Back to the Beginning … The First Practice
I said “yes” to coaching with Jim? What was I thinking?
Over the next few weeks I tried to get every penny out of Google I could. I searched and read everything I could on coaching basketball. “Tips for basketball coaches”; “Designing basketball plays”; “Coaching young men”; “Basic defenses”; “Basic offenses”; “Basic full court presses”; “Basic press breaks”; “Basic drills”; and so much more. By the way the “basic” aspect was more for me than for the boys.
Needless to say sleep did not come easily for me over those few weeks as the date of the first practice came nearer and nearer.
By the time the first practice arrived the bags under my eyes were larger than those mega golf bags you see Phil Mickelson use to carry his 8 wedges and 14 drivers and the dark circles under my eyes were darker than the darkness you experience in the Cave of the Winds in Colorado Springs after you turn your flashlight off. And my gut? I looked 8 months pregnant due to the bloating from stress.
No doubt Mike Krzyzewski looks and feels like this prior to his Duke team’s first practice each year. Right?
Okay, it is the evening of the first practice. Monday night, 7:00pm, at the Village School. Now Village School has an old, small gymnasium, with dirty slippery floors, and lots of bright fluorescent lights.
I wonder if the fluorescent lights will show off my bags, dark circles and pasty skin.
I can feel my nerves. The pit of my stomach is both hollow and enlarged at the same time and grumbling nonstop. My hands are literally shaking and of course clammy. Tommy on the other hand is pumped and ready to go.
“Come on dad…we are going to be late.”
It is 6:30pm.
“Let’s go dad!”
It takes less than 5 minutes to get there.
“Dad, where are you? Come on…I don’t want to be late! Come on!”
Okay, we are finally in the car and on our way to our first practice with me as an Assistant Coach. Tommy pumped for the season. Me dreading it.
We arrive at the Village School and immediately I need to find the bathroom. I had heard the great Bill Russell used to vomit before every game. Do you think he did so before every practice?
I walk out of the bathroom and into the brightly lit (remember fluorescent bulbs) hallway and make my way to the gym.
Lots of kids and parents are in the hallway. I must not make eye contact or I might have to speak or worse they will see my pale skin, bloated belly, dark circles, and hand tremor. (Didn’t you know that closing your eyes (or in this case not making eye contact) made you invisible?)
Phew, I made it to the door. Wow…it worked. I was stealth. Who needs Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak?
Hmmm…I see a window in the door. Let’s take a look. Lots of boys running and jumping and laughing and shooting and missing. Missing? I can do this. Can’t I?
Tommy had just changed into his basketball sneakers and was now joining the boys with a big smile on his face. The Big Kid is ready to play. Why was I ever concerned about my boy? Tommy is courageous. I must be too.
I take a deep breath, open the door and step into a percussion of dribbling, laughing, screaming, and more laughing. I can’t do this.
Looking to the left I see Coach Smith as enthusiastic and energetic as ever. He is running, jumping, dribbling, screaming, laughing and playing.
I slowly, reluctantly make my way over to him.
“Hey Tom, great to see you!” And then he is off. Chasing the boys. Back to running, jumping, dribbling, screaming, laughing and playing.
I see to my right a couple of more adults. Other Assistant Coaches perhaps? Oh great…more people to embarrass myself in front of. Ugh! I know I should have been thinking “Oh great…more help…less pressure on me.” But nope clearly I am not wired that way.
I make note that one of these adults is Bill Wright. Bill is an excellent baseball coach with that quiet confidence, smooth voice, and great command over kids that makes you say “He was born to coach”. He also knows his baseball X’s and O’s and has a son who is also quite talented at baseball.
Bill looks at me and then quickly goes back to his conversation. He must have seen my pale face, bloated belly, dark circles and hand tremor.
God, why am I here?
Coach Smith finally blows his whistle (I need a whistle) and calls all the kids and the three assistant coaches into the middle of the basketball court. Yes, three assistant coaches. Bill Wright, a fellow with an easy smile named Pete Sampras, (no not that Pete Sampras), and me. Coach Smith introduces himself and begins to talk about … well, I’ll be honest … I have no idea what he said as all I could focus on was “How do I introduce myself? What do I say? How will I gain the respect of these boys? How will I gain the respect of the other coaches? I want to go home!”
Eventually Jim (Coach Smith) turns to me clearly wanting me to introduce myself. At this point I am in a shear state of panic.
I know. Pathetic.
So, I muster up all my courage and say with a weak and timid voice, “Ah, hi, I am Coach T-T-Tom”.
You may wonder why I opted to say Coach Tom instead of Coach Dahlborg. Well, I know that when I am nervous (and even sometimes when I am not) I have trouble saying my last name “Dahlborg”. (The Boston accent doesn’t help). And when that happens I am usually asked to repeat it and it simply gets worse. So being the brilliant thinker that I am I avoided my last name and said Coach T-T-Tom instead. Brilliant!
Well, Coach Smith looked at me like I had fifteen heads. (Yes, heads with pale skin and dark circles under the eyes but 15 none-the-less.) He shakes his head and moves on to Coaches Wright and Sampras.
By the way, they had no problem saying their LAST names and a few words of wisdom.
Ugh! I want to go home now.
I cannot remember much more from that first practice. Yes, I remember flubbing my name and making a fool of myself. I remember Coach Wright ignoring me. I remember Coach Smith shaking his head and thinking that he should not have asked me to assist him. (Didn’t I tell you I could read minds?)
And I remember Coach Sampras … Coach Sampras smiling at me and simply talking calmly to me. A calming influence from God? Perhaps.
So, of course on the way home being the great father that I am I focused 100% on my son. I asked him about his experience at practice. I responded with great words of wisdom. Some might say John Wooden-esque words. We laughed. We went for ice cream. One of those father-son nights they make Hallmark cards and movies about that neither of us will ever forget.
Well, actually none of that happened. I wish it did. I really wish I was a better father…a better man. But no…I was not.
I may have asked Tommy about his experience at practice but I have no idea what he replied. All I could think about that ride home, that night, all night, the next day, and for days after was how much I humiliated myself. My worst nightmares about coaching that I dreamt for 9+ months came true (and were even worse than I had feared).
“God, Why can’t I be like Coaches Smith, Wright and Sampras?” I don’t belong coaching. I just want to be alone. Alone on the sideline watching my son get his “wins”.
TO BE CONTINUED …