"So how's the team look?" I asked my 11-year-old son when he got home from his first basketball practice.
"Well," Michael answered, "the good news is that we're small and slow and we can't shoot for beans. The bad news is that our coach quit and we've got a game on Saturday."
That sounded ominous. My intuition proved accurate when I received a phone call from someone in the Concord Recreation Department League office later that evening. "I understand," said a cheerful voice, "that you've done a little coaching."
I wondered if it was my wife who had betrayed me. "A little," I said. "A long time ago. High school kids."
"Well, your son's team seems to be without a coach and we were wondering...."
I vowed a long time ago that I would never coach a team of which one of my kids was a member. I'd seen what happened to others. Loving fathers, well-intentioned men oozing goodwill and community spirit, became transformed into screaming and pouting tyrants. They exulted in victory and alibied in defeat. They abused officials, kept mediocre players on the bench, and taught fancy plays instead of fundamentals. They embarrassed and humiliated their players—especially their own kids, who usually played quarterback or pitched and batted cleanup. I could understand it. It was a seductive trap. I wanted none of it. I didn't trust myself.
But I'm a pushover for salesmen. People sell me light bulbs over the phone. Lifetime supplies. Every year. I've bought subscriptions to magazines' I'll never read in order to help kids I don't know earn their way through colleges I've never heard of. I once paid a guy who called himself the Stork Man $698 sight unseen for a contraption that theoretically could be converted from a high chair to a stroller to a crib. Nothing but the best for my unborn child.
A friend of mine who sells encyclopedias once explained to me that the key to selling is to prey on the guilt of the prospective buyer. Good causes deserve public support. Less fortunate people need our help. Noblesse oblige. And everyone wants the very best for their own children, of course, and should therefore buy lots of encyclopedias, not to mention convertible high chairs.
"I understand how you feel," said the guy on the phone. "But these poor kids are really in a bind, you know?"
So I sighed and succumbed. Still a pushover.
When I told my wife, she grinned. "The Stork Man strikes again," she said.
"Something like that," I admitted.
As a coach, I decided, I would first do all I could to see that the kids enjoyed the game. Second, I'd try to teach them some basic things about basketball.
So I made my resolutions:
1) All kids would get equal playing time, regardless of ability.
2) I would encourage, not criticize, them.
3) My players and I would never argue with officials.
4) I would treat Michael the same way I treated the other players—no better, no worse.
5) I'd have no heroes on my team—and certainly no goats.
6) Winning, if it happened, would be treated as a pleasant by-product rather than the central purpose of the game.
When our team—we were called the Nets—took the floor on Saturday, I had to agree that Michael's assessment of its size, speed and sharpshooting skills had been pretty accurate. But he had failed to mention the kids' confusion as to the nature of the game. When they weren't running around randomly, they were standing around randomly. On offense, one of our little—very little—guards would dribble, eyes focused intently on the bouncing ball, while the other four players circled him, yelling for the ball. When he stopped dribbling, he found himself surrounded by teammates and defenders, a tangled mass of children pawing and swatting at the ball. These offensive thrusts typically terminated in an intercepted pass, a traveling violation, or, most frequently, a wild heave in the general direction of the basket.
But I behaved myself very well that first day. I violated none of my self-imposed rules. I substituted democratically, spoke only encouraging words, and minimized the importance of winning.
Just as well, too. We lost 38-16.
At our first practice, the following Thursday, I gathered the players around me. "We'll start with some fundamentals," I told them. I held up a ball. "This," I said earnestly, "is a basketball." They stared at it and nodded solemnly.
I smiled, hoping to indicate that my intention had been humorous. Then I shrugged. "The main problem that I saw with the game," I continued, "was with the offense. You played good, aggressive defense. They just happened to make a lot of nice shots, that's all. But on offense you didn't work together. You were disorganized. You just ran around a lot." The image that came to mind was a flock of headless chickens. That struck me as needlessly vivid. "Like a bunch of Pac-Men," I told them.
They nodded some more.
So I gave them an offense. I explained the principles of playing positions, setting up screens and moving without the ball. We learned about the high post and the low post, point guards and wingmen. We practiced floor balance and the old give-and-go. We even walked through a couple of real plays without defenders. They were designed to produce unmolested layups. After a while they seemed to work, although the kids tended to miss the layups. But I was pleased with the kids. They listened carefully and tried hard.
And the following Saturday they ran around like a bunch of Pac-Men. Final score: 44-21.
"It's getting tough," I told my wife. "We're not even competitive. I don't think I'm going to make it. We're going to go the whole season without even being in a ball game, and I'm going to start screaming and sulking and cursing the officials, and Michael will end up resenting me, and the kids will hate basketball forever, and we'll all just be embarrassed."
"You're doing fine," she said.
At practice on Thursday I told the kids, "O.K. The offense is coming right along. We scored over 20 last game. Let's work a little on defense."
So I told them about the sagging man-to-man, cutting off the passing lanes, getting position for defensive rebounds, getting the old tail down and head up, all the principles I remembered from my days of high school coaching. And we lost the next game 28-19.
Once during the game I heard myself yell at the referee, "Hey! That kid was traveling."
When the ref ran past me next time down the floor, he said, "They all travel. Especially your kids."
"I yelled at the officials," I moaned to my wife' later. "I can't do it. I'm a failure."
"You shouldn't take defeat so hard, dear," she said.
"It's not losing that bothers me," I protested. "I know how to lose."
She arched her eyebrows and smiled at me.
"You think that's it?" I said.
"You're building lots of character," she said. "You'll be O.K."
