Addicted to the magic of a game The joy of coaching high school basketball is in more than noisy wins

November 30, 1997|By JOSHUA WOLF

The momentum of the varsity game had been building, and the anxious fans in the bleachers were pulling their hair and pounding their feet on the gym floor for three quarters. We were down by 10 in the first quarter and then up by five at the half.

I told the guys in the locker room before the third quarter that this game was theirs to win, that they needed to be smart, box out well and not get rushed by Bowling Brook's 1-2-2 full-court press. The third and fourth quarters were tight with the one-point lead switching hands minute by minute, and it was all going to come down to a final shot.

Keith, the junior guard, shot the ball with 35 seconds on the clock. Time seemed to stop as I watched, prayed, and my players on the bench waited anxiously for the 15-footer to drop, to see if it would fall through the net. I can't tell you how many times our games had come down to moments like this.

When the ball fell through the hoop, swish, I jumped from my chair, screamed and held my arms up high like a quarterback who made the winning touchdown pass. The gym erupted, and the dedicated group of seventh-graders who sat in the front row of every home game did their now-famous, six-man wave, standing up and down, cheering. They had the crowd up and roaring, and they nearly fell over one another from the fun they were having. Two parents in the top row gave each other high fives, and Mr. Carter, the tall, Santa Claus-looking, 12th-grade math teacher who was leaning against the gymnasium door, clenched his fists and howled.

The frenzied moment subsided as my players tried to regain their composure, shuffling hurriedly back into position, slapping

Keith's hand one last time as they settled back into the defense.

They were all beaming, ecstatic. I tried to calm them on the floor, telling them to fall back into a tight 3-2 zone, to keep their hands up, to box out on all shots.

Bowling Brook never recovered. They fouled, we hit our free throws, and we won by eight. I told Vanina in the car on the way home that it was moments like those that made it all worthwhile.

"Like what? The win?" she asked. "That you guys won?"

"No," I said. "It was when Keith hit that shot. When the gym blew up. It was madness. I must be addicted."

She started laughing, but I had already begun to daydream the moment over and over in my mind.

I try to remind myself of that Bowling Brook game every October, about three weeks before our first practice. It puts me back into the basketball mode, gets the motion offenses and the man-to-man defenses filling my mind again, wondering, hoping that perhaps we'll have a championship season. Only one coach can win it all in a given year, but each of us believes it's going to be him. And we want it mostly for our players, but we know how satisfying it will be for us - to have molded a group of individuals into a well-oiled machine, into a wrecking ball with nerves of steel.

By early November, the soccer gear is packed up and the running shoes are hung in the closet behind the shin guards and goalie jerseys. My players will come out wearing cut-off T-shirts and high tops, feeling the leather ball and the rust on the rim. And we'll give it another go, with me daydreaming about how to call the play with seven seconds left while the boys are huddled around me during the timeout, and with each of them believing he will make that spectacular shot with only 20 seconds to go.

In such games, "the fever" peaks, and I'm nearly lost in the whirlwind of basketball madness. Too often I'm tempted to forget that I'm coaching 17-year-olds, thinking that the game is larger than life. But it's the quietness in the gym afterward that brings me back to Earth, which reminds me that I'm a teacher trying to give these boys something special to remember, something to reflect on. That, too, is part of the magic. Every one of us - parent, teacher, coach and student - is going to feel it.

The season's here, and every one of us can taste it.

Joshua Wolf is a teacher and coach at the Park School in Brooklandville.

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