[Continued from The Big Kid and Basketball Part XV … Mixing Work and Play Revisited]
Each and every year we would go through the player assessment and draft process I had shared previously.
And being a recreation basketball league we would need to redraft an entire new team each year.
Our team (and I) were blessed that over the years more and more players and their parents would request to become part of our team, our community, our family. This was a testament to each of our players, their parents, their siblings, Coach Sampras and Coach Norgaard (my amazing assistant coaches), and of course my bride and daughters who truly made this a family effort.
In fact, as I would walk into the assessments each year the head of the rec program would clue me in …
“Tom, Mrs. Jackson said her son must be on your team. I let her know I cannot guarantee it and she let me know that if he is not playing for you he won’t be playing a sport this Fall and Winter.”
This increased year to year until the pressure to select players became quite great as it was no longer only about heart, talent, fit, and bi-directional learning, sharing and contribution. Right or wrong it started to include taking ownership of the fact that if these young men are not selected to be part of this team, (our team, our community, our family), some may not have positive experiences in sports, may not learn the greatness of team, may not grow to enjoy physical movement, may not learn to push themselves beyond what they believe themselves capable of, and may not learn and grow in ways that sports can provide.
“Doc, I cannot draft all of these young men. Billy is great but if I ensure Mickey is on the team then Billy’s talent and heart is not. But if I select Billy then Mickey will clearly not have the opportunity to learn and grow like I know he can on this team. It is so hard.”
“Tom, you cannot save them all. Just do what you think is best. You cannot take on responsibility for those things you cannot control.”
Always wonderful wisdom from Doc. I wish I could say it was easy to follow. It was not, and many a tear was shed as I realized that I would disappoint young men regardless of how I selected my team and that each decision would impact a child in one way or another.
And even though I made a special effort to connect directly with each child that I knew wanted to be part of this team but unfortunately I did not or could not select (to talk with them, invite them to Sunday morning basketball, and / or to simply wish them the best) it did not provide relief to me as I knew how special our team, our community, our family is.
And although incredibly challenging to bring together, each player and each team over the years was special. Made so because of the community we built … together.
Each player was selected for all the reasons above. Each player had many gifts to share with the team. And specific to “on the court gifts” … we had rebounders, shot blockers, snipers, hustlers, Superman (of course), hop-steppers, up-fakers, screeners, speed-demons, and more … and many combinations of some or many of these attributes.
Now, as shared previously, in my playing days (a little bit of school ball but mostly church league basketball back in the day), I was not a shooter. In fact, I was always a horrible shooter. But I would out hustle anybody and I could play the point. In my mind nothing is better than taking charge and doing everything it takes to help others achieve what they never thought possible. And a big part of that is determining when and how (and executing) the perfect pass that sets up a teammate to hit a shot. And I loved making that pass and then watching as a teammate uses their God-given gift (refined with much practice) to drain a J or hit a layup or follow suit with another pass. Now that is true joy on the court.
One specific season, after another challenging player assessment and draft (with as usual many tears shed), we again formed a special team. And post draft, as I reviewed the roster with Coaches Sampras and Norgaard, we identified that we were missing something. We were missing … a point guard. The very position I gravitate towards, the floor general, the player with whom as coach I must have a close working relationship and who must know even above all others what I expect of him and the strategy for each game. Yes, I did not draft … a point guard.
Now, I could admit that I simply blew it and “forgot” or “overlooked” this position. But that simply would not be true as I am always on the look out for this special player … the Bob Cousy of Gorham. Nope. Each of the boys selected for our team was selected for specific reasons and needed to be on our team. I knew this and was grateful they were each available when the time came for me to select. And as noted they each had wonderful gifts (and areas to learn and improve). They were simply not point guards and I decided that it was too important to have these twelve specific boys together than to select a different player with the point guard skillset.
So here we were, us three coaches together trying to determine who could play the point or how we could play without a point guard. How to modify the offense to adjust to having no true point. How to distribute the ball early and leverage the skills of other players to offset this challenge.
