Paul Blackburn is self-deprecating. That much is obvious, even in a 45-minute phone call.
“I thought my name was ‘Reverse the ball,’” he said of his former high school basketball days.
When asked if he has any free time from his busy schedule as a coach and father to three college-age children, he said: “[I’m] at home, I’m at the gym or I’m in the car running home from the grocery store.”
Even on the topic of his marriage to Tara, his wife of nearly 25 years, he enjoys making light of things.
“When she came in and saw me [the first time we met], she’s only human, she fell in love with me right away,” Blackburn said.
The 49-year-old Blackburn credits that dry humor, which is humbling in its own way, to where he grew up — Carlisle. Blackburn said his parents always preached honesty, realism and humility, which was then reinforced during his playing days with the Thundering Herd boys basketball team, a squad he helped to the first two PIAA Class AAAA state championships the program won in a four-year stretch.
“That’s one thing that people in Carlisle do, they speak the truth,” he said last month while planning a youth tournament he runs in Hershey.
A basketball life
Basketball remains a key part of life for Blackburn, who walked on at Slippery Rock University in the mid-1980s after his career in Carlisle.
Blackburn has held various coaching jobs for multiple schools in life after college. Tara was a basketball star at Tamaqua High School, and all three of their children — Victoria, Gabriela and Luke — played or continue to play the sport.
A multi-sport athlete growing up, Blackburn is the youngest sibling of four — oldest sister Linda is in Florida, Laura is a college professor in Virginia and brother David is in Sacramento — to parents who didn’t finish their GEDs until their 40s. His mom worked part time with a phone company and his dad serviced telephone polls after he served in World War II.
Blackburn is in his 27th year as a physical education teacher and currently works in Derry Twp. School District. He was good enough athletically to make Carlisle’s middle school basketball team but was told in eighth grade to come back only after he changed his attitude and improved his grades. Blackburn credits Allen Shank, the man who delivered that message, for shaping his future in many ways.
“My parents said, ‘Good, you don’t deserve to [play],’” Blackburn said, recalling the first time he told them.
After that, he picked up his grades and steadily rose through the Herd ranks — from freshman team, to JV, to varsity backup as a junior, to a key cog on the 1986 championship team.
“I played a lot of different roles,” he said. “I learned to be a part of a team and sacrifice.”
“Great team player,” Dave Lebo said in a phone call in March. “Good leader, smart player, very much a team player. All he wanted to do was fit in and help us win. Great attitude.”
More than 30 years later, Blackburn said he always makes sure he schedules a scrimmage with Carlisle. He stays connected to the community and stays in touch with his former teammates and coaches. He and Dave Coffey are particularly close.
The Blackburn family lived on East North Street in Carlisle and Blackburn said he would walk by the Owens’ house and other teammates as a kid while looking for something to do outside. They’d meet up, go to someone’s house or to a nearby court, or sometimes just go for a walk.
“You don’t really realize how neat it is, or how neat it is to a community, until after,” Blackburn said.
“Still there’s some restaurants in Carlisle I don’t have to pay a dime, they won’t take my money.”
At SRU, he played with several Rock greats. Myron Brown was drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the second round, then went on to play overseas for 15 years, Blackburn said. C. Russell graduated as the program’s all-time assists and steals leader, while Kevin Jones set the career blocks record.
Blackburn went right into teaching after graduating college, while also coaching track and field, volleyball and other sports over the past three decades.
His coaching journey covered a lot of District 3 and a bit beyond. He started as the ninth-grade coach at Tamaqua, where he worked after graduation.
He’s had two stints at East Pennsboro, as the JV coach first, then returning as an assistant for his wife with the girls team before being named the boys varsity coach. He coached Delone Catholic’s boys team to a state tournament run in 1995, a run that ended with a double overtime loss in the third round. He assisted Tara again with the Cumberland Valley girls squad in the years before Bill Wolfe’s arrival. He then took over as the boys coach at Lebanon.
He has spent the past eight years coaching the Hershey boys squad to a 124-72 record with just one losing season. The Trojans won the District 3 Class 5A fifth-place game last week and will play District 1 second seed Bishop Shanahan in Friday’s PIAA first round.
By far, the best talent Blackburn said he has coached was 2016 Hershey grad Dylan Painter, who is redshirting in his sophomore year at Villanova.
“He comes back and lifts here, works out,” Blackburn said.
Blackburn also coached East Penn’s Greg Schreiber in the 1990s before he went on to Gettysburg College (he now coaches at Frederick High School in Maryland). Brian Billman was at Delone before playing at Western Maryland. Anthony Trautman was a 1,000-point scorer at Lebanon before going on to become an All-American at Lebanon Valley College and playing pro ball overseas. Niko Traykov (Lebanon) went to St. Francis, then Bloomsburg. He’s now playing in Bulgaria.
Blackburn also organizes a youth tournament with more than 50 teams every year at Hershey, which Tim Bean and the booster club started before Blackburn arrived. Money raised goes to the booster club for various team expenses.
With the long career in coaching, Blackburn said he missed his own kids play quite a bit (he did coach Luke in high school). Basketball has meant a lot to the family, so sacrifices had to be made. Victoria wrapped up her career at Shippensburg University, where Gabrielle also plays, a few weeks ago. Blackburn said he made it to several games.
“We’ve missed a lot of their games, they know I love ‘em,” he said. “My mom, she had a massive heart attack when I was a junior [at Carlisle]. … She sat at home and listened with my dad, only got to see the senior state championship.”
Blackburn said he is happy with where life has taken him.
He thought one day he’d want to become an athletic director, but he enjoys coaching now. And he enjoys being in the community where he coaches and teaches. He’s made it a priority, and said he is reminded constantly of what Jim Dooley, the former Gettysburg High School coach who recently died, told him about coaching in a community.
“He said it’s great when you go to the gas station after a win,” and not so much after a loss, Blackburn said.
Wonder why he likes it so much.