WILDWOOD CREST – In her living room, in Wildwood Crest, Fran Vogel sat alone, wearing a black t-shirt that read “Ball is Back – Lakers 2020,” her hands clenched, sipping Bailey’s poured from an oversized, NBA Playoffs edition bottle.
Her son, Frank Vogel, was on the television, in Disney World, but these weren’t old home movies from a family trip. It was game six of the NBA Finals and Vogel, who grew up on Bayview Avenue, in Wildwood Crest, was coaching one of the NBA’s marquee franchises, the Los Angeles Lakers, led by one of the game’s all-time greats, LeBron James.
“I watched it all by myself because I get too nervous,” Vogel’s mother said. “I don’t drink a whole lot, but I do during the playoffs.”
Win and the Lakers would become NBA champions for the 17th time – James for the fourth and Vogel for the first. Lose and the Miami Heat would force a deciding game seven.
After a convincing 106-93 win over the Miami Heat, in the NBA’s pandemic bubble at Disney World, in Orlando, Florida, Vogel Oct. 11 hoisted the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy in his first season as Lakers head coach.
“Pretty amazing,” he said. “Just a long journey, starting obviously at the Jersey Shore and finding the right doors to open, and then working my tail off through all that, all culminating in this opportunity here with the Lakers and the ability to be with some great players. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
1st Taste of Fame
Vogel started his basketball career on the green team at Crest Pier, his mother remembers.
He was “a scrappy player,” recalled Dave Troiano, the coach of Wildwood High School’s girls’ basketball team for 39 seasons, and Vogel’s high school history teacher.
Vogel played ball at Crest Memorial School, and it was while he was a student there that he first represented the Crest on a national stage, in a 1986 episode of “Late Night with David Letterman.”
Vogel’s mother, while working as a waitress at Urie’s Waterfront Restuarant, in Wildwood, was bragging to coworkers about a stunt her son pulled in the driveway of their home, where he brushed his teeth while spinning a basketball on a toothbrush. On the promise of free chicken wings, she convinced him to come to Urie’s and perform the trick.
A cook, who worked with Vogel’s mother, tried out for Letterman’s “Stupid Human Tricks,” a long-running segment where viewers performed unique, impressive, and often circus-like acts in front of the comedian and host.
The cook gave Vogel’s mother the phone number, which she called.
Vogel auditioned for producers, and within two weeks, was scheduled to appear on the show to perform the stunt.
“It was surreal. I didn’t really understand the scope of it, with it being national TV, and then, ultimately, someday being YouTube TV, on the internet forever,” Vogel said.
“Coming back to town, my friends thought it was cool and my parents’ friends thought it was cool. For a small window of time, I was, I don’t know, the toast of the town, so to speak,” he added.
High School Years
Vogel played basketball at Wildwood High School. His coach, Joe Bimbo, recalled, “Frank wasn’t any kind of outstanding player or anything like that. His freshman year, you wouldn’t have even noticed him, but he worked very hard.”
“I was exceptionally mediocre as a player,” said Vogel, part of the class of 1991.
However, what Bimbo noticed was Vogel’s work ethic.
“Right after the last game, he was in the gym, working out. I said, ‘Man, this kid is different.’ Kids don’t usually show up, they take some time off, but he was right back in there,” Bimbo said. “You could see him getting better and better.”
Vogel got the nod his junior year after the team’s star point guard, Brendan Connor, graduated. His coach, at first, was a little uneasy.
“He was the fifth option on the team. The last thing we wanted him to do was shoot the ball,” said Bimbo. “He was the leader of that group by the time he was a senior, and they took us all the way to South Jersey semi-finals.”
Vogel said he received great advice from Bimbo and Andy Ridgway, junior varsity coach.
“Those guys always talked about the point guard being the coach on the floor and being an extension of them. I always tried to make sure I played the game through a coach’s lens. I think that helped prepare me for a coaching career,” said Vogel.
Community Rallies After House Fire
During Vogel’s senior year of high school, he was awoken in the middle of the night by shattering glass, his mother recalled.
He got out of bed to check out the noise when he realized their home, in the Crest, was engulfed in flames, and the sound was a sliding, glass door getting blown out.
He and his mother, the only two home, escaped unharmed through windows, but they lost their home and possessions.
Afterward, the Vogels learned something about the Wildwoods and the people who live there.
