Damage Control: My Brief Tenure as a Youth Sports Coach
by Steven L. Davis
I grew up in the self-proclaimed “Pee-Wee Football Capital of the World”—otherwise known as Mesquite, Texas, and like many children I became an early conscript into the world of youth sports. It was a good life, at least in the beginning. We paraded to our games in cars decorated with streamers and shoe polish, the stands were full of cheering parents, and the girls did a halftime show in our honor. We felt like young heroes, as though the whole world depended on how well we performed.
I remained enthusiastic up until the 7th grade, when another player’s helmet speared my back as I was being tackled. As I lay crumpled on the field the coach came out and pushed through the spooked players who had gathered around me.
“What’s the matter, Davis?” he asked.
After a couple of seconds I managed to rasp, “I can’t breathe.”
With some help I got up and went over to the sidelines. After a few minutes of “walking it off,” the coach signaled me back into the game.
That’s the way the coaches were. If you could stand up, then you could play. I completed the season stoically with nagging pain and eventually went to the doctor a couple months later because of the continuing discomfort. The x-rays revealed two cracked ribs, and the doctor told me, “You’re very lucky. If you’d gotten hit in that same spot again it could’ve pushed one of those ribs into your lungs, and that would’ve been trouble.”
Later on, as I grew into an adult and entered my revisionist years, I became increasingly critical of the role youth sports plays in society. Though I’d once felt pride at the sound of parents cheering, I began to wonder—had they really been cheering for us, or was it their own glory that was at stake? I took a special interest in newspaper accounts of crazed parents beating up umpires at little league baseball games, or some dad running out onto the football field to tackle an opposing team’s player. It seemed to me that the sports-playing kids weren’t heroes after all, but rather sacrifices to the parents’ self-image.
Later on, when I married and had children of my own, I liked to believe that my own experience had safely inoculated me from youth sports madness. I enjoyed playing driveway basketball and other athletic games with our kids, but I felt no real desire to enlist them in organized sports. And then one day our nine year-old daughter, Natalie, came home from school and announced that she wanted to sign up for the fourth grade basketball league in our city. Despite my worries about Type A coaches and overbearing parents, I couldn’t help considering how Natalie might fare against other girls her age. She was, after all, a pretty good shooter and dribbler. She was also fairly tall for her age. “Hmm,” I thought, “She might just go out there and kick some serious ass.” Fantasies of college scholarships came drifting into my head.
Two weeks later I took Natalie to the league tryouts. It was sort of like going to a dog show, in that each girl was expected to demonstrate agility and performance. The children dribbled around traffic cones and shot lay-ups and free throws. Coaches walked around, judging the talent by making little notations on clipboards. Natalie, much to my pleasure, looked terrific. I was already thinking about how much fun it would be to sit in the stands and videotape her performances. Oops, I mean her team’s performances.
A few days later, we received a phone call from Margaret Tanner, the coach who had “drafted” Natalie. Margaret and I talked for a few minutes about the upcoming season, and she told me, “I’m a little nervous about this coaching; I’ve never done it before.” I offered some bland reassurance. Then Margaret noticed the box I’d checked on Natalie’s sign-up form. “Oh, I see here that you’re willing to volunteer,” she said as my heart sank. Dismissing my protests that I had no coaching experience, she quickly signed me up as her assistant.
As a new coach, I quickly learned that political correctness is at last beginning to catch up with the profession. Back in the old days, a coach could simply drive up to practice in his pickup, drain the last of his beer, toss the empty can into the bed of his truck, belch loudly, and then order the kids to start running laps. No longer. Well, at least not in this particular league. Because our city’s junior basketball league is affiliated with the Kids Sports Network (KSN), an organization created by San Antonio Spurs coach Greg Popovich and designed to promote sportsmanship, basketball fundamentals, and a drug-free culture. The KSN subsidizes several leagues in San Antonio and throughout South Texas, bringing organized athletics to some 20,000 children at a minimal cost to parents.
Although I had never heard of it, the KSN had been around for a while. Long enough, in fact, to qualify as one of the first President Bush’s “thousand points of light” back in 1992. One doesn’t just simply “sign up” to be a KSN-certified coach. One must pass a criminal background check and go through a training session. So early one Saturday morning I drove to a YMCA in San Antonio, where I joined about sixty other recruits from all over South Texas. Considering the KSN’s view on drugs, I’m sure more than a few of us would-be coaches were nervous while our background checks were conducted. What if they contacted old college roommates?
