For Cooperstown boys basketball coach John Lambert, last week’s Class C state championship featured enough heart-warming storylines to be a television movie.
In his first year coaching the varsity team at his alma mater — a school that also has an athletic field named for his late father, who died about a year earlier — Lambert coached his son and his son’s friends to a state championship. Two years earlier, he had coached most of those same boys to an undefeated junior varsity season.
For a dramatic ending, Lambert’s son, Jack, scored 53 points in a triple-overtime win against Greenport in the state semifinals March 16, and was named the tournament MVP after scoring 23 in the final against Middle Early College the next day.
Oh, and it was the first state title in school history for the boys basketball team.
“When you put it like that, it just makes me smile,” Lambert said Tuesday, nine days after the final game. “Number one, looking at it as all the hard work put in by my son, from that perspective, all the hard work put in by my son’s friends, from that perspective, it just makes me smile. And, two, personally, as a father, I know I am blessed.
“It is finally starting to sink in,” he said. “When you drive around town a little bit and see the signs, and you think about how you brought that to the community, that just keeps repeating in my head. To know that the boys, they were the ones who did that, that just keeps repeating in my head.”
It has been an amazing season for Lambert, his family and his team. In October, he was awarded the Clark Sports Center’s Fetterman Award, which honors a local individual for his or her outstanding actions with area kids, particularly in sports. Less than a month later, he was promoted from junior varsity coach to varsity coach to replace Dave Bertram.
Bertram, who had won section titles in two of the past three seasons, became the school’s athletic director last summer. He had continued the school’s successful run in the sport, going 256-87 with five section titles in 18 seasons.
Cooperstown has also won the last three The Daily Star player of the year awards for boys basketball, but those players — Bertram’s son Tyler won the award for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, and Owen Kennedy Jr. won the award for the 2017-18 season — are playing college sports this year. However, even with the big losses, Lambert said he knew he had a team with championship potential his first season.
“They were undefeated as sophomores without Jack and Noah (Lifgren, both of whom were already playing varsity),” Lambert said. “I knew I had a special group at that point. As sophomores they had just as good a run as they did this year. It allowed us to get to know one another, and to know what to expect of one another.”
Lambert, a 1987 Cooperstown Central School graduate, played on a high school final four team, too. His team, which lost in the 1985 state semifinals, is inducted into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame, a future he can now envision for this year’s team.
“I don’t think they have thought about it yet,” he said. “I have thought about that, though, because I have gone through it with my own team, in 1985. We have had the reunions. We have been inducted into the Hall and Fame. So I know that is something these kids will be doing someday, too. It is a neat thing to think about.”
A few weeks after being named varsity coach, Lambert was re-elected to a 10-year term as Otsego County judge. He is also an acting state supreme court justice. But he has frequently said he enjoys the title of Coach Lambert more than Judge Lambert, and he feels the wins and titles are more a credit to his players than to him.
“People have been saying so many nice things (about my coaching). I do take great pride in the success of team,” he said. “I appreciate the compliments. I do. But I don’t shoot the ball. I don’t rebound the ball. It is the fact that it was these kids that did it, that is the part that is special to me.
“I did learn that from my father, absolutely,” he said.
Paul Lambert, who died in December 2017 at 87, coached basketball and other sports at Cooperstown, but left coaching to become principal and, later, superintendent at CCS. He taught his son teamwork and hard work were more important than individual honors, values Lambert said he stresses to his players.
“My mom and I have talked about it. He would have loved to have been here. He would have loved to have seen this, but maybe we needed him up there to get that ball to bounce in,” Lambert said.
“He always stressed to me, it wasn’t just about winning, it was about winning the right way,” Lambert said. “To me, if you win but it isn’t the right way, then I think it loses meaning. It is funny, you try to instill those lessons in your kids, and my father tried to instill those lessons in me. Now that he is not here to tell me, it is still inside of me. Now it is something for me to tell my teams.
“That’s what I love about this year’s team,” he continued. “They won the right way, with hard work, with teamwork, with determination. It wasn’t about an individual. It was every player. It was about the group. I think it all came down to this group. They were just not going to be denied.”
Starting a varsity coaching career with a state championship might be a hard act to top, but Lambert said he is game. His younger son, Charlie, is in eighth grade, and Lambert said he looks forward to coaching him and his friends someday. (Lambert’s daughter, Anna, is a sophomore and was a junior varsity call-up for the girls team that also won a section title this year.) And next year’s team, despite losing Jack, three other starters and four other seniors, has three experienced players coming back — junior starter Ryan Lansing and sophomores Spencer Lewis and John Kennedy — and another good junior varsity team moving up to fill out the roster.
“I have no plans on stepping down,” Lambert said. “I know it is nice to go out on top, but we are not done yet. We are going to continue to play to the best of our abilities.”