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.”