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.

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