Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Replaying It Over and Over Again

The Ballad of Delroy High Basketball

(or your approach to raising your fourth child;

or marriage after fifteen years;

or devotion after four decades)

I've spent the past four months in the bleachers watching a basketball season. All three sons play on basketball teams; some play on multiple teams. So I have watched, between the five leagues and the local college team, on average, about ten games a week since October. That's a lot of bruised-butt bleacher time. I've come to the conclusion that, as much as I would like to think that my children are spending time with stellar individuals, that coaches are, for the most part, quite ordinary, even mediocre.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing, as most of us are really just average in most areas of our lives, and down right disastrous in others. There's a certain strength and patience that can be developed by being coached/led/taught/parented by the average and the bad. And, an important realization that hopefully dawns somewhere along the line that sometimes my best is actually bad compared to what somebody else could do. I would do well to extend that Average One the patience and tolerance I would hope from others in the moments where even my best is not good enough.

But that's not the most significant realization of the season. This season I have seen play out in my children's lives and the lives of their teammates the consequences of interacting with adults who, for so long, have made no changes to their life and the way they operate. Because they have run practice a certain way for twenty years, that's the way practice should be run. It can be run no other way. Because they use an inside game that takes time to set up the big man, there can be no transition basketball. They walk the ball up the court, even if there is no defense set up at the other end. Every possession takes 90 seconds.

Because the varsity runs a high-low post scheme, the junior varsity, which has no big men, and consists of eight greyhounds (and a couple arthritic bulldogs) who can run the court like a racetrack, must play the high-low charade. Ball in, ball swatted away; ball waiting to go in, three second call while smallish big guy tries to establish position; ball on the wing wide open, no shot because our school plays the inside game. Then, in the fourth quarter, when we're down 15 with four minutes to go, the coach lets loose the dogs. "Push it, push it," we can hear coming from the bench. They run, they cut, they penetrate, the defense has to collapse to protect the basket, the ball gets dished outside, three pointer. They get the ball up the court in two dribbles and a long bounce pass, lay up. The boys pull to within 2 points, but time runs out. They lose.

Parents and players are left to wonder why "push it" shows up only in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter. If it had showed up at the tip off, the opposing team could not have kept up. But no! Transition basketball is not Delroy High basketball. So, we do not play it, even though the only players available to play on this particular team are six-foot tall sprinters, jumpers and cutters. We're left with yet another game where the players are told in the locker room that they "just didn't want it bad enough," where the blame for the loss is placed on their inability to "get it to the post"--never mind the post player is only 6' 4" and should be playing three-man. In part, or in whole, the loss should be placed squarely on the coaching staff, for their refusal to look down the bend and actually "see" their personnel, for their inability to change their plan and to coach the game that needed to be coached with the players that were available.

I sat on Friday evening watching our school lose in the state tournament semi-final game, a game Delroy had no business losing. On the team was the state player of the year from last year and most likely again this year--a man amongst boys. Unstoppable unless, of course, he's the only person shooting and the defense can afford to sag four in the key to stop his penetration. The other team, Lakeshore, was anchored by a 6'10" tower, slow but with a great shooting touch who could make his free throws. One would think, in a rational world, that if the player giving your team the biggest fit and preventing you from scoring the way you like to score is clogging up the key, you would try to score without him there. In other words, you would push, use your speed, get your guards out on the wing, fill the lanes, and make the Tower huff his 260 pounds up the court to catch you.

But, no. Delroy basketball, for the past 25 years, has always been about slow, controlled possession, a minute for every shot, reduce the risk, reduce the errors. Score in the 30s. Play tenacious defense to take the other team out of their rhythm. So, last Friday afternoon, they walk the ball up the court, let the Tower set up in the key, pass the ball around the perimeter while our skinny big tries to post up against Him. Pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, don't you dare dribble or penetrate the key to break down the defense; and don't set a screen to spring your shooters free. This approach works if you have a big guy who's really strong, really big. This works if the other coach doesn't have a plan to break down your defense, and to shut down your inside game. This works only if you have guards who can get open for the shot on their own, and the opposing team hasn't scouted you to know your patterns. But, if you don't, and if they do and if they have . . . this doesn't work.

Watching this season was like watching the fifth Mexican restaurant open up in the very same place that four others have failed in. It didn't work last year, and it didn't work this year; and it won't work next year, unless a 6 foot 8 inch center with soft hands and an unstoppable up-and-under "transfers" into the boundaries.

A coach's responsibility, particularly a high school coach who cannot recruit the kind of players he would prefer, is to find what will work with what he has. And, if, during the second quarter, the game plan doesn't seem to be working, the coach's responsibility is to adapt, to adjust, to try something else. This year, something else would have worked really well, something different than what's been done in the past. But no, that's not how Delroy does basketball. And so, like the ANZAC mates in Gallipoli, those poor boys go down, coach's ego and tradition blazing, in a cloud of fouls as the players do exhausting battle with the Tower and his supporting guards.


One of the greatest lies is that "there is no other way." Language like "it's always been that way," "this is tradition," "our system's been successful in the past" is language that assumes no other way. Programs based on these unyielding, unchanging assumptions will fail just as regularly as they succeed--unless the tradition itself is centered on change and adaptation, and on timeless principles like moral character, respect, hard work, smart work, and paying the price. Sooner or later, about every four years as players cycle through the system, there won't be the same combination of players, of characters or personalities, and opponents that created the successful seasons of 1989 and 1998 and 2004. What then?

Well then Coach, you look down your roster, you see what you have and you devise a new plan (patterned after the old one in a way perhaps) that makes these boys with their particular talents and skills (and their just as eager and willing hearts) as capable of success as the players you wish you had. That's work, yes. Hard work, but it's the price of greatness. It's not a price most are willing to pay. Like the woman who always buys her husband a tie for Father's Day, most settle for what worked, once upon a time.

Title: From Tim McGraw, "Over and Over Again."


  1. Coaching, like raising children or being married or keeping a faith is a difficult thing to do at any level....but what's most difficult as a coach, a father, a husband, or a believer, is investing yourself passionately into the process. To merely resign yourself to "the way it's always been" doesn't constitute an investment at any level. There's no risk.

    Finding and investing real passion for those endeavours will open up new ways, new plans and new strategies to achieve greatness.....a great team, a great marriage, a great love even.

    Nice post; and written by a true achiever.......

  2. I just listened to a book on tape on the life of Roy Williams. It was interesting because he said that he has a style of basketball that he likes to play and he recruits only those players that fit into his system.
    In high school you can't recruit the players that fit into your system. You have to look at a second option in coaching which is finding the style of basketball that fits your players. Using your talent to the best of their abilities.
    Just like in parenting, each child has different abilities and talents and you find what works for them. There is no system. You have to adapt and change.
    I like your way of thinking! Each team will have different talents and in order to really have them acheive their potential you have to use those talents.
    Thanks for the post!