By Steve Ruman
When it comes to coaching basketball, there are no boundaries for Bernie Tarr.
In the mid-1990s, Tarr established himself as one of the top coaches in Northeast Ohio. The Niles native and Girard High graduate was a head coach at Badger, Hubbard and Bedford St. Peter Chanel, where he compiled a career record of 258-154. Three of his teams won regional championships.
In 2011, Tarr was hired by the government of Belize as the national Technical Officer of Basketball. The position put Tarr in charge of the country’s basketball program, from the youth level through the national team.
Now, Tarr is taking his talents even further south, this time to Bolivia. There, he will coach Team Amistad — a member of Bolivia’s 10-team professional basketball league.
“When I began my coaching career at St. Stephen’s Elementary in Niles, I never imagined it would lead me to places like Belize or Bolivia,” Tarr said. “Heck, until a few years ago, I couldn’t even find those places on the map.”
Last month, Tarr resigned from his position as Belize’s head of basketball operations for political reasons. He noted that the country recently appointed a new Minister of Sports, and that “there were differing missions and philosophies” which were preventing him from carrying out his own goals.
“I guess the best comparison is when a college hires a new athletic director, and he wants to do things his way,” Tarr said. “We made tremendous strides, and I wanted to remain on the same path.
“I am very proud of what was accomplished during my time in Belize,” Tarr said. “I believe we made a huge impact on the whole country, especially in the way we introduced basketball to the grade school and high school level.”
Interest in basketball has flourished in Belize since Tarr first visited the country in 1995 to run basketball camps. During his first visit, he recalled being greeted by approximately 45 campers — half of which wore tennis shoes. The remaining campers either wore sandals or no shoes at all.
Tarr quickly realized that he was teaching a sport to children who grew up on soccer. When he asked them to dribble the basketball, many began doing so with their feet.
Today, the country still has just one basketball facility equipped with a wooden floor, but its youth are flocking to the playgrounds to hone their skills. And some are even finding their way to the United States, thanks to the King James Project — a program Tarr developed which allows Belize’s most promising players to attend the LeBron James-sponsored basketball camp.
Since bringing his first group of athletes to the United States three years ago, Tarr has helped three Belizians earn scholarships to American colleges, while two others are here attending high school in the States.
“That experience alone has made all the time spent in Belize worth the effort,” Tarr said. “For those who make the trip to America, it is the experience of a lifetime. For some, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Tarr, who is spending time in the Mahoning Valley “catching as many tournament games as I can,” will make his professional coaching debut on March 20 when his Bolivian team tips off for a three-month season. The league allows three foreign players per team, and Tarr has acquired the services of former Kent State standout Randal Holt. His roster also will include Winston Pratt, a player he helped develop in Belize.
“I can still use a six-ten big man, and one who can preferably help me with the Spanish language spoken in Bolivia,” Tarr said with a laugh.
Tarr is uncertain of his basketball future beyond June. He hopes to continue the King James Project in Belize, and locally he excepts to spend the summer running camps. He also hasn’t ruled out a return to coaching in the Mahoning Valley.
“I feel like basketball in Belize made great strides during my time there, and I hope to have the same impact in Bolivia,” Tarr said. “If I am presented to have the same opportunity with athletes in our area, I would certainly welcome the challenge.”