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Local basketball legend retires

After 33 years of coaching basketball, Joe Bullen (far right), of Oxford, has retired. Here Bullen is seen with his last team, the 2010-11 Lake Orion Baptist School Lions. (click for larger version)
June 01, 2011 - Thirty-three years, five conference titles, two state championships, two national tournaments and 16 players who are now ordained ministers.

It's a pretty impressive legacy Joe Bullen leaves behind as he announced his retirement from coaching basketball.

"It's been a great ride," said the longtime Oxford Village resident.

For the last nine years, Bullen's coached the high school basketball team at Lake Orion Baptist School.

Prior to that, he spent 24 years coaching high school basketball for the now-defunct Oxford Christian Academy.

"I'll miss being with the kids and the camaraderie in the locker room," Bullen said. "There's tough times and there's good times. I'll miss them all."

Bullen established basketball programs at both of these small Christian schools. He founded OCA's program in 1973.

"At that time, we had no conferences," Bullen explained. "I would spent my lunch hour in the office (at General Motors), calling, trying to get ball games. I went anywhere from Port Huron to Webberville to get a game."

Being a small, private school, OCA didn't have a large athletics budget supported by tax dollars, so it required lots of initiative and improvisation on Bullen's part.

"It was a struggle to get going," he said. "We carried our equipment in a grocery bag."

Ultimately, the Southeastern Christian Conference was formed and Bullen's OCA Warriors won five conference titles.

"Our little team – we were known around the area," Bullen said. "No question about that."

Bullen's Warriors kept fighting and eventually, won two state championships, 1985 and 1993, in the Michigan Association of Christian Schools.

Prior to those championships, Bullen's team competed in the 1981 National Association of Christian Athletes (NACA) National Tournament in Dayton, Tennessee.

The team was invited to participate after out-scoring their opponents 1,132 to 788 during their regular season.

That same year, two of Bullen's players, Don Harrison and Steve Rose, were invited to play and Bullen was invited to coach in the NACA's All-Star Tournament, also held in Dayton.

When the OCA closed its high school in 1998, Bullen found himself without a team. His hiatus from coaching ended in 2002, when he established a basketball program for Lake Orion Baptist School and coached the Lions for nine seasons.

Bullen always preferred coaching basketball at a small school because it allowed lots of young men to play who otherwise "would never have the opportunity in a larger school."

"If they were in a school with 1,200 students, they'd never make the cut," he said.

In Bullen's eyes, basketball is the great leveler between large and small schools.

"The size of your school doesn't matter – you can only put five men on the court," he said. "It's talent that makes the difference."

As he looks back on his coaching career, Bullen believes the most rewarding part was "seeing the development of the young men."

"Sixteen of my former players are now ordained ministers," Bullen said.

That makes Bullen especially proud because he always injected "biblical principles" into his coaching and the life lessons he imparted to his players.

Some of Bullen's other players have gone on to become successful local businessmen, such as Don Harrison, who owns Community Insurance Center in Oxford, and Lee Knauf, a local attorney.

"He was more than just a coach, he was kind of a mentor to me as well," said Harrison, who was coached by Bullen from seventh grade through his senior year of high school. "He's a man of character who's committed to the different things he's involved in."

"I'm still involved with him through Rotary, so I have the pleasure of meeting with him on a weekly basis," Harrison added.

Bullen always stressed the importance of community service to his players through his example, which included many years of elected service on the Oxford Village Council, his membership in the Rotary Club of Oxford and his involvement in the First Baptist Church of Oxford.

"I'm not just telling you, you ought to do this, I'm showing them how to do it," he said.

As much as he wanted his players to excel on the basketball court, he never pushed them to succeed at the expense of their academic careers.

"A very, very high percentage of my basketball players have gone to college," Bullen said. "Practically all of them have gone and graduated."

Bullen always told his players, "if basketball interferes with academics, you need to give it up."

But just because he stressed academics doesn't mean Bullen wasn't serious about the time his players spent preparing for games.

"You win your playing time in practice," he said. "The effort you put in at practice is extremely critical."

Bullen's proud that many, many of his former players translated the discipline and dedication he instilled in them on the court into their careers, families and communities.

"There's really a lot of life lessons to be learned as you go through an athletic program," he said. "The gymnasium is like a classroom."

"He taught us to apply what you learned in basketball to the business world or your personal life," Harrison said. "Winning, losing, struggling, keeping at it – all the life lessons."

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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