LEARNED A LOT of things during my first season as a high school coach. Some were mere reaffirmations of time-tested principles, while others were revelations, shocking and profound.
This then is the account of how I came to find my calling relatively late in life. Of how happenstance and circumstance fell perfectly into place to show me that coaching is not just a career, it can also be a really low-paying part-time job.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
I got the call late on a Saturday night. Eleanor Bermingham, the women's athletic director at Salpointe Catholic High School, was calling to offer me the job of freshman girls basketball coach.
The original coach had resigned suddenly the day before and they were scrambling to find a replacement. The Varsity coach, Annette Gutierrez Miller, and the Varsity boys coach, Brian Peabody, had both recommended me for the job, but it was clear that I wasn't Mrs. Bermingham's first choice. Heck, I probably wasn't in her Top 20. I think the only reason I got the job was that the woman ahead of me on the list couldn't make bail.
YOU NEVER GET A SECOND CHANCE TO MAKE A FIRST IMPRESSION
This is probably good, because there's only a slight chance that I could have made an even worse first impression on the team than I did. Maybe I could have thrown up on them or something.
Here they were, 13 high-school freshman girls, having survived a rigorous tryout period and a tough first month of practice, suddenly finding themselves heading into their season opener with a strange new coach (heavy emphasis on the "strange" part).
The air was heavy with apprehension, fear of the future and puzzlement over whether this guy knew the first thing about coaching basketball. Oh yeah, the girls were probably nervous about that stuff, too.
I wanted to reassure them, but darned if the first words out of my mouth weren't, "You know all that stuff that other guy taught you? Well, forget it. We're starting over."
They looked at me like they were members of the Donner Party and I came with barbecue sauce.
I tried to pretend to be a strict disciplinarian, but they saw through that pretty quickly. I did stress that they would have to play harder than they had ever played in their lives.
IF YOU'RE GOING TO PUT YOUR FOOT IN YOUR MOUTH, YOU MIGHT AS WELL PUT BOTH OF THEM IN
I committed the cardinal sin of telling the girls that as long as they worked hard in practice, every player would play in every game. It's hard to say anything stupider than that without being a registered Republican.
While I was on that heresy roll, I also told them I didn't care who shot the ball, or when or from where they shot, for that matter. Scoring is way overrated; defense wins games.
I then laid down the three main rules for the team:
1. Keep your grades up, as in the "A" range. Excellence should be pursued in all facets of one's life.
2. Show up to practice--on time and ready to play hard--if you expect to play in the games.
3. No hickeys.
That last one was just a personal thing. Hickeys are a sign of a serious lack of self-respect and self-discipline.
If you feel the need to engage in hickey action and you want to play on my team, remember that as in all things in life, it's better to give than to receive. Hickeys are still gross.
As it turned out, not every team that we played had a similar rule.
IT'S BETTER TO BE LUCKY THAN GOOD
I was blessed right off the bat with a natural team leader, a savage little package of quiet intensity by the name of Nicole Lara. I didn't even question my good fortune; I just figured what with God being a Catholic and a basketball fan, He'd hook me up.
That first day during the scrimmage there was a loose ball. Suddenly out of nowhere Nicole came diving, parallel to the floor. She landed hard, scooped the ball up in her left arm and slid about five more feet. I smiled so hard, I felt like a Miss America contestant.
She would play like that every single time she stepped on the court, in practice or in a game. She absolutely refused to lose, even at simple contests during practice. Needless to say, her competitiveness rubbed off on the others.
When Nicole was in a game, she was oblivious to all that was going on outside the lines. If the bleachers caught on fire, she'd wait for the final buzzer before noticing that the building had been evacuated.
I don't know if she heard a word I said all year. What I do know is that without her, we wouldn't have been near the team we were with her.
I spent the entire season wondering how God managed to cram a 500-pound heart into a 95-pound body.
OUT OF CHAOS COMES...WELL, IN OUR CASE, MORE CHAOS
The practices of the first week had all the precision of a Chinese fire drill. (I don't know if you can say that any more. It's probably an Asian emergency-preparedness practice.) One kid, Kathleen, had an elbow the size of a bowling ball. Her doctor refused to operate on it while it was that size, but he also said that it couldn't get any worse, so she toughed it out and played the whole season that way.
When we started the second week, we had three days before our first game. I installed a full-court press, but I couldn't find the right five people to run it. Nicole and the other sure-thing starter, Karin Johnson, were perfect for the press, but the other three spots were shaky. I would end up trying everybody in just about every spot, with the results ranging from none at all to okay. I was holding out for spectacular.
IT'S GOOD TO HAVE FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES
Matt Lambert, the starting point guard on the Varsity boys team, showed up at practice one day for some tutoring. Lambert was this year's Cute Guy on Campus. A slender kid of mixed ethnic heritage, he's got brown skin and Stepford-blue eyes, an apparently potent combination. I gained in stature that day because, as they chanted in unison, "Coach knows Matt Lambert."
One player in particular, Luz Gutierrez (who happens to be the younger sister of the Varsity coach, Annette) was especially impressed. At least I think she was impressed, considering she said, "That's Matt Lambert!" 47 straight times. We had to stop practice to wipe the spit off the floor.
YOU CAN'T PLEASE ALL THE PEOPLE ALL THE TIME
We practiced hard over Christmas vacation. The scrimmages were brutal.
With a couple exceptions due to illness or injury, every girl played in every game (sometimes they'd all play in every quarter of every game) and they all played a lot. Still, not all was well.
A couple days after Christmas, we were having a controlled scrimmage in the big gym. The first team was pounding the second unit. My instinct in that situation is to pour gasoline on the fire to see if the first team eases up or the second team gives up.
