Tuesday, January 11, 2005

A Descent Into the Maelstrom

A Descent Into the Maelstrom

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I had wanted to write about this last Wednesday night, the night of the game, but I just couldn’t. Tomorrow, I told myself. Tomorrow would be better. How could I possibly produce anything that was at all coherent so close to the event? Without question, I’d need the perspective that a day or so would undoubtedly give. Tomorrow.

It’s been five days now, and the wound is still fresh. Here’s my story. I’ll apologize in advance for the melodrama, but it’s the only way I know how to tell it...

First, an admission. In all of my writing and conversations about this team, there’s one thing that I hadn’t admitted to anyone -- without question, this was the best team I have ever coached. Winning a championship was more than just a goal, it was a destination, if that makes any sense. I couldn’t bring myself to speak of this, except in vague terms (“I think this team might have a chance...”) because to voice this hope would be to let everyone else in, to raise the expectations higher than they needed to be, because if we were to lose...

In many ways I’ve come to believe that this was a story written by Sophocles, a tragedy which would have played well on a Greek stage twenty-five centuries ago, the plot moving slowly but inexorably towards an undeniable conclusion.

This particular story begins during the first game of the semi-final double header held at an area high school. The team and I arrived in the gym towards the end of the first half of the first semi-final game between Hughes and Newcomb, two teams which, like us, had won their leagues with undefeated records. All year long I had been particularly concerned about Hughes, as they had been beating their opponents by as much as fifty and sixty points. They had even scored 96 points in one game, an unheard of total considering that we play eight minute quarters. They scared me, and I looked forward to seeing them play.

As we walked into the gym -- fifteen boys, three coaches, and one wife -- we walked into an event. This was bigger than a regular season game, bigger even than our previous playoff game. It was a showcase. As soon as we walked in the door, a high school coach approached me to wish me luck and let me know that he was there to check out our big man (Stephan). A few steps later, someone else asked me which player it was who could dunk. (Again, Stephan.) We made our way up into the stands, passing along the way several other coaches from eliminated teams. The Hamilton coach made a point to wish me luck: “I know you guys can do it.” By this he meant that he was rooting for us because like Hamilton, we’re from the ‘hood, and the other three teams in this Final Four were from the opposite end of the socioeconomic ladder. (More on this later.)

Once we found our seats and had a chance to focus on the game, I became confused. These two teams we were watching, Hughes and Newcomb, didn’t seem too good. They looked like playoff teams, certainly, but semi-finalists? I tried not to look ahead, but I couldn’t help it. My assistant coach and I spoke about the two teams, but neither of us said what we were both thinking: if we could get past Stanford, we would hammer the winner of this first game. Hughes would pull away in the final minutes and win by ten or fifteen points.

You cannot understand what was about to happen unless you know about what happened three years ago, the last time I took a team to the city semi-finals. We were playing Hughes that afternoon, and our team was solid. We had a decent point guard, some athletic shooting guards, and the most dominant center I’ve ever seen at the middle school level. Hughes chose to shut down the middle, playing an incredibly condensed 2-3 zone, but we countered by slowing the game down and we took a 20-8 lead at halftime. The game changed in the second half, though. Hughes switched defenses on us, we collapsed mentally (coaches and players), and we ended up losing by four or five points. At the time, I thought it was a tough loss. Now I know better.

But back to the Stanford game. There are a few moments from the game that I will never forget. Here’s one of them. After the lineups were introduced and a recording of the Star Spangled Banner was played through a portable PA system, my team turned as one from where they stood at center court and bounded -- bounded -- towards the bench. They pogo’d into one another, barking encouragement, psyching themselves up. I started towards them, ready to give them a final word or two before the tip, but instead I stopped and took a few steps away from them. I watched their exuberance from a few yards away, and I drank it in like honey. It was a moment too pure for interruption. Here were my words as I circled them up: “I don’t worry at all about your talent, and I could never question your effort. But please do this for me: have fun out there tonight.” We broke as we always do: Eagles on three! 1-2-3... And I hesitate to write what they say in response, because the written word cannot do it justice. It’s like this. I say: Eagles on three! 1-2-3... They say: EAGLES!!... You KNOW!!... Anhhhh...” A three-second sound bite that simultaneously expressed their unity and brashness. On this night, it gave me goose bumps.

