[Continued from The Big Kid and Basketball Part XXI … the Discussion]
“Team, they are going to press us as soon as they have the opportunity …”
We had a very good rivalry going with the other Gorham High School recreation basketball team. The kids on each team all knew each other very well. As did the coaches. And winning the head to head match up meant a lot to many.
This was our first game against them since we beat them the previous season, after getting down by eight points early on only to find out the wrong ball was being used to start the game.
This was also our first game against them since Clay had opted to no longer play for me the season following the discussion we had had relative to his drug use.
Today would be the first time I saw Clay in another uniform. And as I mentioned previously regarding my dismay at believing I had lost Darian … Clay was another young man I believed I lost. But for a much different reason.
Samuel Johnson once said, “Hell is paved with good intentions.” Each day I wonder what I have contributed to this fiery pit.
“Tom, you messed up again. You lost another child,” I said to myself as I passed by many of the parents congregated in the hallway and began a slow walk to the visitor’s bench.
I felt my gut hollowing and my hands shaking as I peered across the gym and saw Clay with his new team, shooting his patented short jump shot.
I swallowed hard as I thought about how I could have handled the situation differently.
“Good morning, David. Are you ready to dominate in the paint?”
“You know it!”
“Now that is what I want to hear.”
As David walked onto the court to warm up I could feel my entire body seizing with anxiety as a wave of cold washed over me and to my core I began to shake.
Needless to say I was not in a great state of mind to coach this morning.
“Hey, Pete. Ready for today?”
“Of course, but first, Dean needs to tell you something.”
“What’s going on, Dean?” I asked as I turned to my starting strong forward.
“Coach, me and Gary,” Gary is Dean’s friend on another team, “went to watch two of the Windham teams play earlier today. During warm ups we noticed that one of the teams was short players.” Then with a deep breath, “so we played in the game for them.”
“You did what?” I immediately thought. And then still internally processing, “You played for another team? You broke league rules and played for another team and thus jeopardized our entire season?”
“Dean, you and Gary know that is against the rules, right?”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. And here we were just a couple of minutes away from the tip off of our game.
“Dean, go warm up.”
“Tom, I couldn’t believe it either. And I wanted you to know … and for Dean to tell you.”
“Thanks, Pete.” And then after thinking more, “I am not sure what the league will do. If we will need to forfeit all of our wins, if they will penalize us games, if they will suspend us. I am not sure. After the game I will inform the league director of what had happened. But for now I am going to bench Dean. Perhaps me doing so (with him being one of our best players) will be punishment enough… ”
“Makes sense, Tom. I am sorry.”
I was already not in great spirits and now this. But as they say on Broadway … “the show must go on.”
“Bring it in!”
“Here is the starting lineup: Tommy at the 1, Mark at the 2, Bobby at the 3, Sully at the 4, and David at the 5.”
Dean would typically be at the 4 (strong forward) and I would have Bobby coming off the bench. But not today.
“Team, they are going to press as soon as they have the opportunity to do so in order to try to bury us quick.”
And then after pausing to look each of our starters in the eyes, “So here is what we are going to do…
We are going to set up the four, but Tommy, I want you and that cannon of an arm of yours passing the ball in. Bobby, when Tommy smacks the ball and yells ‘BREAK!’ I want you to set a screen for Sully. Sully, I want you to run through the screen and go long. Tommy, fake the inbound pass to the right side to David and then launch a Brady-esque bomb over the defense. Sully, all you will need to do is catch the ball and then hit the layup. Let’s make them rue the day they pressed us. Understood?”
“Great … Tommy …”
“Gorham on 3, one, two, three …”, Tommy screamed over the sound of the crowd.
After the starters ran onto the court I pulled Dean aside.
“Dean,” I could feel my body shaking even more, “I am sitting you today. I don’t know what the league will say about what transpired this morning so for the good of the team … I am sitting you.”
“Okay, Coach,” came the dejected response.
The other Gorham team won the tipoff and, with its talented point guard driving hard to the hoop, scored the first two points of the game.
“PRESS! PRESS!! PRESS!!!”
