Thomas McKenzie
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The Basketball Diary, part three: Competitive and Incompetent

A word: If you have not read parts one and two of the Basketball Diary, you should probably do so before reading this post.

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.

Our first game under my benevolent hand came on Saturday morning at 9 am. The venue: the same gym where we had been burned down the week before. I was nervous going in. Though the gym can't be a ten minute drive from my house, I insisted on getting out the door 40 minutes before game time. Ella was all suited up, so we left my wife and my younger daughter behind to join us later.

As you might expect, Ella- and I stood outside by ourselves for 15-20 minutes. I was wearing all my new coaching gear, including my black "Texas Longhorns, 2006 National Champions" hat that a friend had bought for me in Austin. That hat was about to get a workout.

As the girls began to arrive, I received some bad news. Three of our ten players would not be there. That meant less rest time for the others. When Georgia showed up, she quickly told me that she had been thinking about who we should pair with whom. She had a grand vision of two groups of five who would all sub in and sub out together. Ah, the best laid plans of coaches and men . . .

Before we went inside, I led us in prayer (coaches do that in private school). Then we got into the gym after the game in front of us had finished. (Yes, those other kids had to play basketball at 8 am on a Saturday.) A few observations right off the bat:

1) The other coach was dressed just like me. Except he was about a foot taller, had lots of blond hair, and looked like some sort of Nordic basketball god. I shall call him "Thor."

2) The other team had all ten girls present, and they were all big and tall. And mean looking. Mean, mean, mean.

3) The league official present was no-nonsense. The second I met him, it was all "do you have a scorekeeper?, because if you don't you have to forfeit." Then, he made me take off my whistle. My whistle! Ridiculous. How could I blow it if I didn't have it on?

4) The refs were all dressed up in their zebra outfits. Both of them had whistles.

So we're getting settled in, and Georgia comes up to me. "I know these girls," she says. "They live near us. I know who we should match up." She was smiling. That was a good sign. I put Georgia in charge of telling the girls who they were "on." (We run a "man-on-man" defense. Or is that "little girl-on-little girl?" Whichever.)

Within a minute of the opening whistle, I learned two things about basketball. The first was that only one coach can stand up. I decided that would be me. Georgia could yell from the bench, while my boy Jerry kept the score-book.

The second was that I could only prowl in a limited space. I was walking up and down on the sideline (or whatever they call it) yelling my favorite expressions: "who's on 5?" "rebound, rebound!" "good shot!" "stop dribbling and SHOOT!" That sort of thing. The first time I walked past mid-court into the other team's little "territory," the league official warned me. Then he warned me again, and this time he told me to "stay in my box." Just like my mom used to do: "Stay in your box, Tommy, and we'll feed you later." But I digress.

Coach Thor looked cool and in control. Occasionally, he would call out a quick command. Most of the time he just leaned in and peered at the court. I loathed him for his serenity and grasp of how this game is supposed to be played. I began to recognize something about myself. I think my competitive feelings are directly related to my level of incompetence. If I am competent in something, I don't feel particularly competitive. I can genuinely root for others. In basketball, however, I am as competent as a cave-man. I am a competitive Neanderthal.

The game was a nail-biter. We took an early lead(!), but they came back strong. I found out that most of our girls have one or two specialties. Iris can shoot the ball, Red can rebound, Abby plays great defense, etc. Ella, my girl, was really into it, and looked awesome. She is so CUTE.

The parents on our side seemed amused by my coaching (what's the word? "prowess." Pacing up and down, yelling my encouragements, I would jump up and down like a pogo stick with each score from our team. With each of the other team's scores I would wring my hat, stomp my foot, regain control, and say "that's all right, good hustle." I'm not sure what it is with coaches and "hustle," but I think there is something primal about the word.

When I sit in the stands at a football game, I pretty much yell whatever I want. However, it only took me one dirty look after a sarcastic "hey Ref, I thought pushing a girl down was still a foul!" to shut me up.

OK, here is the part I know you want to hear: the technical. We had just subbed in some players, and the whistle blew. Apparently, this was the time to switch goals. No one (including me) told my team. So, my team had possession. They threw it in, and Red starts taking it down the court. Towards the wrong goal. Georgia and I both start shouting "stop, Stop, STOP." No one is listening.

So I do what seemed like a good idea at the time. I ran onto the court, hands waving, shouting "STOP." The whistle blew, and the ref pointed at me. "Technical" he said. What? What? A technical foul? I didn't even cuss at anyone. There was a quick conference between the league official and the ref. The official came over to me. "If you need to stop the game, you should call a time out." He was not overly friendly. The result? My team lost possession of the ball. Next time, I'll call a time out.

Once again, it should be noted that I do not actually know the rules of this game.

Anyway, the game continued. At one point, the other team was six points ahead, but then they drew a couple of fouls. We actually made three free throws. I don't know if you've ever seen a nine-year-old make a free-throw, but it is a sight to behold.

In the last three minutes we started to surge. Then, with only 40 seconds left, we were down by one point and had the ball under their goal. The ball bounced out of bounds. It looked like it was out on our team, so (basically) the game was over. My team started getting into defensive positions. I was about to call my vaunted "time out" and encourage the girls to get the ball back quickly, but the ref blew his whistle. It was out on the other team. We were getting the ball under their basket.

Iris threw it in, Georgia got it, passed it to Iris, who shot. Nothing, Miriam rebounded, shot, bounced out, got her own rebound, shot again and GOAL. I went nuts, but there were 12 seconds left. Thor, or whatever their coach called himself, called a time out. We gathered the girls together. I pointed at the scoreboard.

"Do you know what that says?" I asked. They were looking up at me wide-eyed, red-faced, and exhausted. Seven little girls who had run their tails off for nearly 40 minutes while being yelled at by an incompetent mad-man in a black track suit. "It says you are one point ahead, and all you have to do is keep them from scoring for ten seconds and you win." They didn't seem to be getting it, but the whistle blew and it was time to go.

The seconds flew by as the other team mishandled the ball. (They are kids, for goodness sake). The buzzer blew, and we had won 19-18. Our team came rushing over to the bench. Ella jumped into my arms, and everyone surged together. Another girl jumped on me, and we were all yelling and cheering and screaming. Last week they got hammered, and this week they won!

At this point, I came to a startling conclusion. This whole thing was really not about me. Yes, that is obvious to you. But this is a place in my life that I have often felt overwhelmed and afraid. I recognized I had made this too much about me, about my inabilities and fears. They had done everything they needed to do, and it was all about them. I was proud of them, and for them.

I had to calm them down long enough to make the "good game" line. I shook hands with Thor. He didn't look me in the eye. The other team's kids and parents shuffled out. They looked worse than we had last week. Our kids stood around on the court, basking in their new glory.

Once outside, I reminded everyone of next week's practice. Those practices went very well. Winning seemed to fire the girls up. It probably did even more for the parents. All of a sudden Georgia and Jerry, who had intimidated the heck out of me, were less scary to me. Winning was great, but seeing the vast improvement in those girls was even better.

When I got this job, I had told my wife that I had a simple goal this season: win one game. With seven games left to play, I have a new goal. Have fun, and do what I can to help these girls grow. I liked winning, and I liked watching them win. I liked feeling like I had done a good enough job. Now its time to settle down and do this right.

We play again tomorrow. Maybe we'll win, maybe we'll lose. I personally hope not to draw any technical fouls. And I hope that everyone has a good time.




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