Put Me In, Coach

by Lang Whitaker

When I was in 10th grade, the coach of our JV basketball team was named Coach Brown. I didn’t know him at all when tryouts began, but I made the team and we soon began to develop that familial relationship that coaches try to foster with their players. I was spending more time each day with Coach B than I was with my parents, and between practices and study halls Coach B would try to talk to us about life, about making good choices, about our grades, about basketball. I liked Coach B as a person.

As a coach, well, that was different. Our school was relatively small, only about 800 total students, so there really wasn’t enough space available for two varsity and two junior varsity basketball teams to practice. The JV boys were told to practice outdoors at the elementary school next door. (You should see how funny a bunch of guys look doing defensive slides in jeans and flannel shirts.) When it became too cold to stay outside we were forced to move into the Old Gym. This had been the school’s main gym in the 1950s, but had since been converted into a stage for school plays. The floor in there was mostly broken tile and covered by a fine sheen of dust and rubble, so it was almost like trying to bounce a ball off gravel.

We spent massive amounts of time at practice working on our set offense, which was called “motion.” It was a very strict, pick-based offense that required perfect execution, patience and timing, much like Princeton is famous for using. We spent hour upon hour practicing that set and it never helped a bit. It was like asking a bunch of tenth graders to work a nuclear fission assembly line; “motion” had so many complex components that we were never able to make it work. Still, for whatever reason, Coach B insisted on sticking with the offense, and none of us dared to suggest that he rethink his coaching philosophy.

We started that season 0-4. To show you how bad we were, I was the starting two guard and I couldn’t shoot or defend. But I did understand the motion offense. I’d be out there running my cuts, regardless of what anyone else was doing, and I quickly realized this was all Coach B wanted from us, to do exactly what he asked without any deviation.

Instead of making adjustments to our general offensive philosophy, Coach B decided the adjust the personnel. His first change was switching our starting point guard; a kid named Jason was inserted into the starting lineup. Jason had played some pick-up ball with us before the season began and he was obviously athletic, but his basketball skills were visibly raw. He also kept to himself a lot, which didn’t really win him any points with the rest of us.

In the first half of our fifth game that season, Jason had a particularly brutal half, with 5 or 6 turnovers, setting the stage for one of Coach Brown’s finest moments. We went into the locker room down 12 points; as far as I was concerned, this was a moral victory. We all found seats and waited for Coach B. The door exploded open and Coach B came raging through. He was one of the only black men I’ve ever known with green eyes, and when he was angry it gave the unsettling effect that his eyes were on fire.

He grabbed a piece of chalk and wrote on the blackboard “Turnovers = 20.”

After a pause for dramatic effect, he wheeled back around and wrote “Jason = 11” just underneath.

To further drive home his point he slapped the blackboard with an open hand, generating a loud SMACK! that surprised everyone. Coach’s hard hit, however, unintentionally dislodged a plaque that was hanging above the blackboard, and it sprang from the wall and nailed Coach B on the shoulder. I nearly bit through my tongue trying not to laugh.

Coach Brown could have shattered a window or thrown a chair (he actually did throw a chair later that season), but it didn’t really matter to me; I knew exactly what he was doing. Motivation is a funny thing. Do some people react positively to physically acting out? I guess so. I just didn’t understand how a chair flying across a room and crashing into a toilet would make Jason be able to see open cutters any more effectively. I still don’t understand that.

It is written somewhere that we’re all supposed to listen to our coaches. If he asks you to jump, you say how high. If she tells you to run through a brick wall, you just go for it. Yet a voice deep inside me always wondered, Why? If I could see the logic in something my coach was asking me to do, I did it no questions asked.

As I discovered that pitiful JV season, however, coaches don’t know everything. They know a lot, sure, but they don’t know everything. The thing is, a lot of coaches want you to think they know everything and you know nothing. Bob Knight appears to work that way, as does Bill Parcells.

Late last night I flipped past the local PBS station and happened upon the documentary This Is A Game, Ladies. It’s the story of a tough season with the Rutgers women’s basketball team. I’m not really a fan of women’s basketball (that’s another column), but this wasn’t so much about women’s basketball as it was about the dynamic between coach Vivian Stringer and her players. It was really well done and watching the team struggle took me back to those JV hoops days.

At one point one of the team’s academic advisers tells a few of the girls that even though they were each highly-recruited coming in, Coach Stringer would find a weakness in each of them and push them to improve upon it.

I suppose the difference in coaches comes down to exactly how they push you to improve.

I’ve been thinking about all of this the last few days after reading this column from Sean Deveney, who pointed out George Karl’s proclivity for blasting his players in the media. Of course, there was also the story I linked to yesterday in which Sonics coach Bob Hill threw a few of his players under the team bus. Earlier this season Don Nelson publicly crapped all over Li’l Dunleavy. These are coaches who want to make sure that their players know they’re in charge, and more importantly want the media and the public to know that the players know they’re in charge.

