what's going on in the league.

"Soccer is the big thing there, and to play soccer you have to be pretty athletic. So the athletic skill has always been there. It just had to be honed for basketball."

Habegger had a part in the honing. He's taught basketball classes at the local university in Bayreuth, held countless clinics across the country and participated in publicity campaigns. And, of course, served as the reigning basketball legend.

"Somehow, they got it in their heads that nobody else could coach," Habegger said. "I don't want anyone to tell them differently."

Steiner-Bayreuth happened along at precisely the right time for Habegger in 1987. His contract as player-personnel director had not been renewed by the Sonics, and he was in low spirits. Going to Germany reconnected him to many things.

Habegger's ancestors are from the German-speaking part of Switzerland. He fought in Germany with Gen. George Patton's Third Army in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. When he left in 1946, Habegger vowed never to return.

But he has several times - beginning in 1984, when as general manager he took the Sonics to Germany for a summer tour.

Before leaving for his most recent visit, Habegger received an urgent phone call from his team owner. He wanted to make sure Habegger was prepared to meet with the German press the next day.

"He wanted me to tell them the same things he'd already told them," Habegger said, "that I had hired the coach and signed all the players."

None of which is true, but makes for a better story. At least, the one which Steiner-Bayreuth has longed for the past five years.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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