In 1975, when I was a junior, the physical education department of Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., fired the men's basketball coach and introduced a new sport, t'ai chi. While basketball had only a fringe following on campus, t'ai chi, a Zen-influenced series of slow, stylized movements, became very popular.
One t'ai chi devotee, a friend of mine, said of his sport, "Adversaries are encircled in a rainbow of nonviolent motion, a reflection of the coming world order." Basketball, my friend said, symbolized urban madness: back and forth, back and forth, for no apparent reason. This view dismayed me, because his version of insanity had been the staple of my adolescence. Staring down at my black high-top Converse sneakers, I muttered something to him about fast breaks feeding the soul.
Although I had nothing against the Orient and had knowingly chosen to attend a former women's college whose students looked down on team sports, I was irked that we had lost our basketball coach. Though our team, the Green Machine, was no hoop powerhouse, it was a legitimate member of the NCAA's Division III. And there we were with no coach and no prospect of getting one. Imagine the headlines if the same thing had happened at Indiana University: BOBBY KNIGHT AXED AS ZEN WAVE HITS CAMPUS. ENRAGED COACH TOSSES CHAIR. BAD KARMA, KIDS SAY.
As consolation, a bunch of the previous year's team members would sneak into the school's woefully undersized gym a few times a week and—between the ballet classes—play three-on-three. We were an eclectic group: The point guard, a philosophy major, was once tossed from a game for calling the ref a sophist; our reserve forward insisted on practicing barefoot; and our high scorer, a transfer from California, missed the big game with Vassar because he went to the ballet with his girlfriend.
We were not very gifted, but all of us could shoot, pass and dribble—and in my sophomore year we won at least three games in the opening minutes, while our opponents were still laughing. Ignored by our school, ridiculed by our opponents, like a French Foreign Legion troop we drew strength from our isolation. But foot soldiers can't march without a leader.
I had just about reconciled myself to a lost season when I had a chat with the cochairs of Sarah Lawrence's physical education department, Patty Smyth and Marguerite Shaw, two kindly ladies in their 60s who had brought cookies and beer to all our games.
Smyth, a slim, energetic, white-haired woman, had been a crack fencer in her day, and Shaw could bowl with the best at the lanes in Yonkers. Together they controlled the phys-ed department's purse strings. Neither one knew much about basketball. So it was to my surprise that they told me how much they enjoyed the games and asked if another student and I would like to become player-coaches of the Sarah Lawrence team for the year.
I had never considered myself coaching material. I was 19, wore Indian beads and long hair, knew no boosters in the used car business and was an unpolished after-dinner speaker. But Sarah Lawrence had an avant-garde reputation to uphold. "Great," I said, undaunted by the challenge. "It's a deal." These were the conditions of my employment: We could practice twice a week (all other gym time was reserved for dance, yoga or t'ai chi) and I would be responsible for the balls, bags and medicine kit. Smyth and Shaw would wash our uniforms and supply the food and beer.
Word of my appointment spread slowly. (To my disappointment there was no announcement in the sports section of The New York Times.) I started scouring the campus for talent, besieging any male over 5'6" with my recruiting pitch. One of the few takers was a soccer player who appeared to be convinced it was a violation to touch the ball with his hands. But the team had no enforcer, no fierce rebounder with sharp elbows who could turn the entire program around. I figured that if I could find an enforcer, my reputation as a Sarah Lawrence coaching legend would be secure.
After staying up late one night to diagram a sagging zone for a small, slow, white team, I stumbled into the school cafeteria for breakfast and rubbed my eyes at what appeared to be an optical illusion. There, standing in line, reasonably well-proportioned, all limbs intact, wearing leather basketball sneakers, at least 6'6", was the Dave Cowens of my dreams. I cut into the line and introduced myself as the new basketball coach. "Are you enrolled here?" I asked. "If you're not, I know someone in the admissions department." To my delight he was a student, an actor/singer/dancer named Jim. Big Jim. Jammin' Jim. He said he hadn't played competitive basketball for several years.
"No problem, Jim," I said courtingly. "We're having a little practice tomorrow night, and I'd like to see you there."
Jim came to practice and acquitted himself fairly well. He made layups, blocked a few shots, and ran up and down the court without falling. But he showed little enthusiasm for the game. During our first scrimmage, his initial shot was almost swatted out of the gym and down a hallway. A few other attempts were dismissed likewise. He shrugged, unconcerned, and instead of bearing down, hummed a catchy show tune. Jim never made an encore at practice. Too many rehearsals, he said. Wistfully, I crossed his name off the roster.
As a rookie coach I committed my share of blunders during the course of the season. The mistakes had little to do with court strategy. For example, there was the time I led the team down the path of indolence and false confidence. We were playing the State University of New York at Purchase, a school with a gleaming new athletic building and a fledgling basketball program. By halftime, the Green Machine had raced to a 25-point lead. I should have delivered a forceful, locker-pounding halftime speech about going out and playing as if the score were tied, but the allure of the luxurious surroundings proved too great. Many on the team vowed not to play in the second half unless we sampled the amenities, and so I conducted what must have been the only halftime session ever in a sauna. Back on the court, glassy-eyed, smiling and rubber-limbed, we staggered like winos through the second half and lost in the final minutes.
Opposing coaches with their portable blackboards and polyester suits dismissed us as cannon fodder. And although every team on the road must contend with some form of fan abuse, not many men's teams have to put up with wolf whistles. Wits on rival layup lines elbowed each other, guffawing, "Where's Sarah Lawrence? I hear she's their leading scorer." Wisecracks rained on us continually, and it was not always easy to take the floor before a hostile crowd with the name SARAH LAWRENCE emblazoned on your chest. One player confided to me that he felt like the hero in the Johnny Cash song, A Boy Named Sue.
Perhaps because we took such regular beatings on the court, we rejoiced mightily in small victories. Our most dreaded games were against Manhattanville, a rising power in the Division III ranks, with a coach who left his regulars on the floor until the box scores of our games looked like misprints. The Manhattanville players were a well-drilled, humorless bunch who seemed to take offense that we had even dared to show up for games.
Midway through the first half of one game we hung close with a patient, slowdown offense. As Manhattanville's frustration mounted, its players glowered at each other every time Sarah Lawrence made a basket. After a foul call the captain berated his teammates. "We're only up seven on these clowns," he shouted, an angry vein bulging in his neck.
These were magic words of motivation. For the rest of the half the Green Machine played like the Celtics. Bill, our center, grabbed every rebound in sight. We dropped the sagging zone and pressed frantically on defense. For the first time all year we converted on a fast break. Then an alley-oop. Plays I had diagrammed in my dorm room actually worked. The basket inhaled our shots like a powerful magnet. Jumpers, twisting layups—a parade of unanswered points put us into the lead. The crowd grew mute, and the only sounds I remember were the squeaks of rubber soles and the ball pounding the floor and then caressing the net on yet another perfect shot.
I think the Manhattanville coach was too stunned to call a timeout. None of us could comprehend what was happening until Alan, our best defensive player, stepped to the foul line. He looked up at the scoreboard and said nonchalantly, "C'mon, guys, we're only up seven on these clowns."
We held the lead at halftime. The final score was irrelevant. (I'll never tell.) In the game inside the game we triumphed, a brief stretch where we defied our abilities and confounded our stronger opponents. What more could a coach ask for?
Uri Berliner is the senior reporter at The East Hampton (N.Y.) Star.