And so began this effort as the preseason began. Early ball distribution with multiple screen sets and working the ball into the post early with a kick back to the sniper if open, along with weak side cuts and strong rebounding … and of course our solid triangle defense which together we developed and implemented over multiple years.
The Point Guard
Each practice the team got better and better.
Plays were implemented, each relying on screens and movement … but mostly teamwork. For each player to be successful the team must be successful. And for the team to be successful each player must be successful. Yes, this was planned. Yes, this was coached. And hopefully the boys have carried this message into their lives beyond the court.
And yet …
As I continued to watch and learn I saw that we were truly missing a floor commander. That one person who could and would take charge with the ball and implement our strategy to position each of the other players to be at their best. We needed a point guard. I was not a good enough coach to position this team where they deserved to be without a point guard. We needed a point. But where was I going to find one?
My kingdom for a point guard! (To paraphrase the Bard of Avon).
“Doc, our team is perfect in so many ways. I love these kids. They will go through walls for each other … for the team. We will win more than we lose and we could make the playoffs. But we do not have a point guard and be it simply my affinity for the point or a true need … I want a point guard to lead this team to the playoffs.”
“What about Tommy?”
What about Tommy? Tommy is my son. Tommy is a phenomenal rebounder. Tommy can shoot and he can pass. What about Tommy? He is a Four or a Five (a power forward or a center) and maybe a Three (a shooting forward). But a guard?
“Doc, Tommy is built to play underneath. I don’t want to set him up to fail. That is the last thing I want to do.”
“Okay. Then maybe you simply need to coach a team without a point guard.”
The Big Kid play the point?
“Come on dad…we are going to be late.”
Here we go again. Clearly it must be the night of our next practice. It is 6:30pm and our practice begins at 7:00.
“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, Tommy. Okay.
We arrive at practice … early. Coach Sampras and Coach Norgaard are already here as is most of the boys and they are ready to scrimmage.
“No, we are not scrimmaging yet! Bring it in! Hold those basketballs!”
I continued …
“Our first game is Saturday morning in Windham. You have all worked very hard and we still have much to do. Tonight we are working on our ‘4’ in bound play, the box, the stack, and the ’10’. We will also be working on our movement offense and the triangle defense. When we are successful with each we will scrimmage. Okay, John?”
John, as with all the boys, loves to scrimmage.
“Let’s go! Three lines! Weave! Good chest pass, then bounce pass, and finish by going up strong for the layup. Let’s get 20 layups in a row!”
And with that the boys charged into the three lines and began a spirited practice full of much sweat, laughter, hard work, joking, and learning. For all of us.
And 90 minutes later we finished the night with a review of all we learned, a reminder that our first game will be at 9:30am at the Windham High School and a …”Gorham on three!” led by Tommy.
“1 – 2 – 3! … GORHAM!!” The entire team screamed.
And then …
“Thank you, Coach.”
“Great practice, Superman.”
“Thank you, Coach.”
” Excellent rebounding, Mickey T.”
“Thank you, Coach.”
“Love the hop step, Barry.”
Until it was down to Coach Sampras and me.
“Coach, what do you think?”
“Tom, we need a point guard.”
And off we went … with me processing how I could develop a point guard in the next two days.
It’s Saturday morning and the kids are energized. In their North Carolina light blue t-shirts they are excited to play.
“Tommy, I want to talk with you.”
“I’ve been watching you a great deal in practice. I have put you at the Three, the Four, the Five and you have played them all very well.”
“Thank you, Dad.”
“Our team does not have a true point guard.”
“I know, Dad.”
And then with as much conviction as I could muster … “I want you to play the point today.”
As I said this, a number of thoughts went through my head. “Tommy is great down low and in the paint. He has played each position I put him in very well. I don’t want to set him up to fail. He is such a good kid. I love my boy. God, please protect my son.”
“Okay.” Tommy replied.
“Do you know each of the plays?”
“Do you know the responsibility of the One (the point guard) on each play?”