Those of us who survived the investigations signed a pledge to remain drug and alcohol free in the presence of the children. We also agreed to give an anti-drug talk to our team at each practice. Then we sat in the Y’s bleachers and listened to a motivational speaker, who explained the KSN’s philosophy to us. “If you’re coaching because you want to win games, then you’re in the wrong league.” He pointed towards the exit. “You may as well get up and leave right now. Just go out that door, because we don’t want you here. You don’t belong.”
His message was very clear. The KSN is not like other youth sports leagues. Our guru told us, “Any parent or coach who yells at a child, yells at an official, or yells at a coach is automatically barred from the arena. They have to leave. We are zero tolerance about this.” A few low whistles came from the crowd. This was tough talk. But I was thrilled. At last, it seemed that youth sports was beginning to match my own personal standards. I left the clinic with a KSN ID badge, an official coach’s T-Shirt, a first-aid kid, a folder full of instructions, and a proud sense of purpose.
“This league is great,” I crowed to friends and family over the next several days. “It’s not like those other leagues; it’s a sportsmanship league.” But I was less wedded to the anti-drug focus. Not that I’m in favor of fourth-graders smoking crack, it’s just that the “Just Say No” campaign seems more brainwashing than education. It’s the equivalent of an abstinence-based sex education program. Sure, it makes adults feel good, but realistically, children get few tools to cope with complex situations. As I made these complaints to my wife, I turned and noticed that our daughter, Natalie, had snuck into the room. She was taking in my diatribe with wide eyes.
Two weeks later, our team had its first practice. As we arrived at the facility I realized that, despite other advances in youth sports, the unfair discrimination against girls continues unabated. While the boys’ fourth grade teams practiced at the local middle school gym, our girl were relegated to the assembly area at a primary school, where a couple of portable basketball goals had been added as an afterthought. One goal was about nine feet high, just one foot short of regulation. The other goal was six feet, and the girls were trying to dunk on it. The floor was carpeted, and it contained numerous suspicious stains inflicted upon it by kindergarteners over the years.
Our head coach, Margaret was a pleasant and athletic-looking, but with the tired eyes of one of those women who does the bulk of the child-rearing and housework in addition to her full-time job. With Margaret was her daughter, Ruth.
“My mom’s the coach!” Ruth said by way of introduction.
“Yes, I know,” I responded.
“She’s the coach, she’s the coach, she’s the coach,” Ruth said, skipping away. We saw another mother and daughter entering the gym. Ruth ran up to them. “My mom’s the coach!” I heard her say.
I turned to my daughter, Natalie. “Looks like Ruth’s a little excited about her mom being the coach,” I said.
“Yeah,” Natalie nodded, arching one of her eyebrows at me. “Maybe that’s because her mom will be a good coach.”
* * *
We had eight girls on the team. I could pick out Natalie and Ruth but the rest of them looked frighteningly similar to each other. Maybe that’s because they moved around so fast. I wanted to learn their names but things got complicated when the girls decided amongst themselves to use nicknames, most of which were made up on the spot.
“Buckeye!” one yelled to the other. “Here, Bluebonnet,” another one yelled back. Meanwhile, “Sparky” grabbed the ball away from “Eight Ball.” Damn, how was I supposed to figure out who these kids were?
Coach Margaret finally got everyone settled down enough so that we could begin practicing the fundamentals, just as the KSN wanted us to. Chest pass, bounce pass, dribbling. Then came time for lay-ups, and that’s when things began to fall apart. Ruth, the coach’s daughter, who was currently going by the name “Maniac,” was particularly difficult to deal with. She kept trying to steal the ball from everyone, and let me tell you that it can be pretty embarrassing to have a nine-year old poke the ball out of your arms while everybody laughs.
As Margaret and I struggled to retain control I could see that Ruth was hardly the only problem. Some girls were talking, one was braiding another one’s hair, and two others were thumb-wrestling. I saw one girl with her arms wrapped around Natalie’s stomach, shouting “Mush!” as Natalie pulled her around the gym, pretending to be a sled dog. This sort of foolishness would’ve never been tolerated back in my day—when we kids were prevented from even taking water breaks while practicing under the hot August sun. Perhaps this kinder, gentler approach to coaching had some drawbacks after all.
