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What: Celebration of Harry Tappin’s life

Where: St. John’s Catholic Church gym, 208 Matheson St., Healdsburg

When: 1-3 p.m. Saturday, May 12

Sign the guestbook for Harry Tappin

Harry Tappin, a coach who breathed fire for 32 minutes but settled into a warm embrace the moment the whistle blew, will be remembered Saturday as the architect of one of the most dominant sports dynasties in the history of the North Bay.

A trip through The Press Democrat archives unearthed a staggering stat line for the longtime Healdsburg High girls basketball coach: 12 consecutive Sonoma County League championships (more if you count his time as assistant coach), a 110-game win streak, three section championships and back-to-back trips to the state title game in 1991 and 1992.

“I thought he was one of the best coaches in the state,” said longtime Berkeley High coach and sometimes-rival Gene Nakamura. “It was getting his girls to play so danged hard.”

Tappin, who emerged from retirement in recent years to assist a former Healdsburg High standout with the team, died April 20 at his Healdsburg home after a long battle with cancer. He was 79.

Tappin stories and tales of Healdsburg’s legendary stranglehold on girls basketball will be told Saturday in the most appropriate of places: a gym. A celebration of life is planned for 1 p.m. at the St. John’s School gym in Healdsburg.

In his time, Tappin dismantled existing perceptions about girls sports and is credited with changing the landscape of girls basketball in the North Bay.

Before Harry Tappin came along, few girls teams played in summer leagues, few high school girls teams traveled to competitive tournaments and few girls coaches were videotaping games and breaking down other squads’ strategies. Top-shelf club teams? Those were for boys.

“Harry, before anyone else, went out of the area to play great teams and great players,” said Mark Rigby, who coached at Ursuline High School from 1985-95 and won a state championship in 1992 with the Bears.

And in their travels, the Hounds didn’t always win. That wasn’t the point.

“He’d fail (in order) to get better,” Rigby said.

“It was, ‘If you want to do this, let’s do it right,’” Rigby said. “He was way ahead of his time.

“There is no doubt about it, he saw the potential of girls basketball and girls athletics way before anyone else did.”

Playing a Tappin-coached team was no joke.

“He’d bite your damn legs off if he could,” said longtime Sonoma County League rival Doug Johnson of Petaluma High. “He’d try to beat your brains out, but by God if I ever needed anything, he was there.”

Rigby said anyone who walked into Healdsburg’s gym was wise to brace themselves.

“He’d trap the hell out of you in the corner. If you didn’t get it over half court, that was your problem,” he said. “It worked.”

“He’d go full court for 32 minutes,” he said. “But if you couldn’t handle it, then you needed to get yourself better.”

Tappin raced to 300 wins as head coach in just 12 seasons. And he got No. 300 on Feb. 8, 1996, against his old rival Johnson.

“They were very aggressive,” Johnson said of the Hounds. “They came out to play. They were tough. They would try to kick your fannies, no doubt about it.”

But after the game? “Hell, it was like, ‘OK, when are we going to meet again?’”

The Hounds certainly had an aura about them during those years.

“We walked in and everyone knew we were from Healdsburg,” said Karen, Harry’s wife of nearly six decades, who as the team’s scorekeeper was a permanent fixture on the sidelines.

That confidence was no lie. I remember the Hounds walking into the Santa Rosa High School gym in, I think it was 1990, and one of their players coolly asking if they could play their warmup music on the PA system. In our gym. We politely demurred. I can guarantee you that was the only battle the Panthers won that night.

Karen Tappin, who worked for the Healdsburg School District, said word would sometimes reach her that opponents weren’t pleased with being on the receiving end of a Hounds’ beatdown.

“They’d say, ‘God, I caught hell last night, all they could talk about was how bad they got beaten by Healdsburg,’” she laughed.

Tappin was said to turn to his second string early in most cases. But according to lore, his second string could often beat anyone around. Handily. His bench was as deep as they come.

According to Karen Tappin, one season the Hounds averaged 72 points a game. All of this led to an air of invincibility.

Fresh off yet another North Coast Section title in 1987 and readying for the NorCal playoffs, Tappin told a Press Democrat reporter, “Sure I know how we can get beat, but I’ll keep it to myself.”

Still, in the later years of Tappin’s run at Healdsburg, when some teams — including Petaluma — began to turn the tables a little, the Hounds played as hard as ever and their coach was as fierce as ever.

And yet Tappin didn’t begrudge other programs’ success. Maybe he saw his own role in the emergence of more quality teams in the area.

So when Johnson’s Trojans took it to the Hounds one year, he remembered Tappin’s postgame greeting like this: “The smile was larger and the handshake was more friendly. He had no animosity whatsoever.

“He was a total class act from top to bottom,” he said. “He was one of the finest gentleman I have ever coached against.”

And it was more than a handshake. Rivals on the court, Johnson said Tappin never failed to advocate for the Trojans and other North Bay teams back in the day when coaches would attend postseason seeding meetings and make their case.

“He really beat the drum for the Sonoma County League,” Johnson said.

That was true in the North Coast Section tournaments and beyond.

During a stretch from 1985 to the early 1990s, Healdsburg High and Novato High traded NCS titles every year. A fierce rivalry? Yes. The birth of a great friendship? Yes again.

Tappin and Novato coach Ron Wheatley dogged each other on the court every winter, but spent summers bringing their players together for three-on-three tournaments. Each year, hours after the NCS title was decided between the two teams, Tappin and Wheatley climbed into the same car and drove south to the NorCal seeding meeting to tell the committee how strong the other’s squad was.

Other coaches would look at the pair of rivals, dumbfounded.

“He loved winning,” Wheatley said. “But at the same time, I don’t think in any way it was always about winning. A big part of it was about teaching.”

“Harry was very special to me,” Wheatley said. “We just became really good friends.”

Wheatley wasn’t the only guy to forge a deep friendship with someone who was also a fierce rival. Johnson and Rigby both spoke of how Tappin’s intensity on the floor nearly melted when the game was finished.

“When it was over, it was over,” Rigby said. Even when the younger Rigby’s team started getting the better of the Hounds, Tappin gave him nothing but love.

“I love him for it. I appreciate it to this day,” Rigby said.

Basketball may have been Tappin’s life, but he had to make a living, too. Every weekday at 5 p.m., he’d turn the key to the right at ABC Glass and show up at Smith Robinson Gym 10 minutes later. He usually found his squad already stretched and waiting for him.

“We ate dinner at 8 p.m. for 30 years,” Karen Tappin said.

She sounded perfectly fine with that.

The Tappins reared four children: Herman Tappin, Lauree Tappin-Baldwin, Natalee Tappin and Cheree Tappin. But their family came to include so many of the kids who played basketball for the Hounds or softball and kickball for the recreation league the Tappins ran in town for years.

His legendary fire burned nothing but warmth for his players, friends said. He even saved some for his so-called foes.

“I didn’t see him enough,” Johnson said. “But God dang it, he is someone I cherish calling a friend.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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