Coach

My childhood history with sports was checkered. My dad (who’d been called “Coach” my whole life) would come home, announce he was coaching fourth grade basketball, and suddenly there I was, on a team I hadn’t signed up for, passing a whole season without scoring a single point. One year he announced I’d be playing tee-ball on a team with my little brother. All the other kids my age were playing minor leagues. Sure, I was a scrawny little kid. He was probably looking out for my physical development and self-confidence: throw me in there with all the little kids and I’d be a star, right? Tee-ball or no, I hated the feeling brought on by a fly ball to center field, where I stood knock-kneed with a mitt in front of my face.

In Adlerian terms, you’d say I overcompensated by developing a smart-aleck disposition that could keep even the beefiest playground bully at bay. I did well at other things, too. I started writing a novel when I was nine; I took up the string bass at about the same age. (Size matters!) I eventually became a runner — a sport geared more toward individual accomplishment than a team’s. Once, right when I started middle school, a cocky football type challenged me on my apparent athletic deficiency: “Your dad coaches everything,” he sneered like the villain on an after-school special. “Why don’t you play anything?” I told him I ran, so he wanted to race me. Half-way around the track I was kicking his ass, so he stomped off in a huff, throwing his fleece track jacket down in the dust, as if it were to blame.

Coaching team sports, once upon a time, was high on the list of things I never imagined I’d do as a parent, right up there with fighting in front of the kids or spanking them. Given enough time, though, even the highest ideals can be compromised, and so I found myself unable to say no when my older daughter, Anna, asked me to coach her basketball team three years ago, when she was in third grade. Unlike me, she was actually good at the game, enjoyed it. I made it through two seasons — and only one shouting match with an aggressive assistant coach who wouldn’t sub out his daughter — and I thought I’d made it to retirement, when Molly, the younger one, now a fourth grader, asked me if I’d coach her this year. The things you’ll do for your kids.

she shoots! she scores!

Coaching basketball in Tribeca has brought its own peculiar adventures. (Tribeca is one of Manhattan’s most expensive neighborhoods; we live on the other side of the island’s southern tip.) The first year, one of the opposing teams had a kid whose dad was a Sopranos cast member: Bobby, the guy who babysits Uncle Junior and just married Tony’s sister, Janice. Even though he’s a real sweetheart on the show (a model train collector, we learned on this season’s first episode) and seems to be a soft-spoken guy in real life, when you look across the basketball court and see a Soprano on the other side cheering for his kid, you kind of hope your team loses, so as to avoid becoming mob hits yourselves. More than once my daughter would go head-to-head with his, dribble around her and shoot, and I’d think to myself: “Miss! Miss!” If he made a sudden movement I’d duck by instinct, sure we were headed for a shootout.

I started off as an assistant coach to an experienced, happy-go-lucky veteran. Half a season into it I realized I could do this without much problem, at least if I never demonstrated the principles I was trying to teach. All those years around my dad had drilled the vocabulary into my subconscious mind. I found myself shouting appropriate phrases at appropriate times: “Follow your shot!” “Get your defense on!” “Give her something to pass to!” “Cut toward the ball!” For a while, near the end of my last season with Anna, I felt like I was actually getting kind of good at it. We were winning, at least on occasion. I felt like I had them playing as a team.

All that changed this year with Molly, though. I had told the league’s leader that I’d coach if he needed me to, but Molly didn’t make her special request of me until he’d already lined up enough coaches. So I wound up co-coaching with two moms, both first-timers. This I didn’t mind in the least: I found it refreshing to see moms willing to coach, a task too often left to the worst sorts of fathers (not mine, I should add — he was a model coach, if a little too willing to sign me up without asking). Suddenly I was the veteran, on a coaching staff that seemed like a three-headed monster, each pulling in a separate direction, bonking heads on occasion. One of the moms was the consummate democrat: everyone should rotate positions, bring in the ball, and sub fairly, regardless of the score. The other, a marathoner, was out to prove that the moms’ team could kick butt too. Her biggest challenge was her daughter, a lousy sport who threw fits if she thought the ref had penalized her unfairly. When her kid would start to pout she’d ask one of the other coaches to handle it: “I can’t deal with her. She’s my kid. Know what I mean?”