Eventually Margaret and I restored some semblance of order and began a dribbling competition. We wanted to find out who the best dribblers were so that we could use them as the point guards. Natalie did very well, as I expected—she’d been dribbling with both her left and right hand since first grade. Another kid who did well was Lindsey, a shy, sweet-faced little girl. Coach Margaret then began to set girls up in various positions on the court, referring to each spot as a number. The point guards—Natalie and Lindsey—were referred to as #1. This was a big mistake. No girl wanted to play the “Four” or “Five” position, or even “Two” or “Three,” when “One” was clearly the most important. Thus began a rebellion against our coaching that would simmer the entire season. Margaret was able to put off most of the girls, but her own daughter, Ruth, remained adamant. Even though Ruth was not a very good dribbler, she became another point guard—a #1-- joining Natalie and Lindsey.
All that was left after that was to name our team. After several attempts: the Hurricanes, the Dribblers, the Aggies, the Maniacs (this was Ruth’s suggestion), one girl came up with “The Big Ballers.” Coach Margaret and I glanced at each other. “Girls, I don’t think that’s appropriate,” she told them. After another 10 minutes of debate we settled on “Cool Cats.”
At last, our two hours were up. Margaret reminded everybody that we would meet again next week. Just as we were about to break, my daughter Natalie flashed me an evil little smile, then turned to Margaret and asked, loudly, “Wait a minute! Aren’t you supposed to give us our Drug-Free talk?”
Margaret paused, then looked at the group of eager, innocent, white, middle-class 4th grade girls gathered around her. They were clearly waiting for an important message. Margaret took in a deep breath, then exclaimed: “Keep staying off those drugs, girls!” Everybody cheered as the practice broke up. I walked out somewhat dazed, a cacophony of voices still ringing in my ears. Natalie caught up with me and reached for my hand.
“This is great, Dad,” she said. “Thank you so, so much for letting me play.” She put her arm around me and hugged me to her. “I’m glad you’re our coach.”
* * *
After one more hectic practice the first game arrived much too soon. As we pulled up to the gym—and much to my relief the actual games were played in a real gym—a quick thought popped into my head about how well Natalie might do. What if she scored thirty points and a college coach happened to be in the stands? But once we got to the gym it didn’t take long to sense that we were in deep doo-doo, even before the game got started.
Our girls formed two lines—one to shoot lay-ups and the other to collect rebounds. Although we had practiced this some, it was not a skill that came easily, and it showed. Some girls dribbled the ball off their feet. Others missed the rim and backboard entirely, and many of them milled around, still unsure where they were supposed to go for this particular drill. In the meantime, the other team, the Mustangs, trotted into the gym and ran two, fast, confident-looking laps around the court. They encircled us completely, their pounding feet sounding like hoofbeats. Our girls exchanged worried looks. The symbolism was clear. We were the trapped encampment, and they were the attacking Comanches.
As soon as the opening tip-off took place, we realized that our girls had only practiced in half-court mode, and we had never explained the concept of “full court” to them. The other team ran downcourt while our girls looked around helplessly, wondering where they were supposed to go. Margaret and I yelled to them from the sidelines, but it was hard for them to hear, as every single person in the stands was also screaming.
Margaret called a timeout so we could try to explain the full court game to the girls. We were already down 2-0. As Margaret spoke quickly the parents in the stands were also making their voices heard. They weren’t exactly shouting encouragement. Most of them were shouting private instructions to their children: “Get in that girl’s face, Heather!” “You need to get meaner, Sarah!”
A couple of minutes later we were down 8-0 and the criticism became more ferocious. Some of the parents, in fact, were yelling complaints about our coaching. I looked around, wondering who was going to evict these unruly parents. Where was the zero tolerance? Then it dawned on me. The KSN’s approach, however well-intentioned, basically amounted to lip-service.
Coach Margaret’s daughter, Ruth, soon had enough. She walked off the court and shouldered her way to the bench with tears in her eyes. “I’m tired,” she told her mom. “I don’t like basketball. I don’t want to play anymore.”
By halftime we were down 12-0, and we still hadn’t even been able to attempt a single shot. Coach Margaret and I had painstakingly developed a complicated, clever play that completely broke down when faced against defensive pressure. The Mustangs’ girls stole our passes every time.
For the second half, we abandoned the set play and asked Natalie and Lindsey, our remaining point guards, to just dribble downcourt and see if they could make something good happen. I could see that while Natalie was a good enough player, she would not be the dominant force I had fantasized about. When we played together in the driveway she always seemed pretty quick to me, but then I’m a broken-down old man in my mid-forties. She wasn’t nearly as fast when compared to the kids her age. In fact, she was usually a step slower. Every time one of the Mustangs stole the ball from Natalie and took off in the other direction their parents roared—and I felt like I was getting punched in the gut.
