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.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Spock's Sacrifice

"Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." -Spock, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
The signs were there. It was only a matter of time before it was made official. First came the call to the floor signaling a substitution with six minutes left in the game. Then, the very next match, he rode the pine the entire second half. Coach, I'm ready. I know you are. Please coach, let me in the game. Dee is struggling. But he's done better than you, I think in response. His teammate rushes to me when there is a quick break on the floor. Coach, we need Tod in the game. Dee can't score, we need a scorer on the floor. Hiding my uncertainty and feigning a calm demeanor, I refuse to budge.

If he ignored the omens then, the very following week of practices should have hit him with frightening clarity. Zero minutes assigned during scrimmaging. Third string on drills designed to improve guard play. My 5'3" point guard never looked his size until now, head down, seated with back sulking in the corner of the gym.

It's official the next weekend. As they had methodically done for each of the forty games together during our combined winter high school and spring AAU seasons, with 1:30 left on the clock prior to the game, my players rush to the bench from their warm-up lay up lines. Okay, here's who's starting. Randy, Noah, Mike, Klay, Nat. We may be outmatched because our [AAU] opponents recruit stars from all around, but we are from one school, one mind, and one unit. We play as the better team. Set the tone from the start. Play harder than them, outhustle, outrebound, fight for every possession. Slow their offense down and be in help position. Don't let them get in the paint. Make them fear our defense. Let's go. Tod looks at me in disbelief as if I were the Grim Reaper. He stopped listening after the omission of his name, and treats me with a blank, ghostly stare. While I talk, I return his stare with my own quick, assured glance as if to presumptuously acknowledge, yes I seriously removed you from the starting rotation.

In the moments before tip-off, my mind questions my decision to replace the point guard who started for me in each of our previous forty outings; the point guard who singlehandedly got us back from huge deficits and won us games; the point guard with whom I achieved my most conference wins as a high school coach. My memory races back to January 21st, away game against Bothell. We are down 13 at the half. Bothell's students roar in approval as they anticipate a similar dominating showing for their varsity squad in the game to follow. In one of the most spectacular moments of individual performance during a game that I coached, Tod scores 18 in the second half for a game-high 29 points to lift our team to a comeback victory. After the game, the Bothell coach approaches him incredulously, then collects himself and remarks I'll be watching for you over the next few years.

While this game stood out for the end result, Tod's scoring touch came regularly throughout the winter and, in fact, came to be expected. After a 28 point performance against Redmond one week before the Bothell game, I designed a play strictly for him to score a quick lay up off a post hand off (which he exploited in the Bothell game), or, if that primary option did not work, an open three pointer from a down screen off the same play. For his lack of size, Tod was an exceptional scorer, especially behind the three point line. His shot release was anything but natural and, from my distance, always looked like a struggle; instead of snapping his wrist and producing a high-arcing backspun shot, he had to shot-put the ball with the force of his entire arm. But his straightaway three-point shot would go in approximately half the time, and, in a game where amassing points is key, finesse is not the factor to scoring.

In the game of basketball, there are off-game shooting slumps; and then there are why-is-this-kid-even-wearing-a-jersey, Black Tuesday slumps. Prior to actually witnessing Tod's plummet, I only believed that the first category, game-to-game slumps, existed. Sure, even the greatest shooters have their off-nights or few in a stretch of games. The latter category, of which Tod embodied, was an issue of confidence. The short-lived miraculous presence of Tod during the winter high school season turned into the never-ending calamitous presence of Tod during the spring AAU season. In about eight spring games, he had successfully scored one 3 pointer in around 30 tries. Despite his broken shot, his instincts told him to continue to shoot himself out of the slump, so he attempted and missed horrible shots outside of his comfortable range. He began missing lay-ups. He made horrible decisions and turned the ball over a quarter of the time off the first pass. Defensively, he could not keep up with the size or speed of any point guard we faced in tournaments. Even in practices, he seemed like a liability, refusing to listen and only sinking deeper into his mental abyss. It was unbearable to watch, as if a loved one with whom you conversed on a daily basis suddenly ended up in a coma. I kept on asking myself how this was even possible and why this had to happen to me, of all coaches, as if my localized team wasn't disadvantaged enough without losing our best scorer.

