From ten crying girls to a Nike grant

When my eight year old daughter wanted to play sports, I was delighted.  I knew she had what it took to be good in any sport she chose. The fact that she wanted to play basketball was even better because that was my sport. I had played high school basketball in Oregon and coached at various levels in two states.

I signed my daughter up for the local recreational program and volunteered to coach—my first venture into coaching girls. But, I had coached boys for many years, so what’s the difference?

Let me know when you stop laughing.

In less than 20 minutes of our first practice, I had an entire team of eight and nine year old girls crying.

And that is when I realized:

  • Girls are not boys.

Duh.

One of the mothers approached me. She was my best friend’s sister so I thought it a good idea to listen.

She explained, “My daughter will do anything you tell her to but you have to know what you want and explain it clearly, like step A, step B, step C.”

I spent hours into the night thinking and diagramming and putting everything into step A, step B, step C progressions.

I had a headache.

The next day, the results were instantaneous. Those girls went to work and they moved together better than most boys teams at mid-season. They were smiling. I was happy.

I learned some lessons that day:

  • Girls follow coaching instructions verbatim. If you say it right, they will do it right.  If you say it wrong, they will do it wrong. Know what you want!
  • Each girl is someone’s precious daughter and deserves to be honored and valued based not on her athletic ability but for who she is as a person. That includes  daughters of opponents.
  • Girls respond to coaching  much better than boys because, as that mother put it, “They’re motivated to please.”
  • Girls blossom with encouragement and wilt under criticism.

Because of the head start that mother gave me, our team grew in skills more than most and we had a fabulous season.

But, there was a problem.

The City basketball league only lasted a few weeks. How would my daughter and others like her reach their potential if they only played a few weeks out of the year? I looked into travel ball but there was only one year-round team for her age and it focused on plays rather than fundamentals and building individual skills.

I approached other rec league coaches and suggested that we start a Summer league. They jumped at the idea and with just word-of-mouth messaging, we met at a middle school a week later and signed up two-thirds of the City league players. Parents were eager. They volunteered to pay on-the-spot. The problem was, we had no idea what they should pay. We hadn’t gotten that far yet.

I used their funds to buy gear and began looking for a hardwood, indoor court for our games. But, school gyms were closed for the Summer and other indoor courts were scarce.

I called two private entities with courts and both said essentially the same thing. “We don’t want girls. We especially don’t want young girls.  We want boys.  We want older boys. Those are the ones who will pack our stands.”

I called two churches with gyms and both responded similarly, albeit with greater politeness.

I was angry. How could they think that way about girls? It wasn’t right and I was determined to do something about it!

But first, I had to do something about myself.

I realized that I had sometimes had similar thought patterns. I hated to admit that and I committed myself to changing my thinking no matter how long it took.  But, I also had to find a court.

With options running out, I defied the advice of a friend who had said the local Boys and Girls Club wouldn’t host us. I called the director and a lady named Jane said she had no room for us. But when I asked how many girls programs she had compared to boys, she hedged.

“I’ll tell you what,” she said, “I just hired a new director for one of our clubs. Call him Tuesday. If he goes for it, I’ll back him.”

It was only a crack in the door, but it was one that led to a surprising future.

On Tuesday, I called Rafael, the new director, and made my impassioned pitch. He said that he was new to his position and would need time to think and to call him on Friday. When I called on Friday, he said, “You know, I think I might give this a try.  But, there is one condition. Every girl in your league must become a member of my club.”

I jumped at his offer but since we had already collected money from families, I couldn’t go back to them for more.  Instead, I paid for the memberships out of my own bank account and told our families that their registration included a free membership to BGC.

What I didn’t realize when I made that payment was that the arrangement contained two undisclosed benefits:  1) every player was covered by BGC insurance, a necessity I had not yet solved, and 2) BGC believed the arrangement included them providing game officials.

It was the first of many times that I donated from my own pocket and it led me to yet another lesson:

  • There are many things we can do with our money, but few have more meaning than investing in kids. Some men have fast cars, some have fast boats, some have fast—never mind.  My place is to invest in youth.

By mid-season, our bleachers were filled and at the end of the season, our championship game was overflowing with fans to the point that every doorway was jammed five-deep.

Those who had told me in the beginning that no one wanted girls were wrong.

Four months after our Summer season ended, I received a phone call from Rafael. I was alarmed because he had never called me and I braced myself for news that he would not host us the following Summer.

Instead he said, “Bobby, the reason I let your girls play here was because I wanted them as members so I could make a big splash with increased memberships. No other director signed that many new members all year and I did it in my first week!  So, I was somewhat of a hero.”

I was happy for him and I asked if that meant he would have us back.

Rather than answer, he continued. “I want to tell you something that just happened. Jane called me five minutes ago and said she received notice from Nike that we have been awarded a national grant of $10,000!”

I was happy for them but I wondered what that had to do with our basketball girls.

He laughed. “It has EVERYTHING to do with them! When you signed them up as members, our ratio of girls-to-boys became one of the top five percent in the nation and that qualified us for Nike’s ‘Go Girls’ grant. Without your girls, that would never have happened.”

He advised me to call Jane. She expressed gratitude that our program had helped hers and she said, “As long as I am the director of the Boys and Girls Club, you will have that court and we will never change our arrangement or charge more money. Ever!”

Unfortunately, she only remained at BGC for a few more years. Her replacement tripled our cost just weeks before our fourth season and she seemed to be unconcerned whatsoever about the extraordinary difficulty she was creating for us.

I didn’t pay her.  Instead, I hit the streets again looking for a court. A friend told me that a church in the foothills had built a brand new gym. I called them. They were interested. They wanted much more money than we had been paying BGC and we had to come up with our own officials, but the gym was big and bright and perfect for our girls. I hit up my bank account once again and paid the difference so the girls could play.  That gym became our permanent home and we established a great relationship with the church.

What had started with ten crying girls turned into a Nike grant. From there, it became a program with annual clinics that hosted hundreds of girls and were led by players and coaches from high schools and two colleges. That led to ongoing travel teams and attention from the press and four championship games being televised.

It began as a simple plan: let the girls play, get better, make friends, and have fun. That’s all it was. It was birthed in challenge and accompanied by headache. But, it also produced more memories and friends than any one man deserves and life lessons that could not have been learned any other way.

I wanted to change things for girls but I know now that they changed me much more than I changed them.

There are challenges in any good thing that we do. Working with girls has uncommon challenges but also uncommon rewards—rewards that cannot be found anyplace else.

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