All I could think to do—taking a page from the KSN guru’s instructions—was to shout positive encouragement to Natalie and the other girls. It might not build any self-esteem, but it would at least help counteract all the criticism they were getting from the parents in the stands.
Our team continued to struggle the rest of the game, with one notable exception. Little Lindsey, the quiet, unassuming girl, managed to shake loose and score two late baskets for us. The final score was 20-4.
Our girls took the loss in stride and went over to collect the free snacks that they had been promised by the league after every game. After a few cheetos you could hardly even tell that they’d just been humiliated.
The adults were a little harder to placate. As Coach Margaret and I walked off the court, I couldn’t help but be thankful that I was only the assistant, instead of the head coach. Some parents were gathered at the bottom of the stands, waiting for us. One of them, a woman with a ponytail braided through her gimme cap, and orange, tanning salon-colored skin, spoke very loudly in my face. “Our girls aren’t aggressive enough,” she said. “And this team that just kicked our ass isn’t even that good.” She jabbed her finger into my chest. “You should see the Pirates play. Now there’s something you better be worried about.”
* * *
In the wake of our failure I did some quick cramming on basketball coaching strategies, hoping to improve things for our next game. But when I arrived at practice the following week an older white man was already there, gesticulating wildly at our girls. Coach Margaret, standing off to the side, whispered to me that this was Mr. Jones, the grandfather of one of the girls on our team. He’d witnessed our massacre in the first game and decided to stage an intervention. Mr. Jones was a long-time coach in the city. He’d not only coached the junior and high school teams, he’d been the one to start the city’s junior basketball league some thirty years ago (though it was all boys at that time.) The contrast between his style and Margaret’s and mine was clear. He was firmly in command. The girls no longer whined, argued, and goofed off. Instead, they did exactly what Mr. Jones ordered, even as they stuck out their tongues at him behind his back.
Another older white man was also there, barking at the girls during the drills. Margaret told me that was Mr. Holtz, another grandfather. I walked up to him to introduce myself and he greeted me by saying, “Your girls played piss poor on Saturday, Mister. Me and Jones are gonna step up their game.” Then he turned to a girl who had just missed her shot and shouted, “You should have made that. What’s your problem? Don’t miss any more, you hear?” The girl looked like she was about to start crying. “What do you say?” he yelled at her as she walked away. “Yes, sir,” she said, without turning around.
Margaret and I stood off to the side as Mr. Jones ran the practice and Mr. Holtz shouted “encouragement” at the girls. Eventually, I got a chance to talk to Mr. Jones, to tell him that I wanted to talk to the girls and try out some of my own drills. He looked at his watch and agreed to give me ten minutes.
I called the girls over. I’ve never been in favor of people doing things without understanding the context, and so I began by talking to them.
“What did y’all think of Saturday’s game?” I asked.
“I felt like we were losers,” one girl said. Another chimed in, “They were making fun of us at school.”
“Now you know the main reason we all play is to have fun,” I told them. Everyone will win some, and everyone will lose some. The important thing is to enjoy the game and to play with pride. Does that make sense?”
Everyone nodded. I thought I heard Mr. Jones snort behind me.
“Okay,” I continued, knowing that the clock was ticking. “Coach Margaret and I actually think that you all played great on Saturday, even though we didn’t come out ahead on the scoreboard. We think that if we can just improve in a few little areas, it’s going to make us much better for the next game. Does that sound good?”
The girls let out a half-hearted cheer.
“Okay,” I said, “so what do you think we could do better that would help us win?”
“Rebound and play better defense,” said my daughter Natalie, who’d overheard my conversations with my wife.
“Yes. Anyone besides Natalie have any ideas?”
Ruth held up her hand excitedly.
"If we score more points than the other team, then we’ll win.”
“Yes, thanks, Ruth. Anyone else?”
Several girls held up their hands. I picked one. “My dad said we needed to be meaner. If we can push them like this”—here she held out one hand like a football stiff-arm. Another girl jumped in. “My mom said we need to stick our elbows out more, and hit ‘em in the ribs. That’ll hurt them.” All the voices began to rise.
