There’s an award given at the end of each Norman North girls basketball season to the player who goes above and beyond for their teammates, who steps into the void to do what needs doing, who, in a way, shows the most love.
It is called the Mary Beal Spirit Award and good chance, few outside North’s girls' basketball program know who Mary Beal is.
They may know her son.
They may know Al Beal.
Still, here’s the thing about that.
Tell somebody who that guy is over there, sitting on the North girls’ bench, next to head coach Rory Hamilton, and they may think, Yeah, Al Beal, assistant coach, tall, he must have played the game.
There may also be tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, maybe more, who know and remember Al Beal well.
However, were those same people who remember Al Beal to lay eyes upon the tall assistant along the visiting Timberwolves’ bench, they might have no idea they’re looking at Al Beal.
For that matter, neither the group that knew him then nor knows him now likely knows a whole lot about the time between.
Nor would they know that, while Mary Beal’s life and example has been memorialized by the North girls, her life and example, while undoubtedly informing her son now and forever, affected him in other ways, too.
• • •
“I’ve always said, I didn’t want to have one career,” Beal said.
Beal watched his mother work as a maid and as a factory worker making windshield wiper blades and it was the factory work that made the impression.
Every day, the same thing.
The never-ending monotony.
“I just wanted my life to be a little more than one thing,” Beal said.
It has been much more than one thing.
Of course, he played the game.
Back before he disgraced himself as Baylor’s head coach, Dave Bliss was an up and coming college coach in the 1970s, and after several years as an assistant to Bob Knight at Indiana, Bliss became OU’s head coach in 1975.
His first recruiting class included Cary Carrabine and John McCullough, the latter of whom would go on to become Big Eight player of the year. His second recruiting class included Aaron Curry, who you’ve probably not heard of, yet was a terrific collegiate player, Terry Stotts, who you know better as the head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, and Beal.
Carrabine came off the bench, the other four started, and that fivesome was the driving force behind the 1978-79 Sooners, the best OU basketball team anybody’d seen in a long, long time.
That team is notable, too, for who ended its season: Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores in the Sweet 16.
Indiana State prevailed 93-72, yet what might have been still sticks with Beal.
“I thought we had it,” he said. “I still remember that one foul. John McCullough threw the lob, Bird backs under me and they called the foul on me for over the back, and I think that might have been my fourth.”
It probably was.
Sports-reference.com reports Beal played only 22 minutes, eventually fouling out. He finished with 10 points on 5 of 7 shooting and grabbed four rebounds.
Bird, of course, was amazing, notching game highs of 29 points, 15 rebounds and five assists.
That junior season was Beal’s best. He averaged 12.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and made 62.7 percent of his shots, a record that stood until Blake Griffin made 65.4 percent of his in 2009.
Where next for Beal?
Though a third-round pick of the Milwaukee Bucks, he played the professional game in Europe, logging five seasons in Italy and four in France, learning to speak Italian well enough to dream in it along the way.
“I probably could have squeaked out another three or four [seasons] but I was burned out,” he said.
Then, you’ll never guess.
“I left France and I was on a flight back, from Paris, to Dallas, to Oklahoma City and my intention was to go back and finish school — I was 12 hours short — teach history and coach; that’s what my high school coach did,” Beal said. “So, I’m on the plane and I strike up a conversation with this guy, and he ended up owning a medical supply company. He said, ‘If you’re interested in a career, give me a call.’”
Beal did and soon, for the most part, he was selling silicone breast implants to plastic surgeons all over Deep South.
Beal lived in New Orleans and his territory was Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. It was the dawn of the ’90s and he was in a growth industry, to be sure.
However, it wasn’t long after that, the Food and Drug Administration stepped in and shut down the silicone implant business.
Eventually, Beal moved back to Oklahoma, switched firms and sold anesthesia circuits and masks before, believe it not, entering the energy business, doing land man work.
Yet another career.
