As a Coach, My Favorite Play Remembered
It was late in the 4th quarter and time was running out. It was obvious to me the players were a bit disorganized. They knew what needed to happen, but how to get there wasn’t clear. The players on the bench all had their own ideas of how to get this done and were yelling a hundred different instructions to those on the court, but things looked chaotic…I mean, real chaotic. I sensed we had one shot at doing this right, so time out was called.
Stephen was our guy and a simple play out of a 1-3-1 formation was called to get him the ball at the top-of-the-key and hope he had enough space to get the shot off.
The whistle blew and the ball was put in play at half court. Our point guard got everyone set and started the offense. He passed to the right wing and both our center and the point guard moved to the left toward Stephen setting a staggered double screen on Stephen’s defender.
Stephen sprinted toward the top-of-the-key rubbing off both screens, creating just enough space between himself and the defender. The teammate on the right wing delivered the pass on cue to Stephen as he arrived at the top-of-the-key. Stephen pivoted facing the basket, and with one of the uglier jump shot I’d ever seen, he launched that shot and drained a 3-pointer. The fans erupted, the players on the bench jumped, screamed, and high-fived each other…and I witnessed the play that would become the most memorable in my coaching career.
Here’s the Rest of the Story
I first met Stephen when he was in the 8th grade. He tried out for the middle school basketball team my first year coaching. Stephen was an athlete, no doubt about it…..but basketball wasn’t his sport. Our school was small so Stephen made the team, but played on the “B” team.
Stephen went on to high school and I continued coaching the middle school for two more years. To my knowledge, Stephen didn’t go out for the team in 9th grade…I may be mistaken, but I do not believe he tried out.
In 10th grade, Stephen went out for the team. I took over the varsity program about halfway through that season, and with only 11 players total for both a varsity and junior varsity team, Stephen was going to get a lot of playing time on the junior varsity.
Stephen again played for me on the junior varsity his junior year, and the one thing I really liked about that kid is how hard he competed in practice. He had an edge to him and had no problem calling people out if they weren’t concentrating or hustling. He had a football player’s toughness and we really needed that in the basketball program. He was one of the smaller players on the team at somewhere around 5’6” or so, and ball-handling was not his strength…so playing time was minimal to say the least. But I’ll be if that kid didn’t come out every day to compete in practice!
Something to be said for that kind of character you know…
In the spring of 2009, Stephen was nearing the end of his junior year and it was time for a chat. Seniors don’t play junior varsity in small programs for several reasons. First and foremost, it could be humiliating for a senior to not be on the varsity with all his classmates.
Varsity is Earned
In this chat we had shortly after the basketball season ended in March, it was made clear to Stephen that for him to be a member of the varsity team his last year, he would have to earn that spot. The 12th – man on the roster was not given out as a participation ribbon…and if Stephen didn’t earn it, he would not be allowed on the team because he was not going to take up a spot on the junior varsity either.
I know…athletics can be harsh sometimes.
Stephen told me he’d do whatever it took to earn that spot so we started holding early morning workouts that spring before school started. It was an open invitation to any players who wanted to show up at the gym at 6:00am to work on shooting and other fundamentals.
Guess who showed up every day? Yep…Stephen was there, working, committed to simply making the team. This cannot be emphasized enough…he wasn’t competing for a starting position…he was competing because he wanted to make the team!
Stephen got his spot on varsity that November…but he earned that spot back in March, April and May. Why? Because this Coach needed that character on my team. It wasn’t because I simply liked the kid…and it wasn’t because I didn’t want to break his heart by cutting him. He earned that spot because he had some intangibles within his character that the team needed. His skill-set was needed!
When you spend so many days with kids through practices, games, off-season workouts, etc. you start to see patterns. Stephen had one of the worst looking jump shots I’d ever seen, and I wasn’t shy about making fun of it in a joking way. But that kid had this thing about hitting jump shots at the top-of-the-key in practice. Sure! Some of those shots banked so hard off the glass that you wanted to scream “Clear out!” to anyone remotely near the backboard… Then there were those shots that never even arrived at the rim…or the backboard… How could a kid hit a couple 3-point shots in a row and then shoot 3 straight air balls? Shake my head even now…
Stephen did not play many minutes his senior year, but he was a spark in practice, and he wouldn’t hesitate lighting his teammates up at halftime in a game if they were playing below their ability levels. His classmates respected him…he had earned the right to get in their faces. Remember, although Stephen wasn’t really a talented basketball player, he was a football player, and he knew how to compete…and he had no problem delivering the gifts that put him on that team in the first place.
The team had more success that year and had earned the opportunity to host a 1st round district tournament game in our gym as the state tournament began. Classmates turned out that night and there was a level of excitement surrounding the boy’s basketball program that had not been experienced in previous years.
The game went into the 4th quarter and our boys were playing well. We had extended the lead into the 15-20 point range and after acknowledging our lead was safe, younger players were given the opportunity to get into the game. Stephen’s number was called as well.
Several times on the offensive side, the team tried to get Stephen the ball to score. It wasn’t working well. Players on the bench began standing and yelling instructions at those on the floor. The classmates in the stands appeared to understand what the team was trying to do and although I may be embellishing a bit here, I do believe there were chants of “Stephen!” coming from the crowd.
Time was running out. I paced the sideline silently wanting it as badly for Stephen as every other teammate but things were looking disorganized and possessions were running out.
Suddenly it hit me…that “top-of-the-key” thing Stephen calls a shot…..TIME OUT!
You know the rest of that story now…or do you?
Things I’ve Learned
God wants to call our number every day. The thing is, do we want to put in the work required so we can be in the right place at the right time to have God deliver the pass for us to score?
Grace is making the team when I should have been cut…..
- but do we just want to make the team, or do we want to be players in the game?
- and let me take it even further: do we want to be on the floor when the game hangs in the balance or are we simply happy being on the team?
- okay…just a little further…promise! Do we want to ball in our hand when the game is on the line, or do we go into hiding, just happy to be on the floor?
I’ve learned over the years that there is a certain mental toughness required of a person who wants the ball in their hand as the clock is winding down. I for one am in search of that mental toughness in my life to compete at the next level. It feels good when you realize you’re called to play, not spectate.
Stephen had no idea he would have that opportunity almost a year earlier when he made a commitment to show up and work on his fundamentals. There was no guarantee he would make varsity. When he went into the game that late-February night, he had no idea what would happen…he knew we had won the game…but he didn’t know what his contribution would be.
During the time out, Stephen didn’t shy away from having his number called for a play…all those ugly air balls in practice….did they cross his mind at all? Not sure! But I suspect what he pictured running back out onto that floor after the time out were all those ugly glass-breaking 3-pointers he hit in practice.
Stephen, thanks for my favorite play as a coach!