Her competitive spirit was nothing, though, compared to the cut-throat coaches on some of the other teams. A couple of them were well known as coaches who never sub out their stars, who line up their strongest players against your weakest if they can get away with it. One in particular had a reputation for blood-and-guts coaching; recalling “Bobby,” I worried more about this guy’s real-life connections. A restaurateur of some note (if I’m being vague, it’s so as not to have this essay pop up when someone googles him), he had been an ad-man in the 80s and 90s; the climax of his career was directing one of Jacko’s most famous music videos. Somewhere in his 60s, he looks a little like a mobster, a spiky fringe of gray and white hair, coal-black eagle eyes. In past years, I had assumed he was someone’s grandfather, but what was I thinking? In Tribeca most people don’t procreate until they retire in luxury. (Here I should add a disclaimer: He’s probably a great dad. I know nothing about him personally. All characterization here is geared toward dramatic effect. Don’t sue me, please — or call out a hit!)

Mr. Restaurant (I’ll call him “Mr. R”) had come to the table pre-season with a list of star players he wanted on his team, and he got a couple of them right off, one in particular (I’ll call her “Speedy”) who can run circles around anyone in her division and makes almost all her shots. Though the league tries to be fair about such things, it’s clear that team sponsors have a little more weight to throw around, and I’ve sometimes felt like my teams wound up a little rag-tag as a result: new players, clumsy ones, space cadets. Not all, certainly, but some. I had to fight hard to get a specific sharp-shooter I wanted this year (I’ll call her “Sharp-Shooter”); the father of another of our girls traded his daughter over first thing to Mr. R’s team because he could see where the cultural capital was playing.

All these dynamics came to the fore during our first game this season against Mr. R’s team. Our three-way coaching had not cohered; no one could manage the subs. Were we trying to be fair? Trying to win? Keeping our strong players in key positions? Letting the girls pick who they wanted to guard? The game was an utter disaster. We couldn’t defend against Speedy, who seemed to sink nine of ten shots she put up and to rebound the one she missed, sinking it on the second try. Losing by over 20 points, we cleared the courts demoralized, even though the ref had shut down the scoreboard in the second half to prevent demoralization. Unlike most teams, Mr. R’s always has an abundance of fathers there to watch their kids. (Most kids on other teams are represented by mothers and nannies on the sidelines.) I’d come over the course of the evening to think of the fathers on their team as the Testosterone Gallery. They looked like they had all been jocks in high school; if they hadn’t, they were pretending they had, and I was certain they could tell I hadn’t been one by the way they gestured and smirked as they commented to one another about the trouncing that was underway.

As we left the school that night, one of them came over, a delegate from the victors’ camp. It was the guy who had pulled his daughter from our team. “I don’t know much about these things,” he said, maintaining a mock-humble mug. “But our coach says you really should designate a point guard, and it probably should be her.” He pointed to Sharp-Shooter. I wanted to smack him. What should ten-year-old girls know of point guards? What did I know about them? Were all the other teams playing positions, or just the ones led by highly organized coaches with Testosterone Galleries to back them?

Clearly I was in new territory. Thank God, then, for Wikipedia and Amazon. (What’s an academic father to do?) We worked the term “point guard” into our team’s vocabulary the next week, and to great effect. After that, most nights we had one or two girls who switched off, the ones most able to scout the situation, make the right call, or drive the ball to the basket. Before long we were beginning to compete. We even beat Mr. R’s team on our next match-up, though he wasn’t there to witness it, and his team only had four players and no Speedy (which meant we had a full roster of subs and he had b-stringers who had to play the whole game).

The real re-match came last week. They came in expecting to trammel us. We started the game a few players short; one of ours was recovering from a fever and another had an injured finger wrapped in a bandage. We gathered in a huddle before the game. “Three things will give us a chance to win tonight,” we told them. “One, we have to shut down Speedy. Whoever’s on her has to keep her from the basket. Two, we have to play our hardest no matter what your position.” This was code for the fact that two of the three coaches were willing to jettison democracy in order to win. “Three, Sharp-Shooter is our primary point guard tonight, whenever she’s in, which will be most of the game.” Grumbling from the girls, but we were clear that we would have it our way.

And it worked. Our tallest players kept Speedy from the goal and made it tough for her to pass. We got the rebounds. We played as a team. Sharp-Shooter was on, and she nailed her shots. Our girls must have wanted revenge as much as we did, because they played their guts out. My refrain for the evening: “Keep the pressure on!” At half time we were up 16-2. We’d seen nothing like it all season. They didn’t know what hit them. Mr. R snapped at one of our coaches during a pre-quarter line-up when she rearranged the way he had lined the girls up against one another. She had apparently told one of his players to switch positions in order to play against one of ours. “Don’t talk to my girls,” he snapped. “Don’t you know what team you’re coaching?”

