basketballDec 13, 2023–

“Are you blind!”

“She traveled!”

“C’mon ref… that was a foul!”

Such was my soundtrack while at a high school basketball game. I like to sit on the visitor side, as that is usually where the most open seats are, and it keeps me from having to listen to equally annoying “homer” comments.

At this particular game I sat near a group that consisted of several family members of one of the players. I had never heard such caustic heckling, even at a partisan political rally.

As I sized up the hecklers, it was obvious none had ever coached, refereed, played in, or even sat on the bench in any organized sport. Their knowledge of the basic rules of the game did not exist.

Once again it made me realize that the easiest thing in the world is to coach from the stands.

While I never heckled, the Walter Mitty in me used to fantasize about coaching. I love basketball. I played all through middle and high school in the Midwest mecca of hoops, intramurals at university, with a semi-pro team overseas, and disorganized league ball three mornings a week until I qualified for Medicare.

When I finally had the opportunity to coach for a city/church league, I stepped eagerly into the role. In my mind, I imagined how I would Digger Phelps these 5th and 6th graders into a cohesive unit, teaching them the fundamentals of the sport and sharing my knowledge of the beauty and philosophy of basketball.

I organized skill drills, discussed strategy, and gave Knute Rockne-quality pep talks.

Our first game, we got crushed 25 to 2.

The dilemma of a coach, I discovered, is that none of the players actually listen to you. And if they do, come game day, they don’t actually do anything you’ve taught them.

From the first jump ball, the girls scattered like quail. Depending on their confidence, they either ran toward the ball or ran away from the ball, regardless if it was in the hands of a teammate or opponent.

I realized my mistake was making assumptions about their ability and knowledge of the sport. I had to distill it down to “dribble, pass, shoot.” The next week, instead of talking about blocking out, setting screens, and full-court presses, I marked out the court into five areas, and simply told the players to go stand inside those boxes until someone came their way. This was designed to keep them spread out.

It worked. The second game we got beat 28 to 4, doubling our point production.

By the final game of that long, depressing season, I caved. My instruction to the team devolved to “just throw the ball to our best player, then get out of the way.” By some miracle, we won. It gave the lie to my brilliant coaching strategy, and relied on the talent of one player. The team was over the moon.

Analyzing the season, I came to this conclusion. The key to winning games at that level is to recruit the tallest player. The league champion had figured that out, and their tall player simply stood under the basket, catching every rebound, and putting it back in the basket, even if it took five tries.

I agree the reason coaches get paid so much more than teachers, is because coaches have to run their classrooms with 50,000 screaming people looking over their shoulders.

As George Burns joked: It’s too bad all the people who know how to run the country (or coach the team) are too busy driving cabs and cutting hair.

This is why I never judge coaches.

I’ve sat on that bench.