Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Essence of Basketball

Something special happens inside our gym. Only those privileged to be a part of our program sense it, and among them, even fewer grasp its essence. Every game night, most opponents and their respective coaches misunderstand what occurs during the course of the game. They think it's about basketball. Accordingly, they play or coach a game. Similarly, parents from both sides pay admission to watch the fruit of their loins ripen into athletes competing in a physical game. Eager for their child's success, quantified by the stats line, they yell for their child to TAKE THE SHOT, SON! and then berate myself or someone from our coaching staff for benching their child for, coincidentally I'm sure, following parental directive in taking the shot. Our players who take that shot are those who fail to grasp the essence behind that special something that occurs inside our gym.

Coaches aren't necessarily immune to this sort of thinking or rather, misunderstanding--this fetishism over a game. Back when it all began for me, three years ago, I thought that I had signed up to coach the game of basketball. Everything and everyone around me suggested that this was so. As one loss stretched to two, three, four, five losses in a row, my players questioned my knowledge of the game. Why do we only have one offense? Once their questions couldn't be answered convincingly, the questioning turned into advising. Against an even-front zone, we can't run this offense. Five games into the young season, I didn't even know what an even-front zone meant, and here my players were telling me, their joke of a coach, that I needed to know the game before I could teach it. Unsurprisingly, none of my players respected me as a coach (certainly, none of them referred to me as such), and my physical image, especially then, didn't help my case either. Their coach looked like and approached the game as a stereotypical Model Minority would. To their credit, they stuck with me, though I suppose the alternative would have been worse for them. Better to have a token coach then none at all, if only so that we can complete our abysmal season.

Other coaches in our program questioned the head coach for hiring me. I was, in all matters with respect to the game, substantially worse than the previous coach whom I replaced who, despite his college-level playing experience with the game, just couldn't get it done as a coach. He had, I'm told, something like two wins that entire previous season. Consequently, the remaining assistant coaches believed that the new hire should, to the benefit of our program, have even more knowledge and experience with the game. These coaches made my first year more difficult than it already was. Maybe it was their way to encourage me to resign after the season, but doing so reinforced my players' disrespect towards me. Whenever an assistant attended my practices, he took over, ignored or overruled my suggestions, and taught the game with unflinching confidence and authority that made me seem, next to him, invisible. He would constantly make it known to me that I'd have to step up my knowledge of the game, somehow some way, giving me glib remarks like This stuff is simple. When you see it, you'll understand it rather than taking his time to slowly break down a drill or play beforehand for my comprehension.

Parents of my players, though, took it to a whole new level. Unsatisfied with me feeling like I was in purgatory, they crucified me and brought me hell for my inability to coach the game of basketball. After about the eighth or ninth loss of the season, in an away game against Mercer Island in which we were slaughtered by at least thirty, a mother decided that she had enough of me coaching her son and refused to allow her son to ride home on the team bus so long as I, in her words, could not figure out how to counter the opposing team's strategy. (MI exclusively ran a 1-3-1 zone defense, a defense that I had never encountered before). Citing my lack of knowledge of the game as evidence, she attempted to get me fired through the school administration and, when she couldn't, rallied other parents to heckle me at home games to make sure that each loss my team incurred would doubly sting for me.

Much to her and other parents' chagrin, instead of quitting, I acknowledged my ignorance of the game and was determined to learn, understand, and begin mastery over basketball that following summer. Accordingly, I ravenously devoured from the buffet of coaching manuals and DVDs, Youtube practice footage from various high school and college programs, varsity practices, game film, and televised games- basically anything and everything I could get my hands on. The more basketball I indulged, the more the game slowed down for me and the faster I could react to any given situation. The more I saw the X's and O's from other resources, the more confidence I gained towards drawing my own plays. And to everyone's surprise, I came back the following season looking more like a knowledgeable basketball coach and less a seasonal baby sitter.

