Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A crushing day, and the real reason I do what I do

FAIR WARNING: This blog is not about writing, publishing, or an interview with a literary figure. It is simply something I felt I had to write – it tells you a little about me, hopefully, and a little bit about where all my time has been spent these past three years (instead of writing). It’s long. It’s heartfelt, and if that’s not your cup of tea, feel free to pass right on over. I’ll be back with regular stuff soon.

Saturday was a painful day.

Some of you know I coach a high school ladies varsity basketball team. It's a team of homeschoolers – but let me say up front you probably don't know what homeschool basketball is all about. It is where more of the top high school talent is playing, where more colleges are going to find players, because homeschoolers often play a college-like schedule – 30 to 40 games a season, a fair bit of travel, and national tournaments. Talented players, and their families, are sometimes opting to go the homeschool route for athletics – most notably in basketball.

I began coaching this team nearly three years ago, at the start of my oldest daughter's senior year. A week after practice began the coach quit. At my daughter's cajoling, I offered the athletic director my assistance to whoever might be named coach.

Turns out that was me.

Spending that time with my daughter was a wonderful experience for both of us, and gave me memories I'll cherish always. As a proud father, I have to tell you one of those memories was in the season-ending national tournament we attend each March. We advanced to the final four (in the nation, may I remind you), and, with the final seconds ticking away in that semi-final game, my daughter hit a shot that sent us into overtime!

Here's the thing, though – well, before we get to the thing, let me give an ever-so-brief background on our program.

We work hard on this team at preparing for the season, at doing whatever is necessary to win (within the rules and good sportsmanship, of course). We work and play to win. My first year as coach we were 30-5, won the state title and finished third in that national tournament.

With six seniors graduating, the next season was more challenging, particularly since our team was mostly made up of ninth-graders (and a couple of eighth-graders and a seventh grader thrown in). Our top scorer from the previous year did return, but injured her ACL a week before our first game, so we were behind the eight-ball from the start. Still, finishing 18-17 with one of the youngest varsity teams in the state was quite an accomplishment.

This year, we're still young – a senior, a junior, three sophomores, and the rest freshmen, ninth-graders, and an eight-grader -- so we struggle at times, but our record stands at 22-9. It's that ninth loss which made Saturday so painful.

Sports can be an emotional roller coaster. Little more than a week earlier, we made it to the semi-finals of the regional playoffs, where we squared off with the No. 1 seed in the state. They were on their way to pounding us pretty good, with a 20-point lead in the third quarter, and our prospects were looking bleak. The loser was done for the year, the winner would move on to the regional championship and clinch a spot in the state playoffs.

One thing you need to know about my players – they don't know how to quit. From 20 points down, they stormed back. Fittingly the senior who missed her entire junior year with the ACL injury hit the free throw – with 2 seconds on the clock – that sent the game into overtime, and we went on to win.

I'll never forget at the end of the game seeing her fall to the floor, overcome by emotions, tears of joy rolling down her cheeks.

We continued moving on, winning until Saturday, the day of the state championship, where we faced a team of giants. Our opponent was stacked with seniors, their shortest player is taller than my tallest, and they have three that top out at six-foot or taller. While the game was back and forth for three quarters, we just couldn't hang with them for the entire contest.

Here's where we get to the pain. It wasn't the loss, but afterward, when that same senior came walking off the court. A few steps before reaching the sideline, she went down to one knee and started quietly crying.

What do you do? The other team is lining up to shake our hands, the tournament directors are setting up at midcourt to hand out the trophies, and the two teams preparing to play for the guy's state title are filing from their locker rooms, ready to take over the two team benches. When the game's over, you celebrate quickly, then move on.

This young lady went through hell over the past year. She had two knee operations, months of agonizing physical therapy, and times when she felt she would never make it back.