With Tod out of the starting line up, we end up blowing out our opponent for our first win in a remarkably tough league of teams composed of recruited players from all around the region (as a comparison, our team is the only unsponsored team in this league). Instead of feeling accomplished from my keen substitution patterns, my pregame skepticism turns into postgame anxiety. I can't help but feel responsible for the slump Tod is in. At the very least, my deliberate lack of practicing and playing him has crushed whatever last inkling of confidence he has suppressed inside. And on the other end of the spectrum, my conscious overvaluing of his offensive capabilities and simultaneous overlooking of his weaknesses, particularly on the defensive end, during the winter season has made him unable to compete this spring against better competition when his offensive ability is stripped from him.

I approach him as practice ends and place my hand on his shoulder. He looks at me and it takes a minute before words leave my mouth. I don't know what I can possibly say to inspire confidence and shoulder the burden of responsibility for his struggles. The humanity in me wanted to reach out to him because I care for his development, but I failed to do so with a clear purpose and plan. Without that clear purpose, the cold, Vulcan logic of coaching took over. I end up saying something uninspired along the lines of Tod, you're a great player. I want to play you more but you gotta focus on defense now that you're struggling offensively. Great defense will lead to offense. In spite of my words, he shakes my hand and thanks me.

The measure of a great coach is in the mantra by which they are remembered to have coined. (Just joking...sort of.) In my journey to the coaching hall of fame, I recently coined my own saying for my team. The point is not the points, the point is in the process. If I live out the quote, then I must consciously reclaim and reintegrate my humanity in the cold Vulcan coaching process and value the progression of all my athletes. In the end, the results will flow from the expansion of the roots.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Beware of Veryl the Bully

It's 4:30pm. We're en route to Juanita High School for Game 2 of the KingCo 4A Varsity Tournament. The four coaches occupy the first four seats on the team bus. The cheerleaders are sandwiched between the coaches and the team. The bus is eerily quiet. You could feel the focus in the air. Like guerrilla fighters approaching a colossal military force, fate unknown but purpose clear, we are up against the only team to defeat Garfield High School this season, the perennial superpower in our conference that produced NBA phenom Brandon Roy and most recently, Tony Wroten. Undeterred by the mission ahead, the team is fired up from the post-practice talk I delivered a day before. In it, I mention the undisputed, unanimous perception of our team from the students at the alternative high school where I teach: we're weak, we're shit, and we're losers. I mention that each game day, when I wear our team's athletic garb to the alternative school, my students come down extra hard on me. Who you guys playing today? *Insert school here* will fuck you up by double digits. Intent on where my story is heading, I redirect the team to our recent game against Garfield, in which we lost by only two points. That game shut up a lot my students, who expected nothing less than a blowout. Fuck external perception, we know what we're capable of and what we will accomplish. I tell the team that I'm proud that we're not composed of superstars, that we have to rely on each other and our bench to pull out each victory, and that we're the hardest working, blue-collar team in the league. Our 'star' (loosely used here) point guard who, just days before, was awarded a First Team All-League honor, pulls me aside afterwards and tells me I hyped him up. He's ready to play the big game right now. Another coach creeps from behind and pushes me off-balance while approvingly shouts, fucking Veryl. Getting us all pumped. Motivational speaking. One of the tools that I developed and refined through coaching.

4:35pm. Still not so much a word muttered. For most, the focus is at once intoxicating and infectious, like a meditative journey experienced in collectivity. I'm silent for another reason. I'm pensive. Just thirty-five minutes before, I was confronted by two parents of a player at my level with perhaps an ugly truth about myself. They accuse me of the polar opposite in skills that I picked up through coaching: bullying. They didn't outright label it as such, but the implication was clear. The conversation lasts for nearly half an hour. Just before we walk onto the bus, I talk to two coaches about it.

4:40pm. The silence is finally broken. They should put up a poster at the school with your picture that says, "Beware of Bullying," says the same coach who complimented me the day before. This generates a few laughs from the nearby cheerleaders.

Veryl the bully, the head coach echoes with a huge grin and a dreamy stare, as if recalling a pleasant memory.

I've learned from the best, I retort in a smart-ass kind of way. Coaching has taught me to become an asshole. I reciprocate the grin.

I get a lot of shit from parents. But it comes with the territory. Or so the head coach says. In the three years of coaching, I've received the most parental complaints this current season--the year when I'm most confident in what I'm doing and attaining the most conference wins. You don't win enough games, parents question your knowledge and hint at a replacement. A player gets injured, parents blame the hyper-intensity of practices and lack of education towards players regarding sports-related injuries. You don't assign minutes to a player, parents challenge the integrity or fairness of your rotation. After a while, complaints sound like a broken record. They have to, or you begin to doubt yourself, which reflects on your performance and reverberates back negatively to the team. Fortunately, since I teach at-risk youth who experience trauma or systematic and individualized violence for eight hours each day before I coach, these parental complaints sound like what they are. Yet, to completely write off these complaints runs the risk of missing a chance for critical reflection and self-improvement.

