Little “Jim-Jim” Larrañaga is walking home from St. Helena’s Elementary School, and his mother is waiting anxiously in their ground-floor apartment in Parkchester, a rough-and-tumble section of the South Bronx where middle-class families save up money all week to splurge at Macy’s and the Loew’s American movie theater on the weekends.
It’s 1955, and Larrañaga is in second grade.
His father, worried about his family’s security, has installed multiple locks on the door and rigged up an alarm system. He also taught little “Jim-Jim” how to whistle. But not just any whistle. It is a really loud, piercing whistle, a whistle so shrill and unmistakable that his mother can hear it as he approaches the apartment building.
That’s the idea. He whistles, alerting his mother he is almost home, and she heads to the door to disarm the alarm and unlock the locks.
“To get into the apartment, I had to get my mother’s attention,” Larrañaga explained. “I always did the same three-part whistle. She’d immediately go to the door and unlock the series of locks and turn off the alarm.”
They used that code throughout Larrañaga’s childhood. It never failed. He continues to use the distinctive whistle to communicate with his University of Miami basketball players during games. Anybody who has attended a Hurricanes game or watched one on TV can recognize the whistle.
It is so loud and sharp, it can be heard above the noise of the fans, pep band, announcer and music. Every one of his players’ heads pivot in the direction of the bench the instant that sound emerges from his mouth.
“This is year 13 for me with Coach, and I am still amazed by that whistle,” UM assistant coach Chris Caputo said. “I’ve tried to do it, to no avail. It’s a great, unique tool to have, especially in a loud, hostile environment. Most coaches yell, scream, stomp their feet. But when you have the ability to whistle at that pitch, the guys automatically know who it is. They immediately turn their heads, and we can send them hand signals or motion for them to come closer to talk to them.”
Eric Konkol, another of Larrañaga’s longtime assistants, has also unsuccessfully tried to teach himself the whistle.
“His whistle is so quick,” Konkol said. “Some coaches put a thumb and index finger in the corner of their mouths and try to whistle, which takes a few seconds. He doesn’t have to do that.
“It’s best used in those moments when you’re in a packed gym, it’s really loud and you can’t scream loud enough to get people’s attention, but that whistle just for that short split second, all the guys know it. It’s almost like Morse code.”
Larrañaga said his father taught him to whistle when he was 5 years old.
“He taught me where to place my tongue, how to do it, and I just practiced and practiced,” Larrañaga said. “Learning to whistle is a lot of trial and error.”
He tried to pass the skill on to his sons, John and Jay. John learned. Jay did not, and Jay is now an assistant coach with the Boston Celtics and could use it.
Larrañaga sheepishly admits he whistles at home to get the attention of his wife, Liz, when she is across the house. He has been told he has weak vocal chords because he speaks from his throat rather than his diaphragm, so the whistle helps prevent sore throats.
The only other coach he has run across with a similar whistle is Steve Donahue, former coach at Boston College.
Michael Huger played for Larrañaga at Bowling Green and has been on the UM staff for four years. His favorite Larrañaga whistle story happened in Haarlem, Netherlands, in 1992. Bowling Green was playing a tournament there and had been eliminated, so players were sitting in the stands watching other games. Due to political strife back home, the Greek national team was forced to withdraw, so tournament directors decided to have a coin toss between the coaches of the two teams that were eliminated to decide which could reenter the event.
All of a sudden, amongst the noise of the packed arena, the Bowling Green players heard the unmistakable whistle. They looked down by the court and saw Larrañaga celebrating. He had won the coin toss. “We knew the second we heard that whistle that we were back in the tournament,” Huger said. “There’s nothing like that whistle.”
Wednesday: UM men vs. Virginia Tech
When/where: 7 p.m.; BankUnited Center.
TV/radio: Sun Sports; 560 AM, 90.5 FM.
Records: UM 16-9, 6-6 ACC; Virginia Tech 10-15, 2-10.
Notable: The Canes will try to take advantage of a home date against struggling Virginia Tech, which has lost 11 of its past 13 games, because they will face a ranked opponent in two of their next three games when they play at No. 12 Louisville, then host No. 15 North Carolina. In between the two games is in-state rival Florida State at home.