All the pressures around me convinced me that understanding the game of basketball would result in victories and that victories were, for a coach and his program, the most important thing about basketball. The thing was, though we won a few more games in my second and third season, the margin of win totals was not a marked improvement from year one and certainly did not parallel the significant amount of knowledge of the game that I gained from year to year. So, in the weeks preceding the spring and summer seasons of my third year, I reflected on my current approach to coaching and why supreme self-confidence in my knowledge of the game did not translate into drastically greater amount of victories for our team.

And then it hit me. An overwhelming majority of my pre-game, post-game, post-practice speeches were about basketball. Sure I'd throw in an anecdote with a lesson about seizing the opportunity or playing hard, but they had never been the focal points of my teachings. They were merely motivational speeches designed to hype my players up to win the game. Other times, instead of personal stories, I would color my speeches with metaphors and humor towards the same end of achieving victory. We're gonna fucking press them today, and I don't want a half-assed press, but we're gonna instill fucking fear every time they touch the ball. When they inbound the ball, I want Matt to fucking harass him like Freddy Kreuger, and then James will fucking rush him from behind like he's Jason. They won't be entering a basketball game, they will be entering our slaughterhouse. Your hands are your claws and knives, and the two of you will trap the ball handler so hard he feels like he's in a Jigsaw contraption, shits his pants and turns the ball over. Every time. At the end of the day, because I wanted to win games so bad, and felt that this was the external expectation of me and the measure of my success, my eyes were on the prize and the breadth of my messaging reflected that vision. I failed to see that basketball was more than a game. In my approach to the game, I de-humanized my players and took away their agency in the process. By making it solely about the X's and O's, they were my pawns and I was the chessmaster. Clearly, my approach was not working and I was getting too caught up in the bullshit of obsessing over the W.

I reflected on what basketball meant to me and why, in only three years of exposure, I loved it so much. The answer was not to be found in the game, but in the journey. Basketball had liberated me from my own insecurities and lack of self-worth from being trapped in stereotypical roles constructed by a racist system, but doing so required that I had to embrace the challenge, not back down from intimidation, learn from failure, enhance my mental capacity and reflexes, believe in myself, and find a way to persevere despite the odds. When I really sat down to think about it, basketball wasn't just a game to me, it was a medium for self-growth and a metaphor for life.

Heading into the spring and summer, I changed my core messaging to my players from basketball to the life values I discovered through basketball. I told them, the point is not the points; the point is the process. Neither the stats nor outcome ultimately mattered, but the process of how we represented ourselves was what really mattered. My promise to them was that if we could buy into this new understanding of the game, the results would speak for themselves. When my players began to see that I wasn't just changing my emphasis to extract a quick victory, but that it genuinely came from my heart and that these values were about more than the game but would inform their relationship to the world, they started playing the game for themselves and their growth as human beings, instead of playing for me or for the W. They started to exert themselves harder than I had seen that preceding winter, exemplify discipline and patience with their shot selection, trust in each other to help defensively or be at the right spot offensively, and find a way to battle and win games even if we were down by a heavy deficit.

When I started de-prioritizing basketball and prioritizing the essence of basketball--the meaning of life--the results indeed spoke for themselves. We surprised a lot of opponents, who were bigger, stronger, faster, more athletic, and more skilled, by means of our fearlessness, discipline, focus, and trust and accountability with each other. We finished second place in two tournaments, won our pool in another AAU tournament, and had a seven-game win streak. I began receiving compliments from referees and opposing coaches for my vibrant, high-energy coaching style. While these accomplishments are nice experiences, they ultimately symbolize, and perhaps mask, the fact that for those who really get it, the secret of basketball, as a legend once put it, is that it is not about basketball.

1 comment:

  1. Magnificent self-reflection. Amazing that you could grasp such an illusory life lesson, within the confusing context of Amerikkkan competition, in such a short amount of time on the sideline. i've been immersed in basketball my entire life, and i have yet to comprehend what you were able to glean in 3 short years. It's a credit to your ability to critically think and go into deep soul-searching.