Thomas McKenzie
by grace alone
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The Basketball Diary, part five: Basketball Begins


This is part five of the series. I recommend you begin with part one and move forward.

In response to requests, I have ditched my old school use of first initials. Names have been changed to protect the innocent, and the guilty.

Like so many of the dramas of life, this one started with a phone call. Thursday afternoon last week, I was sitting at my desk when my cell phone rang. It was Debbie. She is the woman who started the basketball team and, therefore, the person to credit/blame for my coaching position.

I answered the phone with a "Hey, Debbie, what's up?" She answered back, "Do you have a few minutes? We need to talk about basketball." I said that I had a few minutes. She sighed, and her story began.

This is about to become one of those "origin stories." You know, like Batman Begins or Casino Royale. We're not going to expand our hero's story. Instead, we're going to go back and delve into the darkness of history. As we make this trip, I want to make sure you have one thing in mind. We are talking about little girls playing a game with a ball. I know that sounds obvious, but it seems to be something that our characters often lose sight of.

Months ago, Debbie decided she would like her daughter to play basketball this year. Her daughter had played it the year before and enjoyed it. So, she called up all the parents in her daughter's grade. She spoke to me and asked if my Ella would like to play. I thought that would be good for her, and so my wife and I said yes.

Unfortunately, Ella was the only other 2nd grader to get on board. So, Debbie joined with a bunch of 3rd grade moms. A 3rd grade team, with two 2nd graders was born.

But who would coach it? Debbie called upon her two favorite babysitters, Anne and Beatrice. They are basketball playing girls who attend a local university. As far as I can tell, she offered to pay them for their time. So, Anne and Beatrice had two or three one hour practices back in the fall. When the first game arrived, only Anne showed up. You can read all about that in Part One of this Saga. It turns out that Anne called up a couple of days before the game and tried to get out of coming. Seems her family was doing something together, and she wanted to go. Well, Debbie reminded her of her responsibilities. And her future employment. So, Anne showed up and did a pretty good job of sitting on her hands while the kids got butchered.

OK, here is where the drama starts. This is the stuff I didn't know anything about, until Debbie called me up and needed to talk. Are you ready? Stupid question, of course you're not.

After that first game, two moms approached Anne. These two moms have girls who don't go to our school. Instead, they go to a school that places a greater value on sports. These are moms who want their girls to really play basketball. They are not messing around. When their school's team filled up, they spoke to Mr. Xavier. Mr. Xavier is the Grand Wizard of the land of competitive basketball for children. They told Mr. Xavier that they wanted their girls to get on a good team with a good coach. He turned them over to our team, and "coach" Anne. Mr. Xavier basically shafted them.

Following the game, the two moms were thinking that they were not getting what they bargained for. So, they asked Anne some questions. There are conflicting accounts of how that conversation went down. However, at the end of it the two moms were not satisfied.

They spoke to Debbie. She assured them that the team would get some great help in the form of (drum roll please): "Coach" Thomas McKenzie. A greater farce could not have been imagined. Credit to Debbie, though. She had seen me yelling my encouragements at our first game and had (wrongly, but sincerely) assumed I had some idea what I was yelling about. Obviously, I was just a poser.

It gets better. When Debbie called Anne to tell her she was getting a little Coach Thomas assistance, Anne tells Debbie she is done coaching. She says she was attacked by these two moms. Her feelings are hurt, and she quits. That is why I was left hold the proverbial bag.

So, when I show up at the first practice (episode two), I meet Georgia. She says that, though she can't be there all the time, she is willing to help. Now I learn that Georgia was one of these two "attack" moms, and I suspect she wasn't just there to "help." She was probably there to make darn sure her daughter and her daughter's friend were getting some real coaching. I'm guessing she was disappointed. And who could blame her? I don't think Anne was a good coach, but at least she knew what a "point guard" is.

Here is where I give my props to Georgia. As disappointed as she may have been, she did not show it. She has been to every game and every practice. In fact, if I am to be fully honest, I would say that she is the real coach. Yes, I do all the "organization," and most of the yelling. But she knows what she is talking about. She can show a girl how to shoot the ball and set a pick. I can encourage them, but I simply don't have any basketball skills.

OK, back to the drama. So we have our next two games. We win the second one and lose the third. At both of these games, I had some tension with the refs (much to the delight of my gentle readers). You might also recall that at our third game, both Georgia and I had some weird exchanges with a very uptight league representative. It was almost as if he had walked onto the court with something against us. (Re-read it here, post number four, if you would like.)