“Okay, okay,” I waved my hands down, trying to restore order. “Remember, we’re going to play with good sportsmanship, okay? Your parents are right that we need to be more aggressive. But we need to be aggressive in fair ways. Now, one thing I noticed about the game is that the other team took a lot more shots than we did. Does anyone know why that is?”
Natalie started to answer. I held up a hand to stop her. “Besides Natalie?”
The girls looked totally clueless. Finally, Lindsey spoke up. “Because they kept getting the ball again even after they missed their shots.”
“That’s exactly it,” I said. “We’re talking about rebounding. If we can get that rebound after they miss their first shot, then we’ll have a much better chance to win. In fact, if we’d gotten all the rebounds in that first game, we would’ve actually won the game!” I let the girls take that in for a moment. Several of them looked amazed by the possibility.
“Now, what I’m going to do with you now”—I looked up to see Mr. Jones consulting his watch—“in the few moments I have left, is some rebounding drills. Okay?”
* * *
Game Two: Our new coaches, Jones and Holtz, remained in the stands, allowing Margaret and I to carry off the illusion that we remained in command. Our girls were much more aggressive from the beginning. The other team was also very aggressive, and in no time, things got ugly. It looked like a rugby game with all 10 girls gathered around the basketball, each of them trying to rip it out of the others’ arms. Girls scuffled on the floor and the referees had to separate players. Our girls’ parents, along with coaches Jones and Holtz, roared their approval from the stands. I was beginning to feel like we were draining all the beauty from basketball. Then suddenly, I saw Natalie grab the ball away from an opposing player and dribble down the court towards the basket. My heart soared and I heard myself cheering, “Go, Natalie! Go, Natalie! Go, Natalie!” As she made her layup I exploded with joy, experiencing one of the most wondrous highs a parent can imagine.
As I joined the ranks of the rabid parents I had to admit that this new-found aggressiveness sure as hell beat getting our asses kicked. The game was ugly and mean, but when it was over we’d won by a score of 6 to 5. I noted with some satisfaction that Natalie had held her own very well. And once again little Lindsey was our hero, scoring four of our points. Coach Margaret’s daughter, Ruth, had scored a basket, too. Ruth decided now that she liked basketball after all.
I walked over the meet the parents and basked in the glow of congratulations. Then the tanning salon mom interrupted. “You better stick around and scout this next game coming up,” she said. “It’s The Pirates. And they’re playing the team that kicked your ass last week.”
So I stayed behind and sat with Coach Margaret. In a few minutes, the Pirates came running out onto the floor.
“My God,” I said to Margaret. “One of those girls is six feet tall!”
“That’s the coach’s daughter,” Margaret said.
I watched the six-footer glide effortlessly for a warm-up lay-up. “Man, it looks like she could dunk it if she wanted to,” I observed.
It wasn’t much of a game. The Pirates won 26-6. The six-footer scored 12 of their points. The thing that struck me about the game, other than the Pirates’ ruthless efficiency, was how angry the head coach and his assistant were. The two coaches yelled at the girls, they yelled at the referees, and in moments of intense disgust they slammed their clipboards to the floor. In short, these were exactly the kind of assholes that had kept me from wanting to participate in youth sports in the first place. Yet both of these men sported their official KSN T-shirts, indicating that they had gone through the required training. Once again, the KSN struck me as totally ineffectual when it came to reality.
On the way home, Natalie asked the obvious question: “Dad, since the Pirates beat the Mustangs by 20 points, and the Mustangs beat us by 16 points, does that mean the Pirates will beat us by, uh, 36 points?”
“Hopefully not by that much,” I answered.
* * *
Coach Margaret and I didn’t get to interact much with the girls during the practice before next game, because once again Coach Jones ran the show, with Coach Holtz cracking down on any slackers. By the time game day arrived I had worked out a pretty good pre-game speech for the girls, or so I thought. “Just envision us losing this game,” it began. “Imagine how it will feel to have the Pirates beat us 50 to zero.” Then, once that image soaked in, I could tell them, “There, now you’ve experienced the absolute worst thing that can happen today. Now remember, we’re not in this league to win or lose. We’re here to learn about basketball, and that’s what’s really important. So it won’t matter if you lose today. Just go out and have fun.”
But I never got a chance to use the speech. Because while I had watched the Pirates with something like awe, Coach Margaret had actually been scouting them. In the moments before the game began she gathered our girls into a huddle.
“Now listen,” she told them. “I watched the Pirates last week, and they—”
“And they’re going to kill us,” one girl moaned, toppling over sideways onto the floor.
