I still think about last year’s team party. I have been coaching pretty much the same kids on our house league basketball team for four years and we were celebrating the end of another great season. Well, if you consider losing in the championship game for the fourth straight year great, which I actually do.
It was an unseasonably beautiful day in February. Sunny, warm. The kids were playing. The adult beverages were flowing. Everyone was in a great mood.
Until I got there. You’d think a guy carrying four pizzas would make people a little happier.
“Coach Gary,” said one parent speaking for them all. In an instant, I was surrounded. “We gotta talk to you.”
To understand the next 3,720 words of this story (I won’t blame you if you stop reading now), you have to understand the following rule in our house basketball league.
It’s called the “Equal Time Rule,” and it’s pretty straightforward. Basically, every player on the team must play one full, uninterrupted quarter in the first half of the game (they can play either the first quarter or the second quarter) and each player must also sit out at least one entire quarter at some point in the game. The rule was apparently created because a few coaches routinely played only their top kids throughout the game, which is accepted on travel teams but is not really in the spirit of house league play.
The Equal Time Rule might not seem like a big deal but it comes up more than you would think. Like last year in our semi-final game against the Bandits. The Bandits had only eight players for the game. It’s considered an advantage to have less than 10 players because you’re allowed to play your best players three quarters. Of course, everyone still has to sit out at least one entire quarter.
The Bandits’ best player is Vincent, a super nice kid and a great athlete. Vincent was on the bench for the first quarter so that he could play in the second, third, and fourth. No problem. But when one of our players kneed one of their players in the man-region in the first quarter (by accident, it should be noted), the Bandits needed a sub. They put in Vincent, who played great for the rest of the first quarter. He played great in the second and the third quarter too.
We were leading by seven points, heading into the fourth quarter, a comfortable margin considering they wouldn’t have Vincent to help. He played the first three quarters and, according to the “Equal Time Rule” had to sit out the fourth. Pretty straight forward. Unless it’s not. Vincent didn’t sit out the fourth quarter, which I didn’t even notice until the parents gently reminded me. And when I say ‘gently’ I mean screamed their brains out.
“Number 22 has played all four quarters,” they took turns yelling. And in the interest of full disclosure, Dixie took her turns as well.
Now these parents are awesome. We’ve become a family over the last five years—if only for two months a year—and they know me and accept me for who I am. They know I care more about competing than winning. They know I care more about sportsmanship than gamesmanship. They know I don’t pay attention to the other team. They know that half the time I forget my glasses so I can barely pay attention to what we do. I’m like Mr. Magoo asking the players on the bench ‘what just happened?’ People think I have so much restraint because I never yell at the referees. The truth is I can’t see any of the calls so I have no idea if they’re good or bad.
But this is the playoffs so even the parents who normally tolerate me, argue that this is the time when winning matters most.
“Come on. They’re cheating. You gotta do something.”
And after they said it enough times, I turned around and calmly said, “I can’t worry about that. It’s none of our business.”
“Well, it should be, “ yelled another parent. OK, it was Dixie, who was clearly the leader of the mob.
In the end, the ref didn’t get involved, and we won the game, which we all know makes everything better—pretty much.
“Coach, why didn’t you do anything?” asked one of the parents.
I gathered the kids around and I explained loud enough for everyone, including the parents to hear, “Listen to me. You’re going to hear a lot about how the other team didn’t follow the rules during this game. Ignore it. That’s not our concern. We only worry about our team, and what we can control. We should be thanking them for playing their best player the whole game. They’re doing us a favor because now we’re playing against better competition. That’s the way you get better. You got me?” If I had been watching The Wire at that point, I would have said, “You feel me?” which might have been inappropriate, so it’s a good thing I wasn’t.
Either way, the kids nodded. The parents didn’t. They were probably paying more attention.
The championship game versus the Predators was the next day. Before the game, the other coach and I were talking. I explained what happened against the Bandits.
“That stinks,” he said.
“Do you think I should have said something?” I asked.
“I would have,” he said. “The rules are the rules.”
We had played the Predators twice in the regular season. We had 10 players each time and still won both games. The first by three points, the second by one.
