|The Write Space and Time|
August 22, 2011 -- I hear the term "player's coach" thrown around sometimes. Bill Self is a player's coach...Rick Neuheisel is a player's coach...Barry Switzer was a player's coach. And while those guys are all good (maybe a couple of the best ever), I really don't have any idea what it means when people label you as that. Maybe it means your players act like they like you. Maybe it means you act like you like your players. Or maybe it carries with it an inferred cloak of freedom, a sort of "the inmates are running the asylum" kind of culture. Or maybe it doesn't mean anything at all and it's just a sticker people peel and pop on you if your team seems happy and loose and they tend to win games.
I think I must be a throwback coach. I decided that while sitting courtside in a gym this past July. It was a JFK, Elvis, 'Who shot JR?' kind of moment: one of those that sears itself into your roadmap because you'll never forget where you were when it happened. I was on the baseline behind the backboard on Court No. 4 in Augusta, Georgia. It was about 47 degrees in the gym and 110 outside. And directly in front of me stood The Next Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread ready to attempt a free throw.
The official handed her the ball which prompted her to immediately turn to her right. Not slightly. Or sort of. I'm talking totally to the right, as in she's parallel with the sideline. And I swear I heard a drum roll.
So our shooter is facing her team bench, her left shoulder square to the rim (she's right handed), and she is surrounded by six anxious rebounders poised to get the spoils if an attempt goes awry. Their perplexed intensity is priceless.
Then the show begins.
The choreography starts with three air tosses punctuated by the 21st-century version of the step-ball-change. Then there is a dramatic, yet smooth, reversal of position that leaves her facing the basket (an excellent choice, I believe) where the ever essential behind-the-back dribbling begins. After four quick bounces we get a lean to the left and a lean to the right and, as anticipation mounts, she shifts back to the left for a dramatic pause before delivery.
As the ball clanged off the rim and the stunned rebounders began to wrestle for it, I decided right then and there, "I'm old, this is dumb, and I really miss watching Mark Price at the foul line."
Crazy thing was, here we were in a gym--100 of my closest friends and me, all wearing our institutional billboards--and I look around and no one looks confused or exasperated or even slightly entertained. Maybe the Antarctic-like gym climate had frozen them all in time, or maybe everyone was just glazed over from the month of planes, trains, automobiles and mostly undisciplined ball. I don't know, but I felt like a throwback, a stiff jersey with sleeves in a room full of racer back Dri-fits.
The child prodigy's theatrical version of the most predictable shot in all of basketball was just the straw that broke the camel's back for me. It came on the heels of players warming up with headphones on and teams tucking the hem of their shorts in their undies. It was just one more act that screamed ME! ME! ME! in a game that's about anything and everything but that.
Coach Wooden would be appalled. I think about that sometimes. I think Bill Self probably is, a lot. And Coach Switzer, he'd be way more about the circumstance than he would the pomp, though he did allow Little Joe Washington to wear those silver shoes.
I'm just a big, big fan of team. I believe in pointing to the guy who passed you the ball and sprinting to help up a teammate who just spent himself in the pursuit of an errant pass. I like our socks to match and our shorts to sit where they're supposed to, and I prefer a made free throw to a Broadway production at the foul line any day of the week.
All of that just might throw me back, out of the hunt for a lot of guys who have no interest in the good ole' days of fundamentals and uniformity and a cause that's greater than themselves. Guys who would rather be who they are than who we are. But I think that's probably ok, too.
My Granny used to say, "There's more than one way to skin a cat." Ours is the old-fashioned way. And just like a great pair of Chuck Taylors: if they fit, nothing's better.