Stanford controlled the tip and immediately drove the ball into the teeth of our man-to-man defense. Stephan was waiting, and he rejected their first shot, leading to a fast break basket in the other direction. On their next possession, they tried again, and again Stephan was there for an emphatic block. A few seconds later they came inside again, and but while swatting away yet another shot, Stephan was called for a foul. It hardly mattered. Stanford had taken three shots, and none had gotten to the rim. Clearly, a tone had been set. From there, it was a clinic.

In middle school basketball, there are rarely any opportunities for scouting, so as a coach you have to spend the first few minutes of each game trying to identify your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. You try to find the shooters, the slashers, and the ball handlers. During this first quarter, I know that the Stanford coach had to have been in shock at what he was seeing. We played a perfect quarter. Stephan scored eight points and had at least five or six blocks. Jesse scored eleven points, including some incredibly athletic fast break baskets. Bernard hit a three-pointer from each corner on successive possessions. The only thing missing, really, was a dunk from Stephan. It was absolutely beautiful. When I spoke to our commissioner the next day, he told me that it was about as perfect a quarter of middle school basketball as he could imagine.

Two interesting things happened during the quarter, though. At one point during the domination, I caught myself thinking about the championship game. In the days leading up to the semi-finals, I thought often about how it wasn’t really a championship that I wanted, but the championship game. In John Feinstein’s book on the ACC, A March to Madness, he writes that when coaches talk about the Final Four, they talk about just wanting to coach on Monday night, in the final. I understand this completely. What I wanted more than anything -- what I still want -- was to coach in the championship game. I’m not afraid to admit that a part of it has to do with the bigger stage, but there’s also the idea that the opportunity might be more important than the victory, if that makes any sense. And because of this desire, I found thoughts of Saturday creeping into my head during Wednesday’s game. As everything was looking so easy during that text book first quarter, I thought to myself, “We’re gonna win this game.” And here’s the weird thing, the voice from the oracle. Just as that thought was crystallizing in my head, I took a quick glance up at the scoreboard, and here’s what it said: 20-8. The same as the half-time score from the Hughes game three years earlier, numbers which are burned into my psyche. I shook my head, telling myself that it could never happen again, not with this team. Perhaps thirty seconds later, the other interesting thing happened. As I walked down the bench, one of my players (Tyran) looked up at me and asked, “Is this what it was like in the Hughes game?” [Enter Greek chorus.] I had told them about that disappointment as a lesson in focus and determination. I stopped for a second and answered, “This is EXACTLY what it was like in the Hughes game.” But it wasn’t. Against Hughes, we were just beating them, we weren’t destroying them.

25-8. As the buzzer sounded ending the first quarter, my team sprinted off the court and the bench rose to meet them in celebration. Again, I paused for a beat before joining them, taking that moment to appreciate their pure joy. They had played as well as they could possibly play, and they didn’t need me or anyone else to tell them that. They had elevated the game to a type of poetry with their swarming, full-court man-to-man defense, lightning-fast transition game, and precisely executed half-court offense. At that moment I have no doubt that every person in that gym was absolutely certain that we would easily dispatch Stanford and then dismantle Hughes on Saturday morning. The Hughes coaches, who were still in the stands scouting us, had to be afraid. The Stanford players had to be discouraged and overwhelmed. Their coach was surely grasping at straws, and at some point I’m sure he told himself something like this: “They can’t possibly continue playing at this pace...”

During the closing seconds of the first quarter, something happened which was so small and insignificant at the time that I didn’t even notice it. It would prove to be huge, possibly the most important play of the game. As Stephan was taking a rebound in traffic, a reaching Stanford hand found its way to the side of his nose, triggering a nose bleed. I didn’t see the blow, and I never saw Stephan’s bloody nose. My assistant coach, Reta, mentioned to me that the other assistant, Terrell, had taken Stephan to get cleaned up because he was bleeding. Neither of us was concerned, but it triggered a domino effect. Seconds before I had gotten the news about Stephan, my power forward (DiMarrie) had asked for a rest. But with this turn of events, we both knew he couldn’t come out of the game. Tyran would come in for Stephan instead, and DiMarrie would get his rest as soon as Stephan returned.

