Basketball was never my sport. Don’t get me wrong, I love the sport and played it almost every summer day growing up. I just was never any good at it. I never learned how to dribble between my legs or not fall for a crossover. Basketball is the type of sport that requires a certain level of physical ability I just plain never had. Instead, baseball and football were my sports, since I could get over on brute strength and taking rests in between plays. I have always had a checkered relationship with basketball. It is only my third favorite sport, yet the one I have played the most.
So two years ago, when the boys’ varsity basketball team needed a new coach, I took a chance and applied for the job. I was at a point in my career where I had done pretty much every out-of-classroom duty a teacher could do. The muddled world of high school sports was my final frontier. Basketball and I were to rendezvous again. It had been several years since I have played basketball. It was even longer than that since I had seriously followed the NBA. The new generation of players (which I guess now would be the old generation) were filled with showboaters, trashtalkers and other players who turned me off to the sport. Just to give you an indication of my era, I still think of the Knicks as Patrick Ewing’s team.
I was never able to communicate with my students about basketball. It is a shame, since it seems to be the favorite sport of kids in New York City. Whenever my students were having heated discussions over their favorite basketball players, I had no idea who they were talking about. They could not ask me what I thought of last night’s Knicks game, since they would be met with the type of blank stare they frequently gave me. And now here I am the basketball coach, still unable to talk about the Knick game but much more able to talk about the game of basketball. I never learned so much about anything in such a short time as I did about basketball in my first year as coach.
It was extremely intimidating. The boys already on the team had up to three years experience under their belts. They knew the NBA better than me, were in much better shape than me and could beat me one-on-one any day of the week. For many of them, basketball was the most important thing in their lives. It was the only thing that got many of them to school in the morning. I had already taught many of the boys on the team and, even though they were generally good kids, they were never necessarily the greatest students. Not only that, but there were legions of boys who intended to try out for the team. It was the first time that my students were better prepared than me. For the first time in many years I stood in front of a group of students without the full tank of confidence I usually take for granted.
The only thing I could think of was to immerse myself in basketball. I read every book, article and website I could, watched hours of video and asked self-professed experts many questions. I would make up for my years of basketball neglect in the few weeks I had until tryouts. The only problem was the more I learned, the more questions I had. There were literally hundreds of scenarios that could play out on a basketball court. Most of them I already knew, some I never knew, but none have I ever had to coach. This was the type of job people spend lifetimes preparing for. There would be no way I could become Pat Riley in a few short weeks. I decided that, in tryouts, I would look for people that had natural physical ability that could not be taught. Whoever looked like they could effortlessly dribble, pass and rebound would have a spot on the team.
Yet, there were many kids who easily had that ability. Some boys handled the ball really well, others moved very quickly and some were just plain tall. I would have to give many of them a second look. It would take many practices after that to sort out who truly had the salt to be part of the team. I figured I would just know when it was proven to me that a kid belonged. Being on a team is grueling work. Any boy that showed up every day and gave it their all earned a spot. Those that did not have the time or underestimated the dedication it required eliminated themselves. After a few weeks, through a process of natural selection so to speak, we had a large but manageable corps of boys that could be called a team. It consisted of the previous year’s players plus a bunch of new faces.
There would be a tough road ahead of us. The year before I came in to coach, the team had lost all of their games. In fact, the team traditionally was bad and was always the butt of not a few school jokes. Now these poor boys who loved basketball were on a sucky team with a sucky coach. I often felt that any success we might have would be in spite of, not because of, me. I still was trying to get the hang of organizing a practice, eventually realizing that it has to be just like a lesson where every instruction is clear and every ounce of time has to be planned out. Some drills I tried were great, others were useless. Much like teaching, I only got better through research, trial and error and experience.