Yet all season she has been the team's heart and soul, pumping up the others when they felt down, leading by word and deed. She had already tasted success at this level, on that state title-winning team from two years earlier. She put everything she had into leading her team back to the state title game, only to fall short in the end. She was crushed, yet the rest of the world was ready to move on.

What do you do?

As far as I was concerned, that court was going to be ours until my player decided she could stand and walk off. That took a while, but finally, surrounded by her teammates, she stood and we walked off the court.

And that brings me to the “thing” I mentioned earlier.

I love coaching basketball. I love the competitiveness of it, the strategy, the nervousness and energy – particularly when you face a team that outmatches you physically, or when you're going into a major tournament or season-ending championship. I get an even bigger thrill out of watching my players grow up, become more confident on the court, and then carry that confidence into other walks of life.

In the end the wins, the trophies, the championships – we've collected a lot of them over the past three seasons – they mean less and less as time moves on.

But certain events will always be with me – watching my daughter jumping up and down like a kid on Christmas morning, her teammates overwhelmed with joy, when she hit that shot to send us to overtime; then watching those same ladies absolutely crushed when we fell short, losing our long-sought national championship (I spent a lot of time over the next hour with my arm around shoulders, comforting weeping players); watching this year's team – especially that senior I've talked about – be absolutely overcome with joy with that 20-point comeback which propelled us onward in the playoffs, and then consoling her on that court as the bitter realization hit that her dream of another state title was over.

When you share eight months of the year with a group of young people, you grow close, and you feel one another's emotions – joy and pain. That connection, the ability to reach across three decades of age difference, to be a mentor, and a friend – THAT is what coaching is all about.

Several of my former players are playing college ball now, and some on this season's team will no doubt do the same. I keep in touch with quite a few – they drop me e-mails, Facebook messages, show up at some of our games. Whenever we see one another, we strike up a conversation. They keep me up-to-date on how life is going, what their plans are, and I understand them, and they know I do, because of what we've shared.

My youngest – she is 10 – has expressed a bit of interest in playing organized ball next season, and if she does I'll probably help out with the team, but otherwise, this will be my final season on the bench. I love doing it, but coaching at this level is time consuming. I have a demanding full-time job and a family. I've lost family time to coaching, missed out on plenty of sleep (was up until 4 a.m. the night before the state championship, watching video of our opponent) and my writing career has essentially been on hold during this period.

We have the national tournament coming up in March and after that I'll be hanging up my whistle. I'm going to miss it. Already the thought of being away from the game, away from the players, of not being in a gym come August, is depressing. But it's what I need to do, to be with my family more, to resurrect whatever writing career I might have.

Still, I wouldn't trade these past three seasons for anything. The highs and the lows, the emotional connections I've made to these players, knowing I've helped them through those and hopefully taught them a life lesson or two along the way – those are lifelong treasures that nothing could replace, and will be with me long after the wins are forgotten and the trophies are packed away.


  1. My friend, I just finished my first season as a girl's basketball coach--coaching my 10 year olds team. We only played 6 games in this league and won 4 of them.

    Watching these girls grow from the first practice right up until the closing ceremonies was as much of a thrill and joy as coaching my son for three seasons of baseball and watching his team grow and win and become little ball players.

    I, like you, had no intentions of coaching, but was asked to help out when the head coach ended up having 5 teams to coach.

    John, I love the teaching aspect of coaching--it not only teaches them, but it teaches me as well. Be proud of your accomplishments and I congratulate you, not on your coaching, but in your compassion.

  2. Hey John, who says you're not writing! THAT was fabulous, and a service to the home-school community well worth circulating. You know these home school parents will eat that up. Do it.
    Congrats on raising such a fine squad of young women, and if you are going to hang up the... um, clipboard, then welcome back to full-time writing (the HELL with the job) and don't forget to sit back and enjoy the waves of contact with these ladies as the years go by.

  3. This is a beautifully written post.

    Congratulations on your many accomplishments.

    Those girls will remember you forever.