This was the best thing that could have happened for Stanford. With the shot blocker out of the game, they immediately started getting the ball closer to the basket, and they started making some shots. Our offense, meanwhile, was stagnating. We had fewer fastbreak opportunities, and in our halfcourt sets we were settling for outside shots. We stopped our full-court pressure and switched to a 2-3 zone to conserve energy and protect DiMarrie a bit since he had picked up his second foul, and Stanford’s confidence only continued to grow. Midway through the quarter, as it occurred to me that Stephan had been gone for an awfully long time, I saw him and Terrell hurrying out the exit on the opposite side of the gym. It wasn’t until Monday that I found out what had happened. They got lost. This high school is a confusing place, and I only know where the restrooms are because I’ve used them before. Neither Terrell nor Stephan had. Normally, you’d expect that you would walk out of the gym and the restrooms would be right there waiting for you, but that isn’t the case at Cabrillo High School. We were playing in one half of a double gym. In order to get to the restrooms, you had to go out of our gym and walk around the adjacent gym. Terrell and Stephan wandered around for about five minutes before they figured this out, and then they still had to take care of the bloody nose. By the time he returned and checked back into the game there was less than a minute left in the half.

By this point our lead had shrunk from seventeen to twelve, and I was a bit concerned. I can’t say that I was worried about losing, but I was very aware that if Stanford was able to get any closer before halftime, they might start thinking that they had a chance. Hoping to get a few quick baskets and possibly push our lead back to sixteen or even eighteen, I immediately had the boys switch back to full-court man-to-man when Stephan came back into the game. The move backfired. Anytime you pressure end-to-end, there’s an inherent risk of getting beat for easy lay-ups. Over the course of a game this is expected, but the long term benefits of turnovers and fastbreaks outweigh this concern. During the final fifty-five seconds of the second quarter, however, our pressure was sloppy, and we gave up two quick fastbreak layups without answering back. Our halftime lead was cut to eight, and we had a game.

I was mildly concerned at this point, but I was absolutely certain that we’d come out in the second half and play more like we had in the first quarter than the second. The boys, however, were down. What had been so easy in the opening eight minutes had suddenly become a struggle, and their confidence had disappeared. The three of us coaches quickly reminded them that everything would be okay. Our offense had become too reliant on the outside shot, but we could easily remedy that. We would be fine, I told them. Re-energized, on our way to the championship game, we took our eight-point lead back to the court for the second half.

Stanford picked right up where they left off. The half time score was 33-25, and they caught us and went ahead a few minutes in at 34-33. As they grew closer and finally passed us their fans grew louder and louder, and I hated them for it. I hated those parents who were doing nothing more than cheering for their sons. Let me explain. Our parents tend not to be as involved or supportive as those from some of the other schools in the district. Stanford Middle School sits in an upper-middle class neighborhood. Though it is only ten miles away from our school, it might as well be in a different world. The parents act the way parents are supposed to act. They come to all of the games, and during the playoffs they bring along aunts and uncles and grandparents. They cheer loudly with love and enthusiasm, just the same as my parents did when I was a child. Our parents, while loving their children just as much, don’t always offer the same support. Many work evenings and don’t have the type of jobs where it’s okay to take off an hour or two early on a Wednesday evening for the luxury of attending a basketball game. Others are at home, but might not have transportation. It can also be difficult for some of the single parents to juggle their younger children long enough to make it out. For some, sadly, the game just isn’t a priority. As a result, I’d guess that fewer than half of my players had parents in the stands.

