Balancing coaching with calm

March 10, 2001|By Rob Kasper

THERE WERE 30 seconds left in the championship basketball game, and the team of 11- and 12-year-old boys I coached was ahead by one point. In a panic, I hollered at my star player, Chisom Opara, to run out to half-court and guard the kid on the opposing team who was dribbling the ball. A shot was launched from half-court. The ball fell short of the basket, landing right where Chisom had been standing and right into the hands of another opposing player who tossed it in the basket.

We lost the championship game because my star player had done exactly what I told him.

Chisom does not remember this play. It happened seven years ago. When I talked with him yesterday by telephone at Princeton University, where he has gone to play varsity football, he said his rec league basketball experience was fun. But it was not a defining moment in his life.

I, however, still remember that March morning in 1994 in the gym of the Carver Center for Arts and Technology. It marked the beginning of my weekend "career" as a coach of my kids' recreational basketball teams. That career, which has spanned two kids, several gyms and many age groups, ended recently with another dramatic finish to another championship game. This time I kept my mouth shut and watched as my team of 13- to 15-year-old boys rallied to win their division of Towsontowne Recreation League.

Similar scenes are being played out in gyms throughout Maryland as recreation basketball leagues, where the coaches are usually parents of players, finish up the season. Recently, as I hung up my whistle, I tried to reflect on what I have learned by spending the past seven winters in sweaty gyms.

I have learned that it is easy for the coach to lose a game for his team. Just give the wrong advice, or give too much advice, and instead of inspiring your troops, you confuse them. I have been there, done that, given a detailed explanation of a "box and one" defense that drew only blank stares from the would-be defenders.

I have also learned over the years to share control with the kids, to loosen up, to go along with them on the often bumpy ride. Years ago, for example, when I coached 9- and 10-year-olds including our younger son, I used to arrive for games at Riderwood Elementary School gym with a briefcase stuffed with a clipboard, with photocopies of defensive alignments and with a book authored by basketball guru Larry Bird. My notion was that I would use these materials to teach the fine points of game to my charges.

A few years later, when I was back at Carver coaching a new crop of 11- and 12-year-olds, I had stopped carrying the book and the photocopies. This winter I still toted the briefcase, but it held only a rarely used clipboard, a water bottle and a roll of white adhesive tape.

The tape, as it turned out, played a vital role in our season. It bailed us out of potential trouble when our players lost their jerseys.

It helped when Evan Stahler, one of our guards, reported to me that his usual jersey, which had a number "3" on its back, was back home "in the wash." For a minute I thought of telling him he could share a jersey with his big brother, Ben, who was also on our team. But even in rec basketball, the referees frown on two players wearing the same number. Instead, I pulled Evan out of pre-game warm-ups, applied a few strips of tape to the back of his T-shirt, and soon he was sporting a legible, if not graphically correct, "3" on this back.

Earlier in the season, the tape saved our center, Hugh Tawney, whose jersey had been left "at a friend's house." Hugh is a big boy, so I lent him one of my shirts - with two long strips of tape applied to its back. Hugh, number 11, scored so many points in that game, he wanted to wear the shirt for the rest of the season. I had to say no; it was my favorite shirt.

Even before the tape incidents, we were a team that couldn't keep our shirts straight. A few weeks into the season when Jimmy Stamas joined the team, another player, Steven Shifflett, gave him the shirt off his back. This meant that Steven, who switched to a shirt with no real number on his back, was designated as "0." Another late arrival, Austin McKissock, had picked up the last remaining shirt.

Actually, there were two other shirts floating around somewhere. But somehow these shirts had slipped through the grasp of Jerry Shifflett, my fellow coach. At the time the shirts disappeared, Jerry had a lot on his mind. He was trying to figure out whether to sell or use two Super Bowl ticket she had won in a lottery. He ended up selling.

Despite our trouble with attire, we won games, sometimes handily, sometimes miraculously. Once we were behind by seven points with under three minutes left in the game, when Tim Powers, our point guard, who regularly challenged the team dress code by wearing black over-the-calf socks, started making shots. He hit a couple of three-pointers, a few free throws, and before I could draw on my clipboard, the kids had pulled out a victory.

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