“No, listen,” Margaret said. “They only have three players who can score. If we can just stop those three, then we have a really good chance. Now here are your assignments.”
The girls broke the huddle to go do some warm-up shots. I drifted over to say hello to the Pirates’ coaches. I’m not sure what I was thinking. Perhaps I was hoping that a personal connection would earn us a little mercy once the game started to get out of hand.
After introducing myself to the head coach, I commented, “Your daughter seems quite, um, coordinated and quick for someone so tall. You know, usually, tall people tend to be a little clumsy…”
He nodded vigorously. “That’s because Darla’s a gymnast, too.” He turned and whistled. “Darla, come here.” The six-footer trotted over obediently. “Do a couple of backflips for us,” her dad commanded. Then he turned to watch my reaction. Darla executed a quick series of backflips across the court. She looked like she could’ve kept going out the door and across the city, stopping only for traffic lights and freight trains.
“Very impressive,” I told him. Then I felt a tugging at my sleeve. I looked down and there was my own daughter, Natalie.
“Dad,” Natalie said, pointing towards her high-tops. “Can you help me tie these shoes?”
* * *
The game began with the six-footer tipping it to her teammate, who quickly dribbled downcourt to shoot an open lay-up. But suddenly there was our Lindsey, catching up and interfering with the shot. The ball rimmed out, there was a mad scuffle for the rebound. Our girls came up with the loose ball. We’d held serve! Even if we lost the game, I was proud of how our girls had played in these opening seconds. I began practicing that speech to them in my mind.
As the game continued, it became obvious that Margaret’s strategy of shutting down their three main scorers was working very well. Natalie was assigned to the six-footer, and she did a great job staying near her, although it seemed like the Pirates could’ve exploited the matchup more if they wanted to. During transitions, the six-footer would often bound downcourt far ahead of the other girls. Then she would simply set up near the basket, waiting for the game to catch up to her.
Yet, amazingly, the six-footer didn’t seem to be the focal point of their offense. Instead, it was running through a little blonde girl with an angry face and a pageboy haircut. This girl was exceedingly quick, and also very aggressive. She cut through the court like a knife. But our little Lindsey was just as quick, even quicker, somehow, and she managed to always stay in front of her. After the little pageboy’s third consecutive miss, her coaches were yelling at her from the sidelines and her frustration was evident. When Lindsey brought the ball upcourt on the next possession, the pageboy ran up to her and knocked her down. The whistle blew and the refs called a foul. If I had been refereeing the game, I would’ve called a flagrant foul. I looked up in the stands and saw Lindsey’s mother. She was trying to get out of her seat but was being restrained by her husband.
Natalie threw the in-bounds pass into Lindsey, who promptly juked left, then drove right around the pageboy. Lindsey launched a running ten footer that banked off the backboard and fell in. We were winning, 2-0! The sound of the Pirates coaches’ clipboards hitting the floor could be heard over the eruption of cheers in the stands.
Okay, I thought to myself, no matter what else happens from here, NOW I’m very proud of these girls!
We continued to shut down the Pirates’ offense, although I had to admit that a big part of this was luck. Several of their shots rolled around the rim and happened to fall out, rather than in. At halftime the score was tied, 4-4.
“You guys are doing great!” Margaret told the girls when we gathered to talk things over.
“But those girls are really mean,” one of our girls said. “They keep calling us names.”
“Is that true?” I was dumbfounded.
“Yes,” Natalie said. “The one I’m covering keeps calling me ‘stupid,’ and ‘retard.’”
I looked at Lindsey. Is that happening to you, too? She nodded.
Margaret and I exchanged glances. Should we go over and confront the other coaches right now, or let the girls handle it themselves? Margaret turned back to the girls. “You know why they’re doing that to you, right? Because you’ve got them frustrated. They thought they were going to walk in here and get an easy win, and now here you are, staying right with them.”
“No matter what happens from here,” I said to the girls, “Coach Margaret and I are SO proud of you.”
“Yes,” Margaret said. “Now let’s keep staying with those three girls, and we’ll keep trying to get the rebounds when they miss.”
As she continued speaking, I thought to myself, Damn, she’s talking to these girls like they can really win the game. But I knew what would happen next. The Pirates would come out from halftime on fire, and they would incinerate us. Margaret finished her pep talk. I was all for pumping the girls up, too, but I didn’t want to be unrealistic.
“Remember, girls,” I told them as we gathered to do our team cheer. “We’re very proud of you. Let’s keep playing like good sports and keep doing our best.”
