Tuesday, January 22, 2008

It's Only A Game...

Yes, we all know it’s a momentous time in sports – Super Bowl in less than two weeks, college hoops are five weeks out from March Madness, and pitchers and catchers report in 26 days. But let’s pause a moment, glance toward the hallowed gym at Potomac Community Center and focus on what’s really important. The time has come for Nellie to strap on his canvas high tops, hitch up his sequined trunks, grip his trusted whistle and become: Assistant 3rd grade Basketball Coach of the Bethesda Knicks.

“Gentlemen, I don’t want you to get tired and play like geeks. I want you to make those other little devils get tired and play like geeks.”

Thus begins my first pep talk to ten earnest 8-year olds, one of whom is son Darby. He and the other nine are excited to endure the harsh yet firm tutelage of the hardwood legend who scored two points in the last second of the California - San Francisco State game on December 8th, 1977, in Hearst Gym, Berkeley, CA. And if you don’t believe me, look it up.

I’ve managed to assemble a lot of hoop wisdom during my many years of mastering the ole peach and thus now I find a subtle perfection in my role as Assistant Coach. The Head Coach, also named Jeff, is a neighbor, a great guy, a student of the game, and the kind of adult all the kids like. We’ll call him “Good Jeff.” But enough about him.

There are certain themes I live by in life, and in hoops. Famed UCLA coach John Wooden had his multifaceted “Pyramid of Success.” I call my 8-point method the “Cycle of Fear.”


1. “When all else fails, make ‘em cry.”

My personal belief, honed from years of coaching 2nd and 3rd graders at the highest levels, is that that the keys to basketball are dribbling, shooting, passing, and frightening your opponents. And while I don’t have specific drills to deal with that last category, I do tell my boys that if you get under the skin of your opponents and upset them, their defense will fall apart and you can score easily

2. “Boys, let me emphasize: There is no `I` in Team. But there is a `Me.' So if you’re like me, just shoot the dang ball and everyone else just do what you have to do to get the rebound.”

As a famed ball handler, I’m a believer in individualism. It’s not who you are, it’s how much you score.

3. “Practice dribbling the ball 500 times in increments of twenty-five, rotating usage of your left hand and right hand, running in place for 75 steps leading with your right foot then switching on concurrent sequences.”

Folks, you have to break it down and keep it simple for 8-year olds, many of whom are so dazed by their overuse of video games and other foul modern appliances, that they can’t focus on what’s really important to me.

4. “Boys, since I was your age, I’ve been a leading proponent of the West Coast Flex Offense, emphasizing ball control, perimeter shooting, and double-post, pick n’ roll bounce-backs. It’s a hoop stratagem that will serve you well long after you enter 4th grade.”

You play today, you dream of tomorrow. Who knows? I could be nurturing a future star 5th grader.

5. “Rebounding. Is. Essential. That’s because none of you shoots very well and thus there will be a lot of missed shots and loose balls.”

If we can’t be honest with ourselves, who can we be honest with? I could give these children some sugarcoated fairy tale about the Game of Giants, but that wouldn’t be fair to them.

6. “It didn’t happen if the ref wasn’t looking.”

In preparing these young idealists not just for hoops, but for Life itself, the imparting of wisdom takes many forms and occurs at the most opportune times. Like getting in some cheap shots when you’re down four points in a game and you need a turnover.

7. “Pay close attention to what Darby does on the court because he understands the game. I know. I’m his dad.”

There are ten dads and ten moms supporting each team but it’s only Good Jeff and yours truly out there shaping these kids. Is it any wonder our kids never get it wrong?

8. “If you lose this game, I’ll come to your house tonight and steal all your toys.”

Discipline will be the signature of this season. We’ve already won our first game, and thank goodness Darby scored eight points to validate his Dad. Nine more slugfests to go on our way to an undefeated season and the 3nd grade Championship and probably -- jeez, I don’t know -- a profile piece on your’s truly in the Bethesda Gazette.

As I tell the boys at the end of every practice before making them run a dozen full-court sprints, “Gentlemen, in the end, it’s only a game. As far as you know.”

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Nellie and Steve Case: "The piano man, man!"

You probably remember that classic scene in “Wayne’s World” where Wayne and Garth get back stage passes to the Alice Cooper concert and when confronted with the legend himself, a nervous Wayne, utterly overwhelmed squeaks out, “You big, me small.”

Yeah, a scene in the American cinematic grain right up there with Rhett Butler giving Scarlet the what-for in “Gone With the Wind.” But as contemporary sociologist, Wayne had it right. The world is divided into two parts – those who are big and those who are not so big, i.e. small.