A couple of days after that game, Mr. Xavier (the Grand Wizard of Basketball) gives Debbie a call. "I hear that the coaches on your team were out of control at the last couple of games," he says. Are technical fouls "out of control," I am asking myself? Debbie says that this is not true, though we had a couple of points of confusion. Mr. Xavier goes on to ask Debbie about Georgia. He says that the league rep at our game said she was out of line. He says she was yelling at the refs and making a fuss. Mr. Xavier is going to call Georgia and assert his authority.

So he does it. Georgia gets a phone call. The story goes that Mr. Xavier goes off on Georgia for a good 15 minutes. He tells her how bad her behavior is, and tells her she shouldn't coach anymore. Georgia, upset as you can imagine, gives it back to him. She tells him that the girls are improving, that she was not out of line, and he needs to back the heck off.

Am I missing something here? you might be thinking. Why is Mr. Xavier so upset with Georgia? Georgia wasn't out of control. If anyone was (and no one really was), it was me. But I didn't get any angry phone calls. What's up?

Turns out, Anne is a friend of Mr. Xavier. Turns out they've known each other for years. Turns out, Anne gave Mr. Xavier a call after her "confrontation" with Georgia and the other parent. Turns out that Mr. Xavier had a problem with Georgia because she had hurt his friend's feelings. Turns out that Mr. Xavier may (and this is speculation) have warned his league rep buddies to keep an eye out for this trouble maker.

This would explain why the league reps, especially at game three, were so tense. It might even explain some of the strange ref calls. Conspiracy theories have begun to circulate amongst the parents.

OK, back to the phone call from Debbie. After filling me in on all of this, she gives me a word of advise. "I was talking to Mr. Xavier about you. He said that the better coaches are often more quiet at the games. They don't want to distract their players." Does everyone get that? That was Julia's Southern way of telling me that Mr. Xavier says I need to stop the theatrics. But without theatrics, what have I got left?

Mr. Xavier apparently has some sympathy for me. He knows I missed all the coach training. However, I was instructed to get hold of some basic materials. I now have my very own Coach's Handbook! I have not cracked it.

Here is what I think. I think Mr. Xavier is probably a fine person. He has done a lot to help little kids play sports, which is admirable. And he has probably had tons of problems with parents who are Grade-A jerks. I don't know what Georgia said to Anne after that first game. It could be she was harsh. It could be that Anne was looking for a reason to quit. It could be something in between; I do not know. Whatever was going on, Mr. Xavier could have handled this better by simply doing some listening.

Why did I choose to write all of this? Partly because this is the stuff that you know is going on, but you don't see. This is a taste of the weird and petty politics of parents and coaches and volunteers.

How is it that we adults can take a simple game played by children and turn it into a turf war of gossip, phone calls, anger, and tears? For that matter, why does anyone need a competitive sports league for children? Isn't that a little twisted?

My best guess (over and above sinful human nature) is that, at the end of the day, we are all living vicariously through these children. We are all putting our hopes and dreams, and our fears, on their narrow shoulders. We are experiencing glory from our own childhoods. We are making up for some of our early failures. We are scared to fail now because we were scared to fail then. We are doing what our parents probably did to us.

I would like this basketball season to be about my little girl developing her physical abilities, making friends, and enjoying using her body. But I recognize that this is not the only thing it is about. This is about my hopes and fears. And it is about the hopes and fears of the all the other parents on all the teams. It is about the security that comes from a win. It is about the sense that you are a good parent when your kid steals the ball and makes a shot. It is about the dread that your child is somehow inadequate, and therefore you are a failure.

I don't think that any of this is fair to my daughter, or to any of our daughters. And other than quitting, I don't know how to stop it. However, I will continue to do what I am doing. I will try to be an encouraging presence, and I will do my best to chill out. I will hope against hope that none of these little girls are picking up on the atmosphere that they are breathing. Actually, I kind of wish they would figure out what's going on. At least then they could put a name to the darkness.

Our most recent game was pretty chill, especially considering all the drama that led up to it. This was game four, which means we are halfway through our season. We lost, but not badly. The refs and the league rep were all pleasant. The other coach was ultra-competent and fine to talk to. The only thing of great note was that the other team had a girl who was almost as tall as my wife. Third grade, five-two--seriously. Oh, and we played at a private high school that was nicer than most colleges. It has a pro-shop inside of its sports complex. Yes, that's what I said, a pro-shop and a sports complex. And it had a really swank concession stand. My public high school had a drunk guy who sold candy bars during our games. Guess you get what you pay for.

This post was kind of heavy. The next one, however, will feature one of the future's greatest comediennes. I'm going to leave Ella and the 2nd/3rd graders aside for a post. I'll be traveling outside of my coaching zone and commenting on Sophie, my Kindergartner, who is also playing. We call her "the Beast," and you will soon find out why.



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