We only had nine players for this game, so two of our better players, Jahlil and Jake, were going to play three-quarters each. Again, a huge advantage, and I was pretty confident that we would win this game as well.
But when the game was about to start, Jahlil wasn’t there.
“Where is he?” I asked one of the parents.
“He went to the wrong gym,” she said. “He’ll be here as soon as he can.”
I quickly rearranged the lineup. Jahlil finally arrived, in the middle of the first quarter, right as one of the Predators twisted his ankle and had to come out of the game.
They replaced him with their best player, of course. That same player started the second quarter, and the third. When he came on the court for the fourth quarter as well, our fans erupted, yelling and screaming so loud that the refs stopped the game.
They talked to the league official, approached the other coach, and then came over to me.
“One of our players went in for someone who was hurt,” explained the coach of the Predators. “But he only went in for a few minutes and he came right back out. Is it OK I put him back in?”
“No problem,” I said without thinking.
And in my mind, it wasn’t. It’s not my job to enforce the rules. I feel like an idiot complaining about what’s fair and what’s not, so I just stay out of it. I know if we play our best, we’ll be fine.
Well, we didn’t play our best. And we didn’t win. And if winning makes everything better, then we all know what losing does.
After the game, several parents informed me that the Predators’ best player, the one I let play the last quarter even though it was against the rules, scored their final eight points.
I was reminded of that fact again and again at the party.
“Listen,” I said with all the parents gathered around. “We didn’t lose that game because of that kid played the fourth quarter. We can’t teach these kids that it’s OK to blame somebody else for what happened. There’s always something we could have done better. Jahlil showed up late. I could have sent an e-mail reminding everyone where the game was, and I didn’t. We have to take responsibility for whatever happens. That’s how they’re going to learn. That’s what’s going to make all this worthwhile.”
“Then you need to take responsibility for letting them break the rules,” responded Dixie, again speaking on behalf of the parents. “We could have done a lot of things better but at least we were playing by the rules. What if the other coach came up to you and said, ‘is it OK if our baskets count for three points now? Thanks so much man, you’re such a good guy.”
“We didn’t lose the game because of that,” I repeated.
“But that’s not the point,” one of the parents responded. “We need to teach our kids to stick up for themselves. And they’re not going to learn that lesson if you just let people break the rules.”
Maybe it was the three beers I had consumed. Or more likely it was all those times in my life when I thought I was so right only to realize later how wrong I was. But I was starting to wonder if maybe I didn’t do the right thing. After all, this was the championship game.
“I just don’t think I can ever go up to the referee and tattle that another coach isn’t following the rules. I just don’t think it’s my job,” I told Dixie later that night, and the next night, and the next week, and the month after that.
“Are you still thinking about that?” said Dixie. “I know you did what you thought was right.”
“But you don’t think it was right, do you?”
“No, I don’t,” she said. “The rules are there for a reason. You don’t get to break them. You shouldn’t even be put in that position.”
But I was then and I was again today, one year later.
This year, our 7th grade team played up in the 8th grade division. That was ultimately my decision. As it turned out the choice was this: Either crush other 7th grade teams by 20 points or lose to 8th grade teams by 20 points.
What I learned a little too late is that it’s not that these 8th-grade teams have better basketball players than us. They don’t. But they’re so much taller. Had I done my homework and consulted a geneticist, I would have known that the year between 7th and 8th grade is a big one for growing. That size difference makes it really tough to compete.
We were 0-5 after our first five games. We weren’t just losing. We were getting crushed. By 23 points, 17 points. By 22.
With two minutes left in our fourth game, I called a timeout. We were losing 37-18.
“OK guys,” I said in the huddle. “Our goal is to lose this game by less than 20 points. We have two minutes to go. We can do this. We’re right in this game.”
With 30 seconds to go, the other team drained an 18-footer to take the lead by one (or 21, depending on your scoring system). There was 20 seconds left, we broke the press, dribbled around a screen. The crowd was going crazy—well, not really, mostly they were depressed that they were wasting their weekends on the blowouts, but in my imaginary world, they were going crazy. The kids of the bench were counting down, “five, four, three.” One more pass and then…another pass, and then another. The clock expired. We didn’t even take a shot.