As we broke to start the second half, I was sure that the Pirates would just give the ball to their six-footer so she could take a few dribbles and go in for a dunk. But instead, the game continued along the same course as before—each possession representing a hard-fought, hard-nosed defensive battle. Lindsey and the Pageboy battled to a draw, and at the end of the third quarter, we were tied 6-6. As incredible as it seemed, we had actually had a chance to win this game!
In the fourth quarter, the Pirates finally concentrated on getting the ball inside to their six-footer. But kids this age aren’t the best passers. Natalie often deflected the passes meant for the six-footer. Every time she did I felt a surge of pride and screamed “Way to go, Natalie!” On one possession she actually intercepted the pass. I let out a loud whoop and turned to the Pirates coach, who was pointing an accusing finger at my daughter and yelling at the referee, “She’s fouling her, Number 20 keeps fouling her! Watch that Number 20.” I looked over at the asshole in amazement, then turned back towards the court. “Good defense, Natalie!” I yelled in return. “Don’t let those crybabies bother you!” I looked back over at the Pirates coach with a smug expression. If he heard me, he gave no indication.
The score remained tied at 6-6 and the tension mounted as time began to run out. With about thirty seconds left in the game, one of the Pirates finally got the ball inside to the six-footer. She made a head fake that drew Natalie off her feet as I mouthed a silent, anguished “no,” and then she dribbled easily around my daughter, launching a short, soft jump shot at point blank range. The ball bounced around the rim, hung for a long moment on the edge, and then, amazingly, fell out again. Lindsey darted in and grabbed the rebound. She turned and began dribbling upcourt with less than twenty seconds left now. Everyone in the gym was on their feet, screaming. Margaret and I were yelling to Lindsey that time was almost out. We weren’t sure that she could hear us. At half court Lindsey slowed to a near stop. As the pageboy came up to guard her, and Lindsey did another little juke move, faking right, then left, leaving the pageboy diving into the air where the ball had been. The pageboy landed on her stomach at mid-court and turned with an astonished cry as Lindsey drove fast past her towards the basket. Lindsey maneuvered around a couple of other defenders and launched a running shot over the six-footer’s outstretched arms the clock wound down. Nothing but net.
After the game, the Pirates were crying. Several of them refused to shake our players' hands. Their head coach, however, became exceedingly polite once the game was over. He congratulated us on our victory and shook hands with each of our players. Then we heard him talking calmly to his girls, trying to prepare them before they faced their parents. I guess the KSN training carried some small impact after all.
* * *
Our team swelled with a new sense of pride. On Monday, I noticed that Natalie wore her team jersey to school for the first time. But soon came an ominous turn. Many of our other players became cocky and arrogant. They began starting their sentences with, “Now that we’re the best team…” Compounding the problem was the fact that Jones and Holtz had turned the team back over to Coach Margaret and myself, believing—mistakenly—that their work was done.
Discipline quickly fell apart. Now that we were winners, the girls made all sorts of haughty demands. The biggest cause célebre was the #1 position—the point guard. The other girls complained about not getting a turn, and, truthfully, I could see their point. After all, most of the games consisted of each team’s best dribblers taking the ball upcourt and trying to make something happen. Usually that meant the dribblers took all the shots, which pretty much left the other girls out of the offense. The complainers also noted that two of our point guards were the coaches’ children, and the issue of favoritism was raised.
So Margaret and I decided to give the other girls a chance at point guard. Each took a turn during practice, and each failed miserably. Not a single one was able to advance the ball past half court without it getting stolen or dribbling it off her own feet and out of bounds. But none of them seemed to mind, as they were so caught up in the ecstasy of playing the #1 position. I had mixed feelings about this experiment, but then I recalled what our motivational speaker at the KSN clinic had told us: “Remember, this is about giving the kids a chance to learn something positive—it’s not about win-win-win all the time.”
Our next game was a rematch against the Mustangs, the team that had beaten us 20-4 the first time. We started poorly. As supportive as I wanted to be of our new point guards, the fact was they looked totally ridiculous out on the floor. They were clearly in over their heads and we gave up turnover after turnover. Margaret and I looked at each other. “Remember,” I said, “It’s not win-win-win all the time.” Just then a Mustang made another steal, went downcourt, and scored on a lay-up. Margaret called for a time-out. “You’re right that it’s not all about winning,” she told me. “But it’s not all about losing, either.”