He only quit doing that six years ago, even as he began his relationship with North basketball more than 15 years ago.
• • •
Beal has been just fine with never becoming a head coach.
“The older you get, you just don’t have the stamina to do everything that goes on,” he said, pointing at Hamilton, a few feet away. “He does a whole lot of stuff that you don’t know about, that I just physically and mentally don’t have the drive to do. And I never really wanted to be that guy. I think it just fits my personality to be behind the scenes and help the best I can.”
Beal’s been the common link between the North girls’ last four head coaches: Hamilton, Jeff Blough, Don Van Pool and Steve Anderson.
The T-Wolves have done all right over that time, reaching the state tournament in 2010, 2013, 2014 and this past season, losing the state championship game to Norman High.
Some terrific players at their game do not make the best teachers of their game, however, Beal does not suffer that fate.
“I was never one of those elite athletes,” he said. “I worked hard for everything that was given to me, so I always see potential in every person that comes in if they’re willing to work.”
In fact, his only complaint is running across athletes who struggle to put in the work.
Generally, he said, girls take to coaching more easily than boys, but that doesn’t mean each of them, or that many of them, have the fever for the game the way Beal remembers himself and about everybody he grew up with having.
At the same time, he knows the way into a player’s heart and there’s no faking it.
“They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” he said, “and that’s so true and that’s kind of the way I’ve done my career.”
Nonetheless, he admits that in his earlier coaching days, he was not so gentle. Instead, he was more likely to emulate his high school coach or Bliss, taskmasters who were not there to coach effort because effort was presumed.
“As the years pass, you soften and you change and you understand and you adapt or get left behind,” he said.
The man he works for, Hamilton, probably believes the gentler Beal to be the more authentic Beal. Because he’s seen Beal with players since he arrived at North, but also because he’s seen Beal as a teacher’s aide, working in North’s special education department.
“I get to see, daily, the positive impact he has not only on our players, our coaches, but also those kids,” Hamilton said. “They’re [coming up to him] in the hallways, they’re talking to coach when they see him … He has a gift for it. It’s inspiring to watch.”
That experience gives Beal added motivation to reach the players he’s trying to not only teach the game, but to use the game for greater benefit beyond.
“I’m around kids whose feet will never touch the ground, who have a smile on their face,” he said. “And you have the audacity to be upset because your iPhone isn’t working?”
Of course, however he imparts the message, it’s from a calm and caring place. He’s not the wound up coach he used to be.
He knows he’s reaching them.
“It’s not about the ball as much as what that ball signifies in terms of preparing you for what you’re going to face in life,” Beal said. “I know it sounds cliché, but I’m telling you, every single class I get at least one or two [players] coming back that says, ‘I get it.’”
• • •
He’s a family man, too. And, on that count, he may be batting a thousand.
His oldest child, Jennifer, is a teacher’s aide at Whittier Middle School, studying to be a special education teacher. His oldest son, Matthew, is in the energy business in Oklahoma City. His middle son, Jared, is a bank examiner with the Federal Reserve. His youngest son, Joshua, is a teacher’s aide, also at Whittier. And his wife, Connie, is a teacher’s aide at Truman Elementary.
Talk about a Norman Public Schools family. Given the award memorializing Beal’s mother, that’s three generations of his family connected to the district.
He’s in his 60s now.
He’s not sure how long he’ll be doing exactly what he’s doing now, but figures to be around the game in some way shape or form. Heck, maybe just for the camaraderie.
Beal said his favorite thing has been “the experience that I’ve had with every single coach in here … I’ve learned something from each coach. I learn from every single person … I learn from special ed kids every day.”
Before the interview for this story ended, right after Beal explained how he always wanted his life to be about more than one thing, he recalled a gift he received while a high school student in South Florida.
It was the writing of Henry David Thoreau, who penned the line, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
“A girl I was dating,” Beal said, “gave me that book and it stuck.”
He didn’t want that to be his life either.
It hasn’t been.