At the end of one game I sat next to one of the better kids on our team, who had his head down on the bench as if we really did just lose by one point.
“What are you thinking?” I asked him.
He didn’t look up. He just said, “That I’m not having any fun.”
There are few kids on the team, Jake being one of them, who I don’t worry about. I know without a doubt that this competition is good for them. But for the others, for most of them, I’m starting to truly believe I let them down. That I made the wrong decision to play in this division. We’re not going to win any games. We’re not even going to be close. You can’t coach tall and as much as I try to convince the kids and parents that this is really a gift, that if they work hard and keep trying, they’ll get much more out of it than winning by 20, I’m actually starting to wonder. Maybe they won’t appreciate the challenge in all this. Maybe instead, it’s going to break their spirit and they won’t want to play anymore.
“Don’t even try it,” said Dixie after she saw me moping on the bench. She knows me too well. “You didn’t make the wrong decision. Of course they’re not going to love it. But who cares. It’s so much better for them. They can suck it up.”
I started our next practice with a story. Twelve and thirteen-year-old kids just love it when you tell them stories about your childhood. This one was about my best friend when I was growing up. The one I spent all my time with. The one who crushed me in every single thing we did. Basketball, football, golf, grades. In tennis, he wouldn’t play me with his right hand until I beat him when he was playing with his left. I never beat him. But I got really good at chucking my tennis racquet for distance. He was better. He beat me at ping-pong using a shoe as a paddle. He batted lefty at Whiffleball and then insisted on taping the games so we could watch them over and over again. I have to say, I liked taping the games too. But the point was, it was demoralizing. All I wanted to do was win, and as hard as I tried, I never could.
Until one day I did. I went to college at University of Rochester in New York and he went to Michigan. I was completely shocked to make the tennis team as a freshman because I stink at tennis. I couldn’t even beat my friend, and he was playing lefty. I didn’t lose a ping-pong game in four years, even though I started every one thinking I would.
“The point is,” I told the team, “It wasn’t until much later that I realized that even though I didn’t get many victories against my friend, I was better off for trying.”
I’m one-hundred percent positive that nobody on the team could repeat that story back to me but we had a good practice nonetheless.
Before the next game, I redefined success. EJ, you need three assists today. Miles, you need to be more aggressive: four fouls. Chris, these guys are big, you might not never get a rebound but I want you to box out five times. Jake, no unforced turnovers, and so on and so on.
We lost that game by nine points but there was a spark. In the next game, we were leading the only undefeated team in our division heading into the fourth quarter before losing at the end. The spark got brighter. The next game we only lost by four. The spark turned into a flame, which was continuously flamed by more and more enthusiasm as the team realized we were actually getting better.
It wasn’t until our last game that someone informed me that we’ve had all 10 kids show up for every game this year, which many people view as a disadvantage because if everyone shows, you can’t play your best players extra minutes. And to be honest, in that way, it is a significant disadvantage. But in another way, it was also cool. We were the only team that had all our players for all our games during the regular season. To me, it showed that nobody was giving up, or running away. Even though I know there were times when we all wanted to. Well, maybe not Jake.
The last game of the season was tied with 10 seconds left. I called a time out. I never got one of the drawing things competent coaches use, so I drew up a play on my shirt like I used to do in our annual Turkeybowl football games. My best friend beat me in those too. Our last shot didn’t hit the rim. But we won in overtime: A wining streak.
The next day I got a call from Marta, who is in charge of the league.
“Thank you very much for playing up this year,” she said. “I know it hasn’t been an easy season. I don’t usually do this but I’ll give you a choice. Do you want to move down to the 7th grade league for the playoffs or stay at the 8th grade level?”
I thought for a second. We would probably win if we moved down. Or at least make it to the championship game. That might be good for a bunch of the kids.
“I think we should see this all the way through,” I told Marta.
“OK,” said Marta. Then she explained that there was one team in the 7th grade level, the Trashmen, who had won all their games by 20 points. She was going to move them up to our division for the playoffs.
“You’ll play them in the first round,” she said.