“Are you ready to lead this team?”
“Do you want to lead this team?”
“Tommy, go lead this team!”
It is now sixty seconds before tip off.
“Bring it in!” I yell over the noise of the crowd.
“First game boys. Are you ready?”
“I know you are. Here is the line up.”
And as I read off the line up card to the team my mind wanders to the Big Kid and simply wanting my son to get a win.
“Gorham on Three!” Tommy yells.
“1 – 2- 3 … GORHAM!!” the team screams.
Superman tips the ball back to Tommy. Tommy grabs it, pauses momentarily as he scans the court and then begins to dribble past half court.
“Set Up!” He yells.
“One!” He makes the play call.
The team sets up. Our Four and Five down low. Our Two on the right wing. Our Three on the left. The team is in position.
“Five!” I hear Tommy yell with no prompt from the bench.
He has called the pick and roll play we worked on a hundred times in practice and which calls for the Five (the center) to set a screen for the point guard. Tommy would typically set the screen. This time he runs through the screen … perfectly.
The pick and roll works as designed and as Tommy reaches the foul line he looks right to fake the defender and then makes a perfect behind the back pass to the left and hits the Five, Jaryd, who rolled perfectly, for a wide open layup.
“Bang!” 2 – 0 Gorham.
“Great play, T.” I call out to Tommy.
But he is focused.
The speedy point guard for Windham has the ball now and is on Tommy quick.
This is what I was afraid of.
The speedy point jukes and then crosses over in order to blow by T and hit the lane.
But he doesn’t realize Tommy has been practicing his pick pocketing skills and as the point switches hands Tommy comes up from below with his left hand facing up, pokes the ball away from the point and toward half court, and then in one motion runs to the right of the point, grabs the ball, and then sprints with the ball to the other hoop, going up strong so the point guard who is trying to make a block cannot make the play, and scores an easy layup.
“Yes, T!” 4 – 0 Gorham.
Now the Windham point guard is ticked off. He was embarrassed (why I don’t know as it was simply a basketball play) and is now talking a great deal of trash as he comes up the court.
He crosses mid court and calls for a screen.
The Windham shooting guard (the Two) runs over toward T to set a blindside pick as the point guard again crosses over and this time intends to use the screen.
Unfortunately for the shooting guard, Tommy does not see the screen (it being an illegal blind side pick) and Tommy literally blows it up. As Tommy first side steps and then turns to cut with the Windham point guard he inadvertently drives his shoulder into the chest of the shooting guard knocking him off his feet and onto his back 5 feet down the court.
“Foul on number 5, green, (Windham) for an illegal screen. Gorham ball.” The referee calls out.
“Yes! … You okay, Tommy?”
“I’m fine, Dad.”
Needless to say Windham doesn’t set any more screens on Tommy. Not that the Windham point guard doesn’t call for them. The other players for some reason simply don’t set them on Tommy.
The game continues like this for the remaining thirty-eight minutes. Tommy in complete command. Making passes. Positioning teammates to score. Hustling up and down the court. Weak side rebounding. Whatever it takes. And leading the team to our first win of the season with great contributions from everyone.
“I found a point guard. We found a point guard.” I think as the final buzzer goes off.
After all Tommy had been through over the years … after he was bullied by adults and kids alike, after baseball coaches had overlooked him because of the way God made him, after parents had forbid him from playing with their children because he was “the Big Kid” … and after each of these scenarios Tommy showing more maturity than them all … after all of this what did I do?
I, too, overlooked the Big Kid.
I overlooked the point guard right in front of me.
I overlooked the heart and soul Tommy brings to all he does … and I am ashamed.
Tonight’s tears are being shed because this coach, this father, did what he swore he wore never do … I overlooked my son.
Tommy, I am so sorry.
You are a leader on and off any court and any field. You have greatness inside you and you marry this greatness with a rare humility and caring soul.
I love you … and again you have taught me.
Thank you for always being there to teach your Dad.
TO BE CONTINUED …