From Ashes Rise
“Dude, a kid told me to go F myself for the first time!”
“Great, let’s drink.”
“Guys, I broke up my first fight today!”
“Great, let’s drink.”
“Fellas, C.’s IQ is too low for RSP!”
“Great, let’s drink.”
A year later, I followed his lead, both for the money and the opportunity to miss staff meetings. In the ensuing years, the $900 has become less of a draw, but the get-out-of-staff-meetings card has only increased in value.
That first year I coached a core group of six girls who had been playing together for some time. They lived near each other, played on the sixth grade team, and would stay together for the next two years. We ran the nastiest 2-2-1 press I’ve ever seen, the kind of press you have to call off in the 2nd quarter because the other team hasn’t gotten the ball across half court in their last six possessions. I scribbled down play after play during my prep, made copies, and bound them in a folder; the girls studied this when they were supposed to be doing math, or science, or reading. We made the playoffs each year, won a game on a last second steal and three-pointer that sent me diving to my knees, and lost a heartbreaker in a tournament final to a local rival, a game that featured endless pressing, press-breaking, and textbook zone rotation.
When those girls left, the lean years started. No speed, no continuity, less heart, lots and lots of losing. It hurt, a lot.
This year I looked around and felt some cautious optimism. Dig it:
1) A monstrous, athletic center who vacuumed rebounds
2) A big point guard, smart, who played consistently as a 6th grader
3) Two small forwards who could hit open jump shots from 8-10 feet
4) Two secondary ball-handlers
We were fast again. Even the height was fast. I had a plan to build foundational skills while scaffolding the girls into the higher areas of basketball achievement. We had a great schedule, filled with competitive games early and a balanced league. Commitment was high, practices were good, and we lost four close pre-season games by 5, 3, 1, and 3 points. At 0-4 and on the verge of league play, I thought if we could just play more consistently and avoid break-downs, we could really get on a roll and do some damage.
Then four players, three of them starters, two of them captains – including the monstrous center and the athletic, game-changing point guard – acquired some drugs and smoked them at lunch.
I began mentally chalking up the losses, thinking about filling the now-vacant roster spots with raw 6th graders and just playing for next year. Having lost four close games with all those players, there’s no way we’re going to do anything in league play without them. Let’s go ahead and get this over with: another let-down and disappointment, another season of untouched potential. The only problem with all this is that someone forgot to tell my girls.
In the first league game, we run our new 2-2-1 press like crazy. Former back-up point guard T., is all over the floor, running down offensive rebounds, making passes, shooting, breaking pressure. Former back-up center P., is getting the ball on weak-side rotation and stepping into the lane to make little four-footers like she’s been doing it her whole life. Former buried on the bench, now 6th man, J. is stepping into passing lanes on defensive and leading the transition offensive like a champ. We win by 25.
In the second league game, we’re hugely outsized. We’re not prepared to play against bigger, stronger team running aggressive man-to-man, and we’re down at half-time. With the dance team miming a stylized boxing match to a driving hip-hop beat, I give a speech, diagram some stuff on my clipboard and send them back out. Replacement player and former dance team member S., leads the charge with a series of steals and six points in the third quarter. The turning point comes late in the 4th, when T. steals a pass, drives for a lay-up, gets fouled, and then watches as the ball bounces around for a near eternity before falling through. She hits the foul shot for the old-fashioned three-pointer, and we win by three.
In the third league game, we travel to a hostile crowd, and my back-brain is saying it’s time to come back to earth. It’s a rough, grinding game. Our opponents committed a total of 19 fouls, and a lot more went uncalled. O. comes out crying after getting cursed at. T. comes out after taking a shot to the stomach. S. comes out when she elbows a girl and spikes the ball after being consistently mauled for three quarters. We score points in two different bursts: getting steals, passing forward, and converting the transition opportunities. They turn up the pressure, and we don’t score for the last eight minutes of the game. Still, we hold on for a three-point victory, and I have to pause before shaking the opposing coach’s hand, because my hand is covered in his players’ saliva.
Without three starters or any of our preseason captains, we are now one win away from a playoff appearance.
I’m bursting with pride at what these girls have accomplished – pride at their tenacity and pride at their commitment to keep working, keep believing, even after their leaders let them down. It would have been easy to give up and give in, go through the motions and revisit our spot at the bottom of the division. They haven’t done that, and have, instead, continued to grow as a team and develop as basketball players.
The next two games will be rough; we face two perennial powers, schools I have never beaten. All of us are undefeated in league play heading down this stretch run. I don’t know what will happen, and I’m resisting the urge to play what-might-have-been-games in advance, bemoaning the poor decisions that have robbed us of a chance to really be something special.
But screw that, man. We’re already special.
We got crushed. Handled.