Given my own history of being bullied, conceptually I hate bullying. Given that some studies show, however slight the statistical significance, that those who were bullied in their childhood are prone to becoming bullies themselves, perhaps working in a profession where militarism is a prized value subconsciously increases my propensity to bully. After all, it's so easy to get away with what you say when you monopolize the power through controlling playing time and a player's status within the program.

Though the parents' accusation rested on a false premise--that I exclusively singled out their son--it made me reflect on how I currently interact with my players and what type of coach I aspire to be. If I want to embody a coach who values each player as a human being with potential to become leaders in their own right, I would need to temper some of my spontaneous quips to my players. I would neither have remained with the program nor become the coach I am today if the head coach repeatedly harassed me for my inconsequential knowledge of the game during my first season. Why should the dynamic be any different between coaches and players, especially since I'm coming from a theoretical framework that values athletes for more than their bodies, but also for their mental capacity as coaches on the floor? I want them to appreciate the game as a symphony from a conductor's point of view, and not as a second violinist obsessed with correctly playing each note from the sheet of music on their stand.

My fault is that I'm quick-witted with my tongue. As basketball runs on horsepower, I am quickly yelling in reaction to what happens on the floor. There's no time to censor my reaction and my words, because the moment it takes to think of what I should say to mitigate the emotional damage, another action will happen and I would fail to react to something new. In games, I might yell out I can't play this kid loud enough for the entire gym to hear after a player commits a mistake, bench him, and then turn to him with a mean mug and yell out Why did I take you out of the game? If he answers I don't know, I will most certainly come up with a smart ass remark along the lines of I know you don't know, that's why you did it before explaining to him calmly what the correct course of action should have been. I am not adverse to yelling at a player during games for two reasons: 1. I do not want the player committing the same mistake again when I put him back in and he should know that I'm serious as it seriously impacts the outcome of the match, and 2. I do not want his teammates to commit the same mistake as him. Calling players out for their shit is an effective way to get them to play smarter and harder.

Practices, though, potentially bring out my 'worst' because I am afforded the time to make an example out of a player who commits a mistake. I certainly need to change my approach in this area. I am haunted by one particular practice from earlier this season where what I said had a prolonged effect on the player. I introduced a new drill to the team. After most of my players demonstrated and executed the drill satisfactorily, one of the last players to participate in the drill stepped on the floor not knowing what to do. This player happened to be someone who goofed off and neglected to pay attention regularly in practices, so I put him on the spot...once again. Are you shitting me? Over half the team just did the drill, and you don't know what to do? He nervously stuttered and I heard him start to say, I'm s.... I cut him off and interrupted before he could finish his sentence. He may have wanted to apologize (I'm sorry), but I ran with the s sound to poke fun at him. You're what? STUPID? Or perhaps you wanted to say 'I'm SLOW' since you don't understand what's going on. At that point, he courageously attempted to repeat his original sentence. No I was going to say I'm s.... I cut him off again and, with disregard to his feeling, brazenly continued, What were you going to say? I only hear the 's' sound! Were you going to say you're SMART? That wouldn't make SENSE. If you were, then you actually mean you're SARCASTIC. The whole team laughed at how clever the whole sequence was, but I overdid it. One of the next practices, when the same player once again failed to demonstrate knowledge of what was taught, he told me that he did not know what to do because he was stupid. He said it with a straight face, as if he were citing a truth. I pulled him aside after practice to apologize for what I said before, but the damage was already done. When it came to basketball, he internalized his incompetence thanks to me.

It's 8:30pm. We board the bus to return home from Juanita after losing a hard-fought game. The playoffs are double elimination, so we live to fight another day. Atypical of most players who congregate together at the back of the bus, our 'star' point guard decides to sit in front beside me. We look at each other during the ride home but don't exchange a single word. We respect each other's silence. We pay our dues to the powerful process of reflection, in hopes that tomorrow will yield a better outcome. My mind wanders back to the interaction with the parents from earlier that day and the grander implications it held. I tell myself that if my players cannot experience joy in the game because of the way in which I interact with them, then I fail to get the best out of my players and together, as a team, we will not succeed. As the bus pulls into our school's parking lot, bringing us back to reality, I look to the players at the rear of the bus arising from the trance of deep meditation. I am comforted by how small I am in relation to the whole of the team, and in fact, changing for the better and growing are interwoven into the very fabric of each and every one of our DNA.