“It’s an amazing community,” said Vogel. “They came together because we didn’t have insurance and we lost everything. I just remember within three days, I had a full new wardrobe. I had a place to stay with Chris Henderson Realty and with some friends prior to that. We had places to go.
“The community really just rallied around us, whether the people knew us, or they didn’t. I know Wildwood explodes in the summertime, but it is really a small community of year-round locals and those people supported my family in a way I’ll never forget.”
After the fire, Vogel’s mother said basketball was the distraction her son needed.
“You would’ve never known anything was wrong, as far as him handling the adversity. He just came to practice and played like it was a normal day,” said Bimbo.
Vogel said he’s drawn on that experience to handle the adversity he faced in his NBA career. This year, the Lakers had several challenges to overcome on their way to the NBA Championship.
“Every time you face adversity in your life, you learn how to handle it and how to move forward, not move on, because it always stays with you. I think that did have an impact on the things we were facing this season,” said Vogel.
Before this season, he took the Lakers job after they reportedly offered it to two others. He came into a team led by a player who had once been his playoff nemesis, LeBron James.
A month after signing Vogel, in a blockbuster trade, the Lakers acquired Anthony Davis, an all-pro big man.
Vogel suddenly had a roster with more than a shot at winning, with two of the game’s biggest stars. There was an expectation to win.
In January, the Lakers were dealt a devastating blow when Kobe Bryant, the legendary shooting guard who won five NBA Championships in a 20-year career with the Lakers, died in a helicopter crash in the foggy hills of Calabasas, California.
The organization, league, and nation mourned the loss, and a makeshift memorial was set up by fans outside the team’s Los Angeles arena, Staples Center. Bryant’s passing was not lost on Vogel, even though he was new to the organization.
“We had some difficult times, especially with losing Kobe Bryant, who was so important to the basketball community, but more importantly to my new Lakers family,” said Vogel.
A few months later, in March, the league shut down, as active players tested positive for COVID-19 and restrictions caused by the pandemic began to sweep the nation. There were no in-person team activities until the league resumed, in July, inside the bubble.
In Orlando, Florida, Vogel had to keep millionaire players happy and motivated without visitors or their families, the ability to go out, and only food cooked in the bubble available.
He had to replace one of his starters, Avery Bradley, who opted out of playing in the bubble because one of his sons has a respiratory condition, while publicly supporting Bradley and his reasons for leaving the team.
As protests for social justice and racial equality swept the NBA in the wake of the shooting of unarmed Black man, Jacob Blake, The Athletic reported that Lakers players voted not to play the rest of the season, as a form of protest. Vogel said, in an interview with ESPN, that the report floored him, and after more conversations with the team, it became clear everyone wanted to stay and play.
“If your group is together, you can handle anything. That was at the top of the board, day one of training camp,” Vogel said.
He added it was the bond developed early on that kept the team together through all those bumps and ultimately that togetherness led them to become champions, an attitude, in part, created by Vogel.
“You draw on all those experiences throughout your life. The fire in the Crest was my senior year, and I think it was one of the things that showed me how to deal with adversity,” he said.
Vogel returns to the Crest for a couple of weeks at a time, usually in the summer. He’s not sure when he will be able to make his next trip, with the scheduling changes caused by the pandemic.
He also enjoys trips to Philadelphia to play the 76ers, a team he grew up rooting for, and with whom he was once an assistant coach early in his career.
“I love the City of Philadelphia, and I love my South Jersey roots. There would always be a number of friends, former teachers, former coaches, anyone you can mention that would be in the crowd shouting out my name. You would look up and see an old friendly face. That always meant a lot to me,” said Vogel.
In a game against the 76ers, in January, Vogel wore a maroon tie in honor of Wildwood High School. After the game, he greeted as many people as he could, taking pictures and signing autographs for his supporters who made the trip from the shore.
“Security is a little different with LeBron James and Anthony Davis on your team,” Vogel said.
Pride and Joy
Troiano texted Vogel after the championship game. “Congratulations. All of Wildwood is so very proud of you,” Troiano wrote.
Vogel replied, “Even though I’m on the West Coast, I always feel the Wildwood support.”
In his interview with the Herald, Vogel echoed that sentiment.
“I hear and feel all the support. Whether people are reaching out to me directly or through my parents, how proud everyone is back there,” Vogel said. “I’m equally as proud to represent the Wildwoods on this big stage. It’s pretty awesome for me to represent my hometown.”
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