On Thursday I introduced no new principles. I offered no theories. I brought several balls and the kids practiced their shooting. Then we scrimmaged. I let them play. I didn't interrupt them to point out their shortcomings or to berate them for failing to use the plays I'd taught them. I limited myself to comments like, "Way to go, Jenna. It'll go in next time." Or, "Good try, Sean. Way to hustle, Mike."
On the way home, Michael said to me, "That was a good practice, Dad. I think we're improving, don't you?"
"Sure," I lied.
"We play the Rockets next week. They're bad, like us. We're gonna beat them."
"Hey, maybe," I replied. "It doesn't really matter."
He arched his eyebrows and smiled.
The Rockets, we quickly saw, were indeed as bad as we were. Only our truly uncanny ability to miss uncontested layups prevented us from actually taking the lead in the first half. On the other hand, the Rockets' collective ineptitude matched our own. At halftime I praised the kids for their defensive wizardry. The score was 6-6.
When the second half began, an incredible thing happened. Paul tapped the opening jump ball to Faith, who passed neatly to Jaimie, who zipped a bounce pass to Michael for an easy layup. And a few seconds later Sean stole the ball and lobbed it to Michael, who banked in another off the glass.
The kids were playing defense, passing crisply, looking for the open man, making their shots, and, for the first time all season, we were winning.
I kept very quiet and substituted freely. I dropped morsels of basketball wisdom to the kid seated beside me. A layup at the other end made it 10-8. Paul slammed in a foul shot, and one of their kids threw in a long one, making it 11-10. A few minutes later they put in a third-chance rebound and we were losing again. The score stayed at 12-11 for the rest of the third quarter and well into the fourth. The game seemed to have settled into a traveling, double-dribbling and wild-passing contest. Then abruptly the Rockets scored twice. We were losing 16-11, and time was running out.
With two minutes to go I called time out and told the kids to press full-court. Then I explained what that meant. I got that nod and solemn look from them.
Almost immediately Paul knocked down a frantic pass and put in a layup. And a minute later Faith swiped the ball cleanly and dribbled the length of the floor for a nice layup. Now we were losing 16-15.
In our games they keep time with a stopwatch at the scorer's table. "How much time?" I yelled to the scorer.
"Twenty seconds," he replied.
The Rockets had the ball in their back-court. Faith knocked it loose. Sean and a Rocket fell on it simultaneously. Jump ball. "Ten seconds," yelled the timer.
After the jump, the ball bounced from hand to face to chest to elbow. It caromed wildly, rolled across the floor, and ended up in Paul's hands. He drove headlong for the basket. Then he tumbled into a heap and the ball squirted out of bounds.
"That's it," said the timer. "No time left."
The kids gathered around Paul, who still lay on the floor. He was holding his knee and crying.
The referee was talking to him. I went out to see how he felt.
"There was a foul," the referee told me. "He was tripped. In the act of shooting. Two shots."
I grabbed the official by the elbow and steered him away from the players. I put my face close to his and whispered loudly, "You can't do that to a kid." I kept my grip on his arm. "It's not right. You can't put pressure on a little kid like that. Look. We're losing by one point, right? No time on the clock, right? He'll miss them both. He's a terrible foul shooter. He'll be devastated. C'mon. Just forget the foul. O.K.?"
"You kidding?" said the referee.
"No. Of course not."
"Then you'll lose the game."
"That's O.K.," I said.
Then he shrugged. "I'm sorry," he said. "I already told the kids there was a foul. You want to tell them to forget about it?"
I stared at him for a moment, then shook my head. "No. I can't tell them that."
"Then the kid's gotta shoot the fouls."
I went back to the bench and called the players over. Paul was alone on the floor with the two officials. The players were jumping around and shouting gleefully, "C'mon, Paul. Make 'em, Paul."
I wondered how I was going to console the poor kid. He had played a wonderful game. His baskets in the first half had kept us close. His basket toward the end gave us the chance. Could an 11-year-old cope with standing all alone, with the game on the line, his team losing by a single point, and no more time left?
Could an adult cope with that?
I prayed for the wisdom to find the right words for him.
His eyes still brimmed with tears. The referee stood beside him at the foul line, holding the ball patiently while Paul alternately rubbed his knee and brushed tears from his face.
The kids around me were yelling in high-pitched voices. I shouted loudly, so Paul would hear me: "Nice and easy, kid. Follow through."
His shot arched up. Swish!
I looked around the gym. It was packed with players from the teams waiting to play the next game, and parents and friends. Suddenly the place fell silent.
Paul took the ball. He bounced it once. At practice he had once made three of 10 from the foul line. That was his best. Overtime, I decided, wouldn't be bad. The shot flew up and, typically, had too much velocity and too little trajectory. A real brick. It went bang-swish—off the backboard and through the hoop.
Final score: 17-16, Nets.
No goats, no heroes, I reminded myself. Paul fell amid a heap of screaming and pummeling teammates. Parents raced onto the floor. A white-haired old lady with tears in her eyes stood beside me repeating, "I'm his grandmother. I'm his grandmother. I came all the way from Florida."
I shook hands with all the players. They showed me how to do a high five. I learned that if I scooched way down so that I was almost kneeling and held my palms up over my head, they could leap at me and slap my hands. We all did that several times.
"Practice same time on Thursday," I told the kids as they dispersed.
"Nice game, Coach," said my wife as we left the gym.
"You behaved very well," she said with a smile.
"It's just as hard when you win, you know."
She arched her eyebrows and smiled. "I could tell," she said.
There were some of those magic moments during the rest of the season, times when the ball zipped accurately from player to player, and rebounds were snared, and layups went in. For the most part, though, the kids ran—and stood—around randomly, still much like a bunch of little Pac-Men. They did seem to enjoy themselves enormously. And I functioned comfortably within my self-imposed coaching rules. All in all, we built plenty of character.
When we met the Rockets for the second time, they beat us 34-8.