Fred, the head coach of the other team, immediately called the press but Tommy was ready.
“SET UP! FOUR!” He called out to set the play.
The ref tried to give Tommy the ball but Tommy was savvy enough to realize once he took it the five second clock would begin ticking. So with our team not quite in position to run the play I just drew up, Tommy let the ball fall from the refs hands onto the court.
“That’s it, T.” I thought watching his gamesmanship.
And then, once our team was in position, Tommy accepted the ball from the ref and scanned the defense … as did I.
And like I had thought they had a full court press in place with no safety help. “Yes!” And I could see Tommy saw it too.
Tommy then smacked the ball and yelled, “BREAK!”
Bobby leaned into his man and then, using his forearm for leverage, ran away from him and into perfect position to set the screen for Sully.
Sully seeing this first faked away from Bobby to get his man off balance, and then cut back toward the screen.
When he did, he ran his defender straight into Bobby’s pick, and with no switch and no safety help, Sully turned on the jets and went long.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see Fred yelling for someone to get back on defense as Tommy faked to his right and then reset and without moving his feet launched a bomb toward Sully who was now passing the half court line.
Tommy did not throw a high rising mortar mind you, but rather (as we say here in Maine) a frozen rope just over the defense and smack dab into Sully’s hands as he reached the top of the key on the other end of the floor.
Sully, who is quite the athlete himself, caught the ball in stride and then with two dribbles laid the ball perfectly off of the backboard and into the basket for two points.
“Tied game,” I heard Pete yell as I turned back toward T and mouthed to him, “Perfect.”
The other Gorham team never tried to press us again this day. Not with Tommy-Gun ready to go over the top with his cannon-like arm.
And yet …
Without me placing Dean in the lineup I unintentionally positioned our team to lose. Dean was a huge asset to our team, and even though the rest of the boys played with heart and fire … and did all they could to win … we didn’t. We lost by eight to a better coached team on this particular day.
“Great effort, Team. You gave it your all and I am very proud of you. You all showed heart and perseverance.” And then after a pause as I glanced over and saw Clay heading into the stands to see his mother I continued, “I have much work to do to better position you all for the next game … beginning at our next practice … which is Tuesday night at 7:00pm at the Narragansett School. Any questions?”
“Okay. Tommy …”
“Gorham on 3, one, two, three ….
Then after calling Dean over to me I let him know, “I will speak to the league director and we will get this straightened out. I think having you sit today bodes well for us. And us losing today may as well.” Which sounded awkward to say. “Do you understand why I sat you?”
Truth be told I am not sure that he did. And also truth be told, I again am not sure that I did the right thing. As is said, “Hell is paved by good intentions.”
After speaking with Dean and then Coach Sampras I packed up my bag and turned to find my family.
The stands were still emptying so it was not easy to find Doc, Sammy or Haylee immediately. But I did see Clay and his mom … and I knew I needed to go talk to them both.
“There you are, Doc. I didn’t see you or the girls.”
“Why didn’t you play, Dean? You guys would have won.”
“A long story. I will tell you later. Right now I want to talk to Clay and his mom.”
“Hi Tom. Tough game, huh?”
“It sure was.” And then turning to Clay, “Hey Clay. Good game.”
“You doing okay, son?”
“I am, Coach. I really am.”
“I care about you. Our whole family cares about you.”
“I know, Coach. I know.”
“He is doing very well. Thank you guys so very much.”
“We love Clay,” Doc replied to Sandy. And then to Clay, “You know we truly do, Clay. We truly do. And we miss you.”
“I know you do.”
As with all of the boys I have coached, I care deeply about Clay and think about him often. Coaching ‘the Big Kid’ has become more than a father trying to help his son, a son who had faced and overcome much adversity. It has become a life changing endeavor for me. A blessing in so many ways … and a curse.
As a coach you are blessed with the opportunity to help change lives. To help a child grow on and off the court.
As a coach you are also cursed with opportunities to do great harm. To make the wrong decision and harm the well-being of a child because you made a mistake.
Each day I wonder, which child did I help, and whom have I hurt.
“Hell is paved with good intentions.”
TO BE CONTINUED …