Early in his basketball coaching career, Mike Hackett spent 10 years on the bench next to Jim East at Merrillville, a decade that would later serve as the foundation for the Elston graduate’s successful tenure at Munster.
“I don’t know if I could have been in a better spot to learn all the lessons I learned,” Hackett said. “Almost everything I do with our program comes from what I learned under Jim. You name it, he covered it for. I felt extremely prepared and it’s thanks to Jim.”
The 2008 Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, whose 653 wins over 43 seasons ranks 11th in state history -- and is the most among Region coaches -- died early Saturday at the age of 79 from the effects of dementia.
“We knew the day was coming,” Hackett said. “(Daughter) Kara had been staying in touch. Jim was a strong, proud man. It was really sad to see him in dwindling health. We were prepared for it, but it was still tough. Jim was a mentor and a great friend. Marlene (East), Kara and Leo (Bonin) and I are all friends. My boys are friends with Blake and Bryce (Bonin). It was definitely a family atmosphere there.”
Blake had the game of his life on his grandpa’s old court in a 2015 sectional win over Valpo, hitting seven 3s and scoring 23 points. He came in averaging less than six a game.
“Blake grew up shooting in that gym,” Hackett said. “That was a special moment.”
Hackett was part of an extensive East coaching tree, once a member of a staff that included Tom Peller (Chesterton) and Randy Stetler (Wheeler). Chris Johnson (Homestead), Skeeter Heath and Leo Bonin also worked under East. Among others, he also coached former and current Pirates coaches T.J. Lux and Bo Patton, and Zac Wells, who coached football at Merrillville and is currently on the staff at Homewood-Flossmoor.
“He was one of a select few coaches that I can say were true father figures in my life,” Wells said in a Twitter post. “His impact was always so beyond the court.”
During the 90s, Merrillville won seven sectionals and three regionals and was state runner-up in ‘95.
“First of all, I respected how he was so much of a family man,” Hackett said of East. “He was so smart. I respected how he ran a basketball program. He taught me how to establish a program, build a program, run a program, how to treat kids, deal with parents, administration, press and I listened. The main thing as an assistant coach, he allowed you to coach. I wasn’t a yes man. He gave me responsibility. He groomed me and I’m very appreciative of it.”
East was also well known for some gaudy purple sports coats, which contrasted with Joe Otis’ jackets at La Porte (orange) and Valparaiso (green).
“I think (La Porte radio man) Chip Jones once said, if we get too close to each other, we might start a fire,” Otis said. “Jim and I were good buddies. We had a long history. We had a mutual love of horse racing. He was just a lot better at picking winners than I was.”
Otis and East began their local prep coaching tenures at the same time in 1980. Otis actually applied for the same Merrillville job that went to East, withdrawing his name during the process. They coached against each other for 25 years, often squaring off multiple times in a season when the Duneland Conference had a double round-robin format and the schools were in the same sectional.
“There might be a couple guys who coached against him more than me, but there’s not many,” Otis said. “I did as well as anybody against him and that was a probably still just one out of three. He was very passionate, about coaching, about sports. He was a fierce competitor. There was no better defensive coach than Jim East. When you played them, your shooting percentage wasn’t going to be as high and you were going to turn the ball over more. He was great disrupter. You weren’t going to be able to do what you normally do and if you didn’t adapt, you were out of luck. You were going to get beat.”
A colleague of Ken Schreiber at La Porte, Otis drew parallels between East and the former Slicers baseball coach, as well as former Valpo hoops coach Virgil Sweet.
“He was meticulous in his detail, his preparation,” Otis said. “His expectations of his players, their behavior, he was old school, and it served him well.”
A graduate of Selma High School where he played baseball, basketball and track, and Ball State, East coached at Chester Center, Center, Connersville and Lawrenceburg before coming to the Region. He coached and did clincs in Africa, Australia, Asia and Europe. His final game, in 2011, was a 50-43 overtime loss in the sectional final to Otis’ Vikings.
“He had a great basketball life,” Otis said.