But there’s more to it than that. While the Stanford parents tend to offer quiet, almost polite, encouragement when things are going poorly for their team, they pick up immediately at any sign of hope, giving their sons a wave of support on which to ride. It’s not quite the same with our parents. Even though they’re usually outnumbered, they can be extremely vocal, especially when things aren’t going well. But their encouragement tends to be negative -- almost scolding -- and it’s always peppered with insults hurled at the referees. They are certainly as involved as the more “normal” parents, but the noise they make tastes a little different than what’s coming from the other side of the bleachers, if that makes any sense.

And so it was on Wednesday night. These Stanford parents were doing exactly what they were supposed to do. Exactly what Leslie and I will be doing for our children in a few short years, and yet still I hated them. I hated them for being what my players’ parents were not.

While the Stanford players were riding this wave, my boys were drowning in it. The lead swelled to six, and I burned a timeout to stem the tide. As my team came to the sidelines, they were tired and dejected. It took a few seconds to focus them, but once I got their attention, I made one thing clear: “We are going to win this game!” It wasn’t exactly Krzyzewski to Laettner in ‘91, but they bought it. We broke the huddle and scored six straight points to tie the score at 40, and the game was back on.

When my team lost that lead against Hughes three years ago, I think that it was partially because they were afraid of losing. I saw nothing of that in my team against Stanford. One image that I will never forget was that of Bernard getting low on defense, firing up himself and his teammates. Looking at him, I was certain we would win. When we opened up a 48-44 lead with three minutes to play, I was even more certain. But we wouldn’t score again. Our offense sputtered, and I considered calling a timeout, but decided against it. We’re usually at our best on the run, better than most teams at responding to changing game situations, so I felt that calling timeout would actually help Stanford. The boys were on their own, but I felt good about it. Once Stanford caught us at 48, the two teams traded empty possessions until Jesse was fouled with a minute left on the clock. I felt uneasy as he stepped to the line; it wouldn’t be until the next day that I’d remember that he had hit two critical free throws in the closing seconds to beat Hamilton back in November. Two free throws here could propel us to a championship, but it didn’t happen. He missed his first shot, then tried to adjust on the second and shot an airball. (Right there would’ve been a good spot for a timeout, but I didn’t take one.) Stanford then took the ball down and as soon as they crossed center court I realized that they would hold the ball for the final shot. We were still in a zone, so they were able to burn the clock down before taking a twelve-foot jumper with ten seconds left on the clock. Net. By the time I could get a time out, only seven seconds remained and the gym was going crazy.

It took much longer to bring my boys back to the game. Some of them had already given up, but I was able to bring them back by telling them that nothing had changed -- I still believed that we would win the game. I gave them a few things to look for in their half court set, encouraged the big guys to look for a rebound, and I sent them back out.

As we inbounded the ball, Jesse was surprizingly wide open. My biggest fear was that we wouldn’t be able to get the ball in bounds, or that we’d throw it away, so I was incredibly relieved when I saw the ball in the hands of Jesse, probably our best open-court player. He took two dribbles towards the hoop and pulled up for a ten-footer, a shot he’s made all season long. The next morning I would praise him for the courage he showed in taking that shot, with the season riding on its arc towards the basket. Sadly, the ball bounced off both sides of the rim and fell into a Stanford player’s hands as the final buzzer sounded. Stunningly, our season was over.

In the past I’ve sometimes described moments as surreal, but I don’t think I ever really knew what that meant until that horn sounded. I remember a game in the NCAA tournament four years ago when Larry Eustachy’s #2 seeded Iowa State team lost an opening round game to #15 Hampton. Jamaal Tinsley missed a layup that would have won it at the buzzer for the Cyclones, and as chaos engulfed the court, Eustachy wandered around looking completely lost, waiting for someone to shake him awake and tell him that it had all been just a dream. If you can remember that moment, then you know how I must have looked in those first few moments. Stunned disbelief. And it was more than just one shot that went in and one that didn’t. It was as if in that instant the entire game washed over me, the dominant first quarter, the sluggish second, the evaporated lead, two months of hard work, the Hughes game from three years earlier, fourteen years of coaching. Everything all at once, and all I could think was, “It’s happened again.”