Second half their strain continued to show. We coached cut-throat. In spite of our lead, we kept our strongest players in longer, kept Sharp-Shooter as our primary point guard. Their spirits sagged. The ref shut off the scoreboard. One of their players left the floor crying because she couldn’t defend against our player. At the beginning of the fourth the ref lined them up, switched some girls around. He asked us to give Sharp-Shooter a break. Speedy wound up with a slight advantage over our defender and finally started to score: one, two, three in a row. We were still up by almost 20 points, but I was starting to worry. It wasn’t a sure thing we’d win.

By this point the Testosterone Gallery was back in action, roused by Speedy’s late-breaking streak. Five minutes left in the game, she was everywhere, rebounding her own shots, running circles around her defender. Another score, and at the mid-quarter sub we put Sharp-Shooter back in, reassigned our defense, placed our tallest player back on Speedy. Two minutes left in the game, ball at our basket. Speedy breaks and jumps for the rebound and collides with her defender. They fall to the floor together, Speedy with one arm tucked beneath her. They land with a tremendous crash. Everything shuts down for a second. Two. Three. Then Speedy comes up, her forearm flopping like a cartoon rubber chicken, bending at unnatural angles. It’s already purple. She starts to wail: “Oh my GOD! My ARM!” Over and over and over.

By the time her parents had taken her to the hospital and players returned to the court, the game was clearly over. Some members of both teams were crying, including our girl who had collided mid-air with Speedy. The Testosterone Gallery looked glum, then sour, then surly. Clearly (I imagined) they thought we overplayed it, kept our biggest players on Speedy, shutting her down even though they trailed by a dozen baskets. Maybe they were right: maybe we’d behaved in the same reprehensible manner they’d been known for. Maybe I’d signed away my good coach credibility. Keep the pressure on? Is that really what ten-year-olds on either side need to hear?

Exiting the gym, Mr. R passed by me in the hall. His wife’s face was ashen. Who knew what to say? “Hell of a game,” I muttered. He clapped me on the shoulder as he walked by. “Good game, Coach.” He worked up a weary, wiry smile. “Good game.”

5 responses to “Coach”

  1. celia says:

    First of all, I didn’t know you started writing a novel at age 9! Quite amazing. It’s no wonder you’ve gone on to be the wonderful NYU prof. you are today. Second of all, I was laughing through the whole thing because of how much I identified with it. With the crazy busy life you lead I’m proud (though I must admit a little surprised) that you’re willing to coach your daughters when they ask. Does dad know you’re a basketball coach? I’m sure it would make him proud.

    Competition really is a two edged sword. It’s good to make goals and work toward something because you improve, but at what expense? I remember almost getting in a fist fight with a girl in 8th grade city basketball. I eventually ended up quitting team sports all together by high school because I hated the pressure and the really pushy and competitive parents. Too many politics. I loved cross country because it helped you work toward something without feeling a competitive rage. Before the state cross country meet we were hugging some of the runners from the other team and telling them good luck. One of the dad’s said, “you’d never see that on the football field.” Quite right.

    So were your girls traumatized by the game, or excited that they’d done so well? Or both?

  2. sure — i wrote and rewrote that novel until i left for college, when i finally admitted that it was a sad ripoff of the Hobbit. i had sexier female characters, though. i think half the reason i decided to pursue an academic career (a decision i made when i was in 9th grade or so) was to support my fantasy fiction writing habit, which fell by the wayside, ironically, around the time i actually started college. i tried writing more serious fiction for a few years then that was absorbed by the demands of grad school.

    i don’t mind most forms of competition. just team sports. i hated the feeling of bases loaded, full house, tie score — everything depending on whether or not you hit the ball. makes my stomach sick to think about it.

    our team was both traumatized and proud.

  3. celia says:

    I guess you’re right. Competition in team sports is a little more pressured than other competition. However, my in-laws are really competitive (I’d say cut throat) when we play games, and someone usually ends up really angry (often times my mother-in-law) and the whole game is ruined and canceled. I kind of prefer the lovey-dovey “everyone’s a winner” philosophy our family often takes in games. I guess that’s why I couldn’t understand why other people’s parents were making such a huge deal about winning, winning, winning at all costs. Our parents were pretty good at encouraging us to just do our very best and have fun.

  4. G-Lock says:

    Great piece. It’s amazing how even just reading about sports gives me the willies. I ran track, too, to avoid the competitive and butch environs of team play and activities with balls (no comment from the peanut gallery please!). All the horrors of high school gym class – when I was 5’2″ and eighty pounds soaking wet – came rushing back to me. More power to the coaches!

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