With Lindsey directing the offense, we soon got back in the game. Lindsey scored six points in the second half and we won going away, 14-8. Now we had beaten every team in the league. Which meant that our girls became even more insufferable. The next game would be against the Colts, the team we had already beaten 6-5. I only realized the severity of our problem mindset when one of our quietest girls spoke up to complain about the rebounding drill I was trying to run them through. “I don’t know why we’re even practicing,” she said. “We’ve already beaten this team once.”
I soon found myself hoping that we’d get our asses kicked, just so our girls would learn a lesson. And, indeed, we almost did lose. But then Lindsey made another game-winning shot in the final seconds. Her reputation was beginning to spread. Although the league did not give out a Most Valuable Player Award, it was pretty clear that Lindsey would be the winner if it did. Even the Pirates coach was overheard in the stands during one of our games, telling everyone within earshot that he would do whatever it took to make sure he got Lindsey on his team the next year. Including trading his own daughter, presumably.
Finally, it was time for our last game of the year—a rematch against the Pirates. Both teams had one loss each and were tied atop the standings. The winner would be the league champion. Our girls heard rumors at school that the Pirates were preparing something special for us, and many of them were visibly nervous as the game approached. As Natalie and I drove to the gym she scrunched down low in the seat.
“What’s wrong, Sweetie?” I asked.
“I think they’re going to kill us, Dad,” she said, looking out the window.
As we did our warm-ups before the game, I noticed that Lindsey didn’t have her usual pleasant expression.
“Everything okay?” I asked her.
“I think they’re going to kill us,” she said.
As I entered the gym I saw the rows of trophies to be given out after the game. I was surprised to learn that for a “sportsmanship” league the trophy size was based on the win-loss record. The girls on the winning team would receive a 2-foot tall trophy featuring a player stretching up to dunk the ball. The loser, meanwhile, got a six-inch trophy depicting a player crouched down low in a protective dribbling pose.
The Pirates didn’t waste any time. They scored on the opening tip. Then when Lindsey dribbled the ball back up in the other direction three of the Pirates rushed at her—in clear violation of the league rules, which stipulates that no double-teaming is allowed. Lindsey lost the ball and the Pirates scored on the resulting fast break. As the game progressed we watched in awe as the Pirates’ six-footer dominated, scoring on an assortment of finger rolls and fade-away jumpers. She seemed to grow another three inches during the game.
She was an excellent player, but we noticed something else happening on the court. Our girls were getting knocked down, repeatedly. The referees called some fouls, but not nearly enough. We learned later why the Pirates had been so aggressive—this was part of their secret plan. Their coach, knowing that referees don’t call many fouls against fourth grade girls, had exploited the situation by ordering his girls to foul ours as much as possible. He even promised free ice cream to any girl on his team who managed to get herself fouled out of the game.
We were down 20-2 at halftime. Ruth had decided, once again, that she didn’t like basketball anymore. She went into the stands to sit with her grandparents. Margaret and I gathered the remaining girls around us. They’d finally lost the arrogant looks they’d been sporting the last few weeks. “Girls,” Margaret said, “when we came into this league we had no idea what to expect. You all have come so far and you’ve made us very proud. It’s true that we’re not the best team in the league—the Pirates are. But you guys have a good team and more important, you’ve played as good sports. Coach Steve and I are so proud of you.”
One of the girls sighed loudly and slumped against the wall. Everyone turned to look at her. “I hate it when you’re ‘proud’ of us,” she said. “Cuz you only say that when we really suck.”
The other girls began to titter, then giggle, and soon we were all laughing, Margaret and I included. Then the buzzer blew, signaling the end of the break. We walked back towards the court, feeling loose and cocky. We knew that we would continue to get thrashed, yet somehow we felt larger, as though we had transcended this game. The words of our KSN guru came flooding back to me: “How do you want your players to remember you in five years, ten years, twenty years? As an overbearing coach who will do anything to win? Or as an inspiring one cared about the kids?”
I knew that Coach Margaret and I hadn’t been perfect. We hadn’t given the kids the discipline they needed, but we had treated them with respect, rather than as pawns to our own ambition. We had experienced winning, losing, and everything in between. We had gotten more out of our season than simply learning how to work the refs or game the system to get a bigger trophy. We had learned about each other, and about life itself. Though I was relieved that the season would soon be over, I was no longer ready to surrender organized sports to the likes of the Pirates Coach. I knew it was a hopeless battle, but I was already looking forward to next year.