When Zimmer called with the invitation, I sensed that it was a moment that would change my life.
"Listen, there's a whole group of third-grade boys in your neighborhood that need you; lots of kids, lots of interest. All they need is you."
"Me? For what?"
"To coach. Basketball. Will you coach the third-grade team?"
December 27, 1982
"Third grade? They're too small for basketball."
"Not these kids. Lots of interest, lots of kids," he repeated his hype.
"How many games?" I asked, weakening already.
"Eight, and eight practices."
"Hmm. I'll think about it. But I don't think so. It takes too much time."
I hung up. Staring at the phone I envisioned a scene 15 years hence. The NCAA final has just ended. Al McGuire interviews the leading scorer for UCLA, who is paying tribute to his very first coach, the Peewee Wizard Ray Lovett. Tears form as I watch on TV in my den, surrounded by my present team of third-graders and the trophies that are testimony to my genius.
As the fantasy faded, I wondered why Zimmer called. Someone must have told him about my basketball career: high school star, a scholarship to Fairfield University. But who? My wife? Unlikely. One of those kids from the local recreation league? "That guy with the gray hair knows his stuff," I hear one say.
When I called Zimmer to accept I inquired why he had asked me.
"I heard about you."
"You did?" I clamored in anticipation.
"From a couple of sources."
"That kid that hangs around the court, tall and skinny, was he one?" I asked.
"No, no kid. The neighbors told me."
"Did they? The neighbors! Who?"
"Station wagon," said Zimmer.
"Station wagon. The neighbors said you had a wagon. You do own a station wagon, don't you?"
"Yes, but what has..."
"Oh, good. You're the only father in the neighborhood with a station wagon."
Ego deflated, I considered resigning, but I had already told my son I was going to be his coach.
Zimmer's "lots of kids, lots of interest" translated into two kids who had already signed up, and my own. When I called the first, his mother said he had changed his mind. The second was interested. "Great," I shouted. I only needed 10 more players.
I got on the phone to likely parents.
"No, thank you. The soccer coach was too hard on him. We're taking a break from coaches."
"Not this year, call us next year."
"And who are you to be coaching my son?"
Undaunted, I kept calling, eventually dipping down to recruit six second-graders for our third-grade team. Later on, those kids would provide the balm in an ocean of ache.
I sent out warm letters to my new team, stating the unalterable time of practice in the school gym. The day before we were to meet, the roof sprung a leak, necessitating a change of practice time—11 phone calls. The next week, it rained again. Eleven more calls. On the third week the leak was fixed. It snowed. Eleven more calls to inform the doubtful that we would practice despite the snow. My calling skills were sharp now. I had mastered the right combination of friendly tone and brevity. But I also received calls. One father asked why we didn't practice more; a mother asked why we practiced so often. Another mother, in a rage over having gone to the wrong gym and waiting for an hour, demanded to know why I changed the place of practice. "The roof," I said defensively. "The leaky roof."
En route to the first practice, the boys excluded me by sitting in the rear of the station wagon talking excitedly, fooling around and laughing.
"I'll ask him. Hey, are we gonna get trophies?"
"Trophies. We haven't even had our first practice and you want a trophy. One has to work for a trophy."
"Aw, c'mon, get us trophies."
"Yeah, trophies are good."
"What color are our uniforms?"
"I want red."
"Not red. Blue."
"Orange. Get orange."
"I want black."
Shaken by their shameless desire for rewards without effort, I determined to instill discipline and order from the start.
At the gym I realized that I had forgotten my diligently prepared practice outline and accompanying speech. Worse yet, I had left the whistle behind. Running third-grade basketball practice without a whistle is akin to driving a brakeless tractor trailer downhill. The yelling made me hoarse.
I began asking questions.
"How many players on a team?"
"Two. We should start with two and then add more."
"In basketball you don't do that," I said.
"Right," I said. "Five players. Anyone know the positions?"
Hands fly up.
"That's two. Center and guard and one more."
Though I resolved to teach by action, the brief attention span of the youngsters made that difficult. My few words seemed to cause misunderstanding. "Get in the corner," sent one player literally there, off the court, behind the bleachers. "Guards, bring the ball down," resulted in two boys holding the ball on the floor.
We drilled on the missing skills. There was the one-speed forward problem. When I would ask the forwards to come out to meet the ball, they would run full-speed ahead, as if they were stealing second, complete with slide and collision.
I showed them how to pass and catch the ball. I taught them to dribble low, stay loose, be aggressive on defense, shoot a layup. They ran too fast, fell over their feet, ran into one another, threw countless air balls. They also smiled, talked to one another, giggled at their errors. They enjoyed both practice and the trips to and from. The return trips were spent in telling ghost stories. Their memories and imaginations amazed me. Oh, how I needed memory and imagination from them on the court.
After the second practice it occurred to me that I was the only person not enjoying himself. But the boys' fun-loving attitude was getting to me. I began to take myself less seriously. I loosened up. I asked a friend to coach with me, to lighten the burden. I began to smile, to yell less, to expect only the possible. An air ball was no longer a disaster. We laughed together and approached our first game overwhelmingly unprepared but tuned for adventure.
We lost, 18-0. I adjusted my goal from trying to win every game to trying not to lose every game. During our second game, an 8-0 loss, my goals diminished progressively to tie, score, get a shot off, bring the ball over half court, get through the first half.
To be encouraging, I began to distort reality a little. When one player threw up his ninth air ball of the game, missing everything and everybody, I sprang up and yelled affirmatively. "Nice shot, John. Nice shot, good arch." John looked straight at me. And he laughed. And so did I. Meanwhile, his man ran by him and scored.
Ah well, my old winning-is-everything philosophy would have meant a winter-long, acute depression.
One night on the way home, after a ghost story ended, I spoke up.
"Did you guys hear the one about the boys on the pond? It was foggy and damp and...."
A few days later, when the recreation director asked me how it was going, I knew my conversion was complete. Summoning up my new skills, I asked, "Hey, are we gonna get trophies?"