Things kept getting more and more intense and one-sided, until there was an explosion of pent-up emotion and hard feelings. A couple of the girls burst into tears as their litany of complaints about my coaching style poured forth.
Basically what it boiled down to was that I play favorites. Having tested out of tact and diplomacy in college, I responded bluntly.
"Yeah, I've got favorites. How's a coach supposed to pick a starting lineup if he doesn't have favorites? Put names in a hat?
"That girl right there is my favorite. She's the best player on the team and she works harder than everybody else on the team. How is she not going to be my favorite? If one of y'all work harder than she does, then you'll be my favorite."
We talked about things for an hour or so. I was stunned that people could be on the best team in town (and probably the state), a team where everybody plays, a team awash in pizza parties, big laughs and 50-point blowouts, and somehow be disillusioned.
I respected them for saying what they did; it couldn't have been easy. And I encouraged them to speak up when something was on their minds. That day neither tore the team apart nor brought us closer together. There was no repeat of it, either. In retrospect, it was just a strange, unexpected speed bump on the road to a championship.
GOOD PLAYING CAN OVERCOMES BAD COACHING, BUT NOT VICE VERSA
Due to some creative scheduling, we went 23 days without a game.
We took along Matt Lambert and his buddy Ryan Harter as team managers for our game at Sunnyside. Things got nasty in a hurry.
It was 20-0 at the quarter, 40-2 at the half, and 74-7 at the end. Luz, which I think is Spanish for "Never met a shot she didn't like," had 18 points, including five three-pointers.
After the game the girls asked if we could practice on Saturday. I had told them we wouldn't have to as long as we remained undefeated. They persisted, adding that they wanted to practice in the big gym so they'd have farther to run, plus they wanted to practice at night!
I had once told them the old line that goes, "When you're not practicing, somebody else is." Apparently they took it to heart because they volunteered to practice on Saturday nights the rest of the season. They wanted to be the "somebody else."
That story is guaranteed to bring a smile to the face of every coach in America, including some who've been dead for a year or so.
We played our best game at home against Canyon Del Oro, a team that would finish tied for second in the league. They won the opening tip and went in for a layup to lead 2-0. We then scored 29 straight points. We won, 88-26. Nicole had a triple-double with 10 points, 15 steals and 17 assists. Serena scored 20 points.
THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE HOME
We made two out-of-town trips within eight days. You can always expect strange things on the road and we certainly weren't disappointed.
At Nogales, the refs spoke to me in Spanish, as though I look like anything other than the industrial-strength gringo that I am. Just to mess with them, I answered back in Spanish, although I think I mistakenly slipped the word for "wheelbarrow" in there somewhere.
Five of our girls fouled out of this game and four others would have four fouls each. Nogales shot 42 free throws; we shot eight. Still, we won by 15.
I didn't say a word to the refs all day. But at halftime, one of the refs came over and said, "Your girls are way too aggressive."
I smiled and said, "See, that's the problem. You're reffing girls and I'm coaching basketball. For girls, they probably are too aggressive. But for basketball players, they're just right."
He called me a body part in front of the girls and walked away.
At Buena, the game was reffed by two military guys from the base. Buena shot three times as many free throws as we did, but we still won by 20.
While sitting in the stands watching the Varsity game, a couple of the girls noticed a group of guys sitting in the stands. They pointed them out and said that they were "Foin!," which is how you'd pronounce "Fine" if you had something stuck in your nose.
Being the coach and wanting to show them there was no depth to which I would not stoop to embarrass the players, I walked over and introduced myself to the guys.
I struck up a conversation with a guy named Stan, and asked him all the pertinent questions, like whether he prefers the East Coast style of rapping of Treach or the more laid-back West Coast style of Dr. Dre. You know, the kind of questions you'd expect a 40-something, overweight white man to ask.
I called the girls over and introduced everybody, then left as they began giggling themselves into a frenzy. The guys, I mean. Hey, my girls were tough.
Both road games were on Thursday nights, meaning that we'd get back into town around midnight, the girls would get home and into bed around 1 a.m. They'd have to sleep, get up, get ready for school, go to school for seven hours, then be back on the court for another game at 4 p.m. This was a gift from the schedule-maker who'd given us that 23-day layoff.
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR
As the season drew to a close, I was hoping that the team would get tested somehow. When we went to CDO, we only led by four at the half. Nicole had the ball stolen from her for the first time all year and at halftime she had this Lyle Menendez look on her face. I didn't say a word to her.
We started the second half with five straight steals for baskets, built the lead to 20 points and coasted home.
We then picked up an extra game with Flowing Wells. When we got over to their place, they dropped some of the JVs down to play us. Renee hit three quick three-pointers and we jumped out 10-1. Nicole and Karin controlled the tempo, and Serena and Kat both guarded six-footers. Late in the game, they made a serious run, but we hit some clutch free throws and won by five.
The final record was 16-0. The girls decided to have a final Saturday practice after the season was over, and then they had a slumber party. By the next week, they were scattered to the four winds. Monica, Julie and Karin were running track (Karin would win the Southern Division 800-meter title). Erin was the star pitcher on the freshman softball team. Shawna was playing Jr. Olympic volleyball and Renee was playing ASA softball.
Nicole was the starting left-fielder on the Varsity team that won the 5A state softball championship. When she got in her batting stance, she had a strike zone the size of Hitler's heart.
Kathleen got her arm surgery, and the others began working on their games for next basketball season. Most of them will be back as JVs next year, with a new coach. I'll start all over again with a new bunch of freshmen, including my daughter Darlene, setting up a classic no-win situation for me.
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