I haven’t had a lot of interaction with Pat Riley, but I love how last year before a game he called his team into the locker room and did a ten-minute dance routine to a Doobie Brothers song. Really. Can you imagine Pat Riley doing a 10-minute dance routine? Me either, and I’m sure the same goes for the Heat players. But that was Riley’s way of shaking things up and telling his guys that he could be just as goofy and human (and wrong) as any of them.

To me, the best coaches are the ones who know when to push hard and when to push gently. They teach you how to play the game of basketball, but they should also understand how to play the political game. Maybe everyone responds differently to different stimulus, but I can’t imagine a basketball player playing better because his coach publicly embarrasses him. Hopefully, Larry Brown learned this last season.

Have you ever seen the show “Project Runway”? The “coach” on that show is a guy named Tim Gunn. Halfway through each episode he comes in and meets with each contestant to critique what they’re working on. Sometimes he’s harsh, sometimes he’s soft, but the contestants know he cares about their success. Which is really what being a coach is all about.

After our team’s 0-9 start, we were all frustrated by our inability to pull out any wins. And not only were we losing, we were losing every game by at least 15 points. Our glaring weakness was our struggle to score points. You would think our coach might have done something about our offense, but he never did. We kept running that blasted “motion,” even though we had absolutely no faith in it.

Practices were spent working on “motion” and scrimmaging. Coach B would often scrimmage with us, and if he had been eligible to play, he would have immediately become our best player. He had a remarkable move where he would come down the court looking right into a defender’s eyes and stop on a dime to drain a jump shot, without ever looking at the rim. It was unreal. One day I asked Coach if he had played in high school, and according to him, he played four years of varsity ball and averaged 20 points per game over his career.

Our tenth game of the season — we were a robust 0-9 at the time — was at Towers High School, a powerhouse just outside of town. They had one of those gyms that was built in the 1960s in such a way that it will always look like it was built in the 1960s. On the first play of the game I threw the ball down into the post to our best player, Jamal, who promptly had the ball stolen from him. Jamal raced back on defense and caught up to the guy who had stolen the ball, but instead of trying to poke the ball out from behind, Jamal calmly reached out and swept the kids’ legs out from under him. The poor dude went sprawling face-first into the floor, and Jamal was immediately ejected. We were literally 20 seconds into the game and suddenly found ourselves without our best player and starting center.

Without Jamal we stood no chance, and Coach B’s season of frustration reached a boiling point. We were getting thrashed in the middle of the third quarter when Coach Brown called a time-out. He gathered us around and ordered us not to shoot the ball again. No one said a word. What do you say to a request like that? We all put our hands on our hips and stood around, and Coach seemed as if he wanted to go get on the bus right that second. I was in the lineup at the time, and as the buzzer ending the time-out sounded, hoping for a clarification or perhaps a change of heart, I cleared my throat and said, “Um, Coach, what do you want us to do, then?”

Coach Brown looked me in the eyes and didn’t say a word. He must have stared me down for 15 seconds. I tried looking at the scoreboard, as if it would flash me some divine advice for dealing with Coach B. Finally, he turned and sat down on the bench without saying anything else. At least he left me in the game.

I wasn’t sure exactly what to do, but I was sure that I wasn’t going to be the one shooting the ball. We brought the ball down and passed it around for nearly 35 seconds, when I spotted a kid named Fred wide open under the basket. Fred was a JV football star who was a good enough athlete to be able to come out and contribute on the basketball court through defense and rebounding. I zipped the ball to Fred and he sunk a lay-up. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Coach B stand up, stalk down the bench and yank somebody up by his warm-ups. At the next dead ball, Fred was out of there.

We ended up losing that game 80-27. That was a completely embarrassing game. The road fans were all over us and we looked like we were afraid to play out there.

We finished the season with an 0-12 record. We ran the “motion” offense the entire season. And it never came close to working.

A few years ago, I ran into Coach B at the concession stand of a movie theater outside Atlanta. We spent a year together on that 0-12 team. The next season I moved on to the varsity team, where Coach Brown was the assistant coach. In two years of varsity ball, we went a combined 45-9. I sat next to Coach Brown on the bench during varsity games and looked for tips or trends we could pass on to the head coach. And when we got big leads, I’d gently ask Coach B to suggest that perhaps the head coach should empty the bench and let me play. (That seemed to work a lot better than just trying to make eye contact with the head coach and sending him mind waves that I should be in the lineup.)

Hey, I said, remember that game you wouldn’t let us shoot? What was that all about? Coach’s eyes twinkled and he looked like he was fighting back a smile. He didn’t answer the question, though.

Ten years after our run ended, Coach B was still coaching high school basketball, but he’d moved on to coaching girl’s ball.

It was different, he said. “They just run the plays. They don’t question anything I ask them to do, they just do it.”

“Yeah,” I responded, “but I bet that damn motion offense still doesn’t work.”

Coach laughed and a few seconds later he replied, “No, it doesn’t.”

OK, so that was kind of long-winded. Anyway, my question to you guys is, What makes a good coach? Should a coach temper his style to fit the players he has? Should the players adapt to the coach no questions asked?