My players snapped me back to reality. A few boys were kicking over their chairs, and a couple others were banging their fists against the partition which stood behind our bench. Tears were already flowing, and we still had to shake hands with the team that had just ripped our hearts out. How do you do that when you’re fourteen? How do you do that when you’re thirty-five? We lined up and slowly filed past the line of Stanford players, all of whom showed considerable class by muting their celebration for the minute that it took to shake our hands. Stanford’s head coach, however, didn’t join the line, and I never saw him after the game. Nothing happened during the game to warrant a snub, and I’m sure he was just swept up in the moment, but I still will neither forgive nor forget the slight.

The negative fall out began immediately. Even before we shook hands, an angry father of one of my players came storming across the court to get his son, Darryl. Earlier in the season he had complained to me that Darryl should be playing more, and Darryl hadn’t gotten off the bench in this game either. I couldn’t quite make out what his dad was saying, but I did hear “bullshit” repeated several times, which was nice. He wanted to take Darryl home before we had a chance to talk as a team, but I wouldn’t let him go.

When we met behind the partition, suddenly alone in the silence of our defeat, it took a moment before I could say anything. All of us were crushed. Middle school students are famously described as being caught in the middle, trapped between childhood and adolescence. Many of the boys sitting before me resembled grown men. Stephan was as tall as I was, DiMarrie’s chin was framed with the beginnings of a beard, and many of the others were well on their way into manhood. And yet they sat before me weeping like little boys. Stephan’s six-foot-three-inch frame was folded into the gaps in the bleachers, and his body shook with sobbing. Bernard’s face was twisted in an anger that I feared would never fade away, and tears streamed down his cheeks.

There’s an idea that you can learn more in defeat than in victory. Michael Sokolove wrote a book on Darryl Strawberry’s Crenshaw High baseball team that lost in the city championship game, and when I asked him if the Crenshaw boys had learned anything from their loss, he said, “It was a little too devastating to be a good lesson.” Those words came back to me as I looked at my players and tried to gather my thoughts. I knew that there were no words that could make this better, no speech to pump them up. This early, with the pain so fresh, there were no silver linings.

But I did my best to find the words. I told them that I was crushed, but that there was one thing that they had to know. While there were some things that I might have liked to have done differently, in no way was I disappointed at all in anything that any of them had done on the court. I stressed the fickle nature of sports, the fact that in basketball, sometimes the shots don’t seem to fall. I told them that in twenty years I would still remember this game, but I would always be proud of their effort. It’s possible that some of them heard me.

But we were mourning more than just the loss. When you lose in the playoffs, the end comes blindingly fast. One minute you’re all struggling together towards a common goal, and the next minute the season is over. I remember both Mike Montgomery and Mark Few talking about this after their teams lost in last year’s NCAA tournament. As I stood before my team, I was very aware that it might be the last time I addressed them as a group, certainly the last time when my words would really matter. I told them that as much as the loss hurt, the sadness of knowing that we would never play or practice together again was just as great. I told them that I loved them all, and I said a few things about each boy, thanking them for their contributions to the team.

Finally, it was time for the bus ride home and the final indignity. Because of budget constraints, there was only one bus to take both teams home. Fortunately, all of the Stanford players went home with their well-adjusted parents, but their cheerleaders were sitting in the first few rows of the bus as we boarded. The boys all went straight to the back, but Leslie and I took two seats closer to the front. As the cheerleaders babbled vacuously about cell phones and plasma televisions, I began the grieving process.

Stage one, denial. I was still in disbelief. Poor Leslie had no idea what to say, and all I could tell her was, “There’s no way I could possibly describe this feeling.” And so it went.

I skated through stage two, since anger really isn’t my thing, but I set up camp in stage three (bargaining) for quite a while. Consider:

• What if Stephan hadn’t gotten a bloody nose?
• What if he hadn’t missed almost all of the second quarter?
• What if Jesse had made those two free throws?
• What if he had made at least one?
• What if we had scored more than FOUR POINTS in the fourth quarter?
• What if Bernard’s break away lay up had gone down in the fourth?
• What if Stephan hadn’t missed that easy layup in the closing minutes?
• What if we had played man-to-man in the second half? (A question I’ll live with forever.)
• What if I had called a timeout?
• What if we had at least played man-to-man on that final possession?
• What if Jesse had that final shot over again?
• What if we had gotten into overtime?