I was reminded of this when I saw Steve Case peering out at me from the Wall Street Journal recently. Case is now pushing some phenomenally successful, money-printing venture called Revolution Health. You probably recall him as the head of AOL, as in this from a business admirer: “Few people have had the kind of impact on business and culture that Steve Case has. As co-founder of AOL, Steve Case led the charge to make the Internet an essential part of everyday life.” Frankly, that’s not too far off the mark. Sure, there was some bad juju with the monster Time Warner AOL merger in 2000. But the fact is, he’s a major entrepreneurial figure in modern times.

You see, I knew Steve Case when. When? I'll get to that. Let's set the scene for the last time King Webmeister saw your’s truly.

It's a hot, spring Saturday in spring at the Washington Freedom women's soccer game at RFK stadium The pre-game warm-up is going on and my sons and I are lounging back in our mid-field seats. Suddenly, I notice a tall thin guy, dressed expensively, who is making himself conspicuous because he’s standing on a chair in a nearby section, taking photos of the team warm-ups with a zoom lens that's about 3 feet long.

Why, look at ... I say to myself. It’s Steve Case, my old college buddy!

I'm in a jolly mood, but alas, looking a bit rough. This is just a crazy soccer game so I'm in a white, Art Carney-style undershirt and an old pair of my Army camouflage fatigues with paint specks on them. My three sons and myself wear newspapers on our heads, folded like a pirate hats to keep the sun off our faces.

I spring to my feet when I see Case lower the camera and shout out, "Yo, Steve!"

But let's talk about the past.

1978. Williams College. Nellie is in a big dorm called Mission Park and Case is on the same floor

Our paths cross during the next two years on a causal basis in the dining hall and also because we each are in campus bands.

Mine is a jazz combo called Hangin' 4 in which I play mediocre piano. Case is a singer in a rock band called "The The." Figure that one out. He’s a pleasant enough guy and he's savvy about music so we talk about that and our bands. He was also from Hawaii and so sometimes we shoot the breeze about surfing and beaches.

We eventually graduate and go our ways. I hear through the grapevine that Case is a salesman for a big corporation, hawking pizza sauce or ketchup or something like that. I, in turn, am hop-scotching around the nation, unemployed half the time, the other half working various low-paying, meaningless jobs.

Next thing I know, it's the late 1980s and Case has started some firm called America On Line, which deals in the "world wide web" and "e-mail." Since I am still randomly affixing stamps to envelopes and mailing out my resume to disinterested suitors, I cannot even comprehend what Case's business is all about.

I am told by a fellow dorm mate that Case had the email idea come to him because while selling the taco flavoring, or whatever, he traveled a lot and got bored sitting in hotel rooms. After a night in Toledo spent staring at the phone, he wondered that if you could send voices through that little wire, why couldn't you get text through there?

Suddenly, it's the late 1990s and AOL and Case are everywhere kicking tail and taking names. He's got some hot blond wife and an estate in Virginia that's bigger than the old dorm we lived in. Meanwhile, bouncing from hack job to hack job, I have, no kidding, a 922-square foot house.

2000 comes along and Case takes a dive with the AOL Time Warner merger, the then largest media deal in the history of mankind.

Then, several years later, on a hot spring day, suddenly here's some homeless-looking whacko in the stands, wearing a folded newspaper on his head, a half eaten hot dog in one hand, yelling out: "Yo, Steve! How's it going, guy?"

Well, Case looked over at me and immediately smiled uneasily. I'm of course expecting him to recognize me so as he continues to stare with this kind of worried, anxious look, I shout out, "Nelligan from Mission Park! The piano man, man!"

He looks almost frightened by now. He gives a faint wave of his hand and lowers his head and scuttles in the opposite direction from where I’m sitting, leaving me there standing as the folks seated around fall silent and just stare at me, almost sympathetically.

A smile is frozen on my face as the newspaper hat slowly slides off my head onto my seat. I sit down and mumble abstractedly to no one and everyone, "Heh, heh ... used to know Case in college ... same dorm and all ... probably a busy guy ... meets a lot of folks ... Jeez, is this game ever gonna start?" I take a disconsolate chomp out of my hot dog.

Of course, the whole game I silently ruminated on how things had worked out in this world without end, amen. Designer clothes Case, multimillionaire master of the Internet; Nellie and 3 urchins in pirate hats. Yep, me small. Hell, me tiny.

After the game, the sons and I are walking toward the parking lot and the eldest, Devlin, says, "Dad, who was that man you were yelling at?"

"Oh, just an old pal from college who was part of the Internet revolution and is worth about 250 million bucks."

"But he didn't say hi to you," Dev persisted.

"Well, young man," I said matter-of-factly, "he didn’t recognize me in this t-shirt."