Yet, without playing a game, it would be tough to see if these practices would pay off. I decided to arrange a few pre-season games with other schools. Our first such game was against a big school and the general feeling going in was gloomy. I had never sat on a bench coaching any sport, never called a play, a timeout, or made a substitution. I felt like I was back at my first day of teaching (which I remember vividly). What is more, I still was not used to being called “coach”. I actually felt undeserving of the title, a feeling I have not totally shaken. But my first game was a great experience. The boys did not do anything we learned on offense (which would turn out to be a chronic problem) but defensively they did everything I asked them to do. And, against all hope, we won. I had won my first game as a coach, even if it was only the preseason.
We would play two more preseason games and split them. We ended the preseason at 2 and 1, which I considered a victory unto itself. Then opening day of the regular season came. Our opponent was the best team in our division, the team that beat us in that one preseason game. Their boys were extremely athletic and their coach was experienced. They destroyed us. In one moment, the good feeling of the preseason was wiped away. Then the second game followed. We ended the first half in the lead. Halftime was like waiting for the other shoe to drop. The boys were happy but also fearing that things were too good to be true. By the end of the game, we had our first victory. It was a cause of great celebration in the school. We ended up winning the next two games. Throughout the season, we played many great games involving double and triple overtime or come-from-behind victories. By the end, we had made the playoffs. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life, as well as for many of the boys. Many of these moments will be written about in future posts.
But I learned valuable lessons about my boys, as well as my students in general. When I had many of them as students, they generally tried to stay unseen, not participating much and not going out of their way for good grades. They were completely different people on the basketball court. They may have been C students but they were A basketball players. Even the laziest of my former students came to practice every day, sweated themselves to exhaustion and played their heart out on the court. If not for the privilege of being their coach, I would have remembered them as part of a long list of apathetic boys I used to teach. Now I remember them as people with a ton of heart and talent who have the capacity to care enough to work hard at something.
Being the basketball coach has made me a better teacher. I realize that every kid has something about which they are passionate. I tend to listen more to what they talk about so I can get clues as to what makes them tick. That informs me about what types of ideas I can use in my lessons that might make some of them tune in for a few minutes. I also learned that teenagers have seemingly limitless resolve. Many of them are not in touch with themselves enough to know when they are tired or when too much of something is too much. As a teacher now I feel like I am trying to strike oil. I know somewhere down in every teenager is a deep reservoir of passion and aptitude that contrasts with the apathy portrayed on the outside. Every day I am trying tap into this reservoir, hoping to harness their passions to something more than the pop culture to which many of them are addicted.
There really was no way for me to prepare to be a basketball coach. Instead, I had to make adjustments in the moment and get the feedback of people who know better than me. In many cases, this included my boys. If I made a shaky move, my boys would let me know. If there was something we needed to do, my boys would let me know. Much of my coaching has been informed by the boys themselves. I have learned there is nothing wrong with listening to your students. They may not always have the greatest ideas, but those ideas come from a place worth exploring. More importantly, I learned to be humble again. My more mature age and experience were making me crusty and dismissive. But being an inexperienced coach humbled me and, ironically, gave me the confidence to take the advice of others without feeling like it is a sign of weakness.
Most of all, I realized that no matter how passionate a kid is about something, they still need guidance. As I have increased my own basketball IQ, I see that the kids who make basketball their lives still did not know the fundamentals. They know Lebron James’ stats, they know how to play a good street game and they all have the latest basketball standings in their heads. Yet, they still need to be taught how to break a press or how to make a sold pass or how to drive the ball up the middle. In short, they still did not know what it meant to play a team sport. At this point I have made this my mission as a basketball coach. They love basketball so much because they are attracted by the hotdogging and self-celebration they see in the pros. I want them to get a deeper appreciation for the game that involves fundamentals and team dynamics.
After all, this has been what has resurrected basketball in my heart. The only thing I have to give my boys is my own new found passion for basketball as an elegant sport, played at its most elegant by teammates working together. This is the same thing in teaching too. I can only be passionate when sharing a part of myself.