These questions and many more would spin through my head over the next several days, and many of them still pop up from time to time (by which I mean every ten minutes or so).

But back to the players. Thursday was a difficult day. My conference period is first period, so I was able to spend an hour walking the campus, pulling the boys out of their classes for a minute or two to talk to them one on one. It usually went about the same. I’d arrive at the classroom door to find thirty-four students alert and active, one slumped and despondent. The message I shared was simple: Are you okay? I’m hurting just as much as you are, but please remember how much we accomplished this season. I’m proud of you, and you should be, too. I asked them what they thought would happen if we were to play Stanford again, and they all gave the right answer. When I asked if they thought we’d be able to beat Hughes if we played them on Saturday, some of them even laughed. Finally, I left them with one thought. I told them that even though it would be nice to have something to put on the shelf, you don’t always need a trophy to tell you that you’re the best team in the city. They all liked that, and by the end of the day I almost believed it myself.

In the days that followed, the boys recovered much faster than I did, but the loss seemed to bond us closer together. Bernard is in my fourth period English class, and he doesn’t relate well to adults. Whether the conversation is positive or negative, he would always look away from the speaker. It wasn’t out of disrespect, it was just the best that he could do. Recently, though, I’ve noticed that he looks me square in the eye when I talk to him. It’s similar with the other boys, but I don’t think it’s just because we shared in a failure; it’s because we fought and suffered together.

On that Thursday I had the distinct feeling that no one understood how difficult the loss was. Leslie obviously did, as did my buddy Carlos who had endured the Hughes loss with me three years ago. But I remember being irritated that everyone else in the world seemed to be going about their business as if nothing had happened. Have you experienced this before? A simple question from another teacher: “So did you guys play that game last night?” Or from my mom on Friday afternoon: “Whatever happened in your game this week?” We lost. “Well, you had a good run.”

Did you play that game? A good run? Innocent comments like this drove me crazy, but whenever I passed one of the boys in the hall, we didn’t need to say anything, because we had been there together.

Saturday morning was also particularly hard for me. After fixing breakfast for my children, I stood at the kitchen sink washing dishes and watching the clock. It was nine o’clock, and I knew in my heart that I was supposed to be in the gym at Jordan High School getting ready to play for the city championship. I briefly considered going to the game, but decided that it would probably just make me ill. I couldn’t imagine sitting in a crowd of people misguided enough to think that they were watching a legitimate championship game. (Hughes would win.)

Things are slowly getting better. I'm getting closer to the point where I'll be able to accept the game as an aberration, a situation where our rim just seemed to have a lid on it while theirs opened up like the Pacific Ocean. These things happen in sports. I do my best to remember the aesthetic beauty of that perfect first quarter and the sheer joy of my players as they sat on that pinnacle. I try not to dwell on the rest of the game. Leslie has helped tremendously, listening patiently as I blather on about every last detail of the game. Teachers at school have been incredibly supportive, and they all remind me that we had a great season. I ran into Nate Archibald today, and when I told him about the game and how I would probably never get over it, he and his assistant coach smiled and shook their heads in sympathy. Then he said, “You and I are in the business of teaching and reaching kids. It’s not always about winning.”

Two days before the game I got an e-mail from a boy who played for me eleven years ago. He’s a man now, and he’s a Marine working on the relief effort in Indonesia. We’ve kept in intermittent touch over the past decade, but this was our first contact in two or three years. In his e-mail he wrote, “You have no idea how much you impacted my life.” I was touched by his words at the time, but a few days later they meant even more. I realized that even if we had won a championship back when he was playing for me, my impact on his life would not have been greater. I was reminded of why I coach, and it isn’t really for winning championships. I think that I’ve given these boys something which will last them longer than a trophy or a ribbon.

But of course, a championship wouldn’t have been a bad thing.