tales from youth basketball
I was looking for escape from travel basketball and agreed to coach a 7th-8th grade girls team in the local City recreational program. It was a great break and one that came with an unexpected and delightful memory.
The team I was given had a group of girls who were fun and got along well. One was a pretty good point guard and another a pretty good off-guard. The rest were in it for fun.
We practiced outdoors at a middle school and, as it turned out, an opponent from our division practiced on a nearby court. I overheard their coach on a few occasions and was astounded by his ego and found myself thinking of him as Mr. Arrogance.
It wasn’t my first time in a recreational program and I knew things had to be simple. At the same time, offenses needed to have options. I had devised just such an offense years before and it fit perfectly for our group. So did a diamond-and-one defense.
The players responded well and after a couple of losses, we began winning and eventually finished third in our league of twelve teams.
It was our third game that was the toughest. We lost by 28 to that very team that practiced next to us.
After that game, I was approached by a local high school boys basketball coach who said he knew I was on the Board and he asked how it was possible that the team we had just lost to had the same players for three years and had never lost a game. “I thought teams were assembled by computer,” he scolded, “so explain to me how that guy gets the same players every year!”
Although I rated players during signups, I had nothing to do with the computer or assembling teams so I had no answer for him. I told him I would take his concern to the Board but he snarled, “No, I’m going to do that myself!”
That got me to thinking. If Mr. Arrogance was somehow working the system in forming his team, maybe he was also the type to cheat during games. Specifically, I was wondering if he was benching his three stars for one entire quarter as required by the rules. (We played five “quarters”). No player was permitted to start or play in all five quarters unless there was a roster shortage.
So, was his 28-point win over us legit or had he played all of his stars the entire time?
The next month when our second game against his team came, I watched the scorekeeper who marked which players started each quarter and, sure ‘nuf, Mr. A started all of his stars all four quarters and was about to start them in the fifth when I brought the matter to the supervisor’s attention.
The supervisor agreed and told Mr. Arrogance his three stars had to sit out the entire quarter. Mr. A fumed and then turned to the fans and yelled that the City had come up with a new rule so his star players couldn’t play.
With his stars on the bench, we closed ground fast. Although we lost by nine, I smiled all the way home.
His antics grew worse.
When playoffs arrived, I was on my way into the gym of our semifinal game when a woman came storming out of the building. Her face was red and her fists were clenched and the veins in her neck looked like they would pop. She was muttering and fuming and when she saw me, she rushed up and said, “You’re a Board member! You have to do something about that coach. He’s up by 50 points and he’s got his girls shooting threes and they’re all laughing and acting up while our girls suffer. If you don’t do something about him, I WILL!”
Our semifinal game was tougher than expected but I really wanted a third shot at Mr. A. and we managed to get by.
The following Friday night, our team arrived early for the championship game and we did a casual shoot around while I watched Mr. A. and his team. I liked what I saw because Mr. Arrogance was yelling and commanding and trying to seem like a big time, hard-nosed coach.
I called my girls out of the gym and into an adjacent foyer where I told them, “You have nothing to lose. No one has beaten this team for three years, so stay loose and have fun because none of you has ever played in a championship game before. Focus on the experience because that’s where your memories are.”
Then, I leaned in and said, “But . . .”
Then I added, “. . . we are going to win!”
The girls laughed until I told them that I knew the girls on the other team because the majority had played in my summer league. “He’s got them wired so tight they aren’t even moving right. But look at you. You’re all loose and smiling and relaxed. THAT is our key! Play hard but stay loose and watch what happens!”
I didn’t know if we could win but when we returned to the gym, the difference in the demeanors of the teams during warm-ups was so apparent that I felt we had a chance.
Honestly, Mr. A did a good job of scouting us. He had a clever defensive scheme that took away a lot of our usual offense but his downfall was that his quest to appear like a big time coach distracted him from actually coaching or making adjustments. As we moved through our offensive options, his defense stayed the same. What began with his team leading by eight in the first half turned into us leading by four through most of the second.
The more the clock ticked down, the more his players tightened and panicked. His leading player was one who tightened. She was also a bit of a hot head. And, she had four fouls. So, I put my most annoying defender on her and frustration did the rest. She slammed the ball on the floor, cussed, was assessed a technical foul which put her out of the game.
We were ahead by one with about 20 seconds to go when my power forward was fouled while shooting. Samantha was not a great shooter but she somehow hit both free throws. I called a time out and told my players to stay outside of the defensive three point line. “Open a path to the basket. Don’t touch them! Let them have the two-point layup. We’ll win by one.”
Again, Mr. Arrogance was too full of himself to know the score –- literally. He saw the open path and commanded his guard to drive.
He won a two point battle and forfeited a one point war.
After championship games, the Board permitted coaches to use a microphone to say something about the game and to introduce players.
Mr. A told fans, “Well, I think it’s obvious. Bobby’s team played the best game they ever played and we played the worst game we ever played. It’s hard to go three straight years and win every game but that’s what we would have done if my kids had played better.”
When he introduced each player, he belabored the merits of his three stars but only mentioned the names of the others. His own daughter was one of “the others”.
That was the last game in our City’s history that coaches were permitted to have microphones.
It was also the last game that the City permitted Mr. Arrogance to coach.
After some celebration, I began walking across the court to talk to our parents. As I arrived at the far sideline, I noticed that Mr. A’s daughter had walked all the way across the court to talk to me. Her head was down. Her face was blushed with tears. She looked up to me and apologized for her father and told me we deserved to win. Then she said, “I don’t want to play anymore.”
I told her about my summer league which had hand-picked coaches and emphasized equal teams and fun but she walked away shaking her head.
I suppose that winning any championship should be rich fodder for the greatest of memories, but that is not true in this instance.
Is it wrong that my greatest satisfaction is knowing that despite blowing out opponents for three straight years, Mr. A’s last memory is a one point loss brought on by his own ego?
If so, I apologize.
Nonetheless, I smirk.