We jumped out to a 12-2 lead against the Trashmen and never trailed. Jake iced the game with four free throws and all of sudden, we were on a two-game winning streak.
Today was the semifinals against the Gladiators. We played them twice in the regular season. They beat us by 23 the first game and 9 the second game. Their best player, Tim, also plays on a travel team. Each team is allowed one travel player. We have none.
But we saved our best game of the year for this one. Everything was working. We were playing unselfishly. Running the floor. Boxing out guys who were literally a foot taller and even though Tim was his dominant self in the first quarter, we hung tough and were only trailing by 2 points, 13-11.
As usual, I wasn’t even thinking of the other team. I pretty much knew we weren’t going to win, but I loved the way we were competing. Before the second quarter, the league official, Charlie, and the coach of the Gladiators approached me.
“Tim has to leave early for his travel game,” the other coach said. “Is it OK if he plays the entire first half and then another player will play the entire second half?”
It seemed reasonable enough at first, except the rules. Since the Gladiators had 10 players, if Tim played the entire first half, then another player wouldn’t play an entire quarter in the first half. That would be against the rules.
I was enjoying the game so much. This had to be a joke. I know Dixie and the kids are going to get me good for April Fools. Was this the beginning?
“What are the rules?” I asked Charlie.
“The rules are pretty clear,” he said. “He’s not allowed to do it. But if you say it’s OK, then we can make an exception. It’s up to you.”
Up to me, I thought That’s insane. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last 42 years, it’s that nothing should be up to me.
“So what do you want to do?” Charlie said.
I asked Charlie and the other coach to come closer so I could talk to them without anyone else hearing. Then I told them what happened last year. The entire story, which was pretty inappropriate because it took a really long time. At the end, Charlie just looked at me, much like the kids during my post game speech.
“So what do you want to do?” he repeated.
I started to say, “Sure, no problem,” but I didn’t. I wanted to say, “No,” but I couldn’t. Instead, I just kept repeating, “What are the rules? Let’s just follow the rules.”
I said it so many times, I sounded like Rainman.
“It sounds like you’re saying no,” said Charlie.
“I’m not saying, No,” I corrected. “I’m saying let’s follow the rules. Whatever the rules are.”
Charlie looked at the other coach. “So it’s a No.”
It didn’t feel right. It still doesn’t. I pulled the team together and we took a quick poll.
“Should we let him play?” I asked, once again demonstrating the decisive leadership qualities that have gotten me to where I am today.
Almost the whole team looked at me like I was insane. “No way,” they agreed.
Then I looked at Jake. Stay tuned for a blog or two about Jake that will put you at ease if you’re teenage son is making you feel like you want to punch him in the face, but as I’ve said many times, put this kid in a sporting event and he’s about as perfect as you can get.
“What do you think?” I asked him.
He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. I could see it in his eyes. He didn’t feel totally good about it either. In some ways we’re so similar that I genuinely feel bad for him. He just walked on the court and played his heart out, just like he always does.
The game went back and forth. We were down by five at one point but then fought back and were only trailing by one heading into the fourth quarter. The crowd grew more and more intense with every steal, turnover, rebound, and basket.
“Use your size,” shouted a dad from the Gladiators as their team got rebound after rebound.
“Size doesn’t matter,” Dixie yelled back.
I looked at the referee. “I don’t know how she knows that,” I shrugged.
The buzzer sounded as their desperation three-pointed banged off the side of the backboard. We won, if you’re keeping track by the score.
“They’ll remember this season forever,” said one of the parents. “So will I.”
When the teams shook hands, I looked the other coach in the eye. It was tough, which is not a good sign. “I feel horrible about that,” I said. And I do. Even as I write this I feel horrible, because I don’t know if I made the right decision.
“I could see how hard that was for you,” Dixie said after the game, giving me a big hug. “But you did the right thing.” All the parents agreed, which was not surprising.
The championship game is tomorrow, well actually today: it’s 4:03 a.m. right now and I really can’t sleep. Whether we win or lose, the fifth annual end-of-season party is Wednesday. The weather forecast looks great. I wonder what we’ll talk about.