Monday, March 20, 2006

Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before


The Prologue

I suppose I could start with last year's disappointment, or I could even reach back four years to my first semifinal loss, but I'm not so sure that there's much point to that anymore. I just read the obituary I wrote following last year's loss, and the parallels are obvious, but there are enough differences for this game to stand alone.

Our journey to the game started strangely enough when the bus driver told us that instead of taking us straight to the neutral high school court as he was supposed to, he would instead be taking us along as he picked up our opponents. Can you imagine LSU and Florida sharing a charter to Indianapolis next weekend? Doubtful. And to make matters more interesting, he got us lost on the way to Hoover and then took several interesting turns as he navigated a questionable route from Hoover to Cabrillo High School. Our fifteen minute ride had turned into almost an hour. It wasn't too painful, though. The boys managed to talk amongst themselves without saying anything stupid to to the other team, and I spent the trip making small talk with the Hoover coach.

When we finally arrived at the gym we walked into the early moments of the third quarter of the first semifinal game, a tight match-up between Washington and Hughes, polar opposites that are only twenty blocks apart geographically, but worlds apart in all other ways. Although we had defeated Hughes easily in our third game of the season, controlling a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the eleven-point spread might have indicated, and Washington had rolled through their league with a perfect 5-0 record, I still expected Hughes to win this game easily.

Watching the two teams play, I was decidedly unimpressed. (Does this sound familiar?) The game was tense and closely fought, not decided until the final seconds, but when Hughes finally won, I was fairly certain that if we were lucky enough to get past Hoover, we’d be okay in the finals. I wasn’t overlooking Hoover, just thinking ahead a bit.

As Washington and Hughes cleared the floor and we started warming up for our game, I noticed the two referees who were getting ready to call our game, and I wasn’t pleased. I turned to Leslie and said, “Great, we’ve got these two knuckleheads.” One of them was the head of officials, a nice enough guy who’s several years past his prime, and the other was a guy who’s simply not very good. Neither has any business officiating a playoff game. Unfortunately, they would be a factor.

The Game

The game started slowly as both teams were a bit tentative in the opening quarter. Hoover surprized us by playing man-to-man defense, something we hadn’t seen from them either when we played them or when I watched them play their opening playoff game. We hadn’t worked on our man-to-man offense in at least two or three weeks, so we were tentative in our half-court set, but I thought we'd get more comfortable as the game wore on.

Our full court press began paying dividends in the second quarter. When we played Hoover the first time, our press was in its infancy, a much more rudimentary form of what we were now capable of. This time we were able to force several turnovers and score several easy baskets. We opened the period with a 14-0 run, giving us a 22-9 lead, and Hoover was showing no indication of being able to navigate our press well enough to survive. They closed the half well, however, and our lead had been cut to seven by the break.

Hoover opened the second half well and quickly sliced into our lead. We were having trouble scoring against their half court defense, and since we weren't scoring we weren't getting very many opportunities to press. Hoover outscored us by ten points in the third to establish a three-point advantage that seemed to stick for the rest of the game.

Throughout the fourth quarter we were never quite able to gain any momentum, and there were several reasons for this. First, Hoover was absolutely dominating the boards. We were the smallest team on the court in all but one of our games this year, but we were usually able to make up for this with superior athleticism. In our first game against Hoover, for example, we had owned the boards. On that occasion, however, Hoover was playing a zone, and we were able to exploit the gaps in their defense to get to the rim for offensive rebounds. On this night their man defense was making it easier for them to box us out, negating our athletic advantage.

The second problem was the officiating. I hesitate to blame officials for a loss, and if pressed I'd have to admit that the main reasons for this defeat were our poor rebounding and offensive execution, but travesty of the two officials cannot be ignored. There were two problems, really. In the first half we were doing what we normally do, taking the ball hard to the rim. We were getting fouled, and the officials were calling the fouls, but at least three times in the second quarter they inexplicably indicated that the foul was not on the shot, meaning we would get the ball out of bounds instead of sending the shooter to the free throw line. There was no doubt in my mind that these were bad calls, made perhaps because these two officials were both rather old and not in touch with how the game has changed. I wasn't looking for the type of continuation normally given in the NBA, but when a player is bumped as he's going up for a shot, he should go to the line without question. This didn't happen.

But things got worse. In the second half we continued driving the ball into the key only to discover that the officials had suddenly swallowed their whistles. Jesse was clearly fouled on several different drives to the basket, but the officials ignored the contact. Our point guard Markes, the smallest player on the floor, was knocked to the floor on three separate occasions after penetrating the lane in the second half, but no foul was ever called.

I always teach my players that they should expect officials to make an occasional mistake just as they expect that they will miss an occasional shot. Officiating is a part of the game, and it's usually best to look at the referees as variables beyond your control. All of that sounds good when you're standing in an empty gym on the evening before your first game, but when the adrenaline is pumping and your season is on the line, things look quite different. When an official makes a call that goes against you, a call that you know in your ultracompetitive heart to be wrong, the resulting emotion is difficult to explain. Clearly you've been wronged, but it's more than that. It's as if something has been physically taken from you and you know that you'll never get it back. When you're in that moment, there is no greater injustice imaginable.

And so it was on Monday night. At one point after yet another missed call, I called the ref over and mentioned that things were starting to seem a bit tilted in the other direction. I think he must've thought I was suggesting that he was screwing me on purpose, because his head almost exploded. He had become rather sensitive, having already made one trip to our bench to scold one of my assistants for standing up (only the head coach can be up) and another to the stands across the way to quiet our angry crowd. By the time I questioned the tilt of his calls, he was ready to burst into flames. I have several regrets from this night, and one of them is that I wish I had pushed him at this point and told him what I really thought -- that he was too old to be officiating a game of this magnitude. Even if he had given me the technical that I would surely have deserved, maybe it would've made a difference. Maybe he would've looked a bit more closely at what was going on underneath the rim, and maybe things would've turned out a bit differently. But I didn’t push him, and things kept going the way they were.

For most of the fourth quarter we trailed by about three points, and I kept waiting for us to force a turnover or two that would trigger a run to put us ahead, but it never came. Finally, with about two minutes left I decided to switch to man to man, but it was a move that smacked of desperation. We had played a 2-3 zone for every single minute of our season up until that point, so it wasn't surprizing that our man defense was less than effective. Hoover stretched their lead out to five and then seven points in the closing minute, and as the final seconds drained from the clock, reality began to set in.

In the days following last year's loss, I told people that I would never again have a team as good as that year's squad, but this year's team was probably better. I had hoped that this team would win the championship that last year's team had missed out on, and during the season I thought often about what it would be like to win a championship. I thought about the people who would come to watch us play in the finals on Saturday afternoon, people who normally weren't able to see us during the week. I thought about what it would be like to watch my boys celebrating on the court after winning, and I imagined what it would be like for them to come to school on Monday, champions returning from battle. All of that washed away in the space of about five minutes.

Before the final buzzer even sounded, as we were lined up to shoot an ironically pointless free throw down seven points with seven seconds to play, Jesse was already crying, and it was in that moment that I understood that this game wasn't really about me. Jesse is a great kid and probably the best player I've ever coached, but he was carrying a self-imposed burden this season. In last year's semifinal game he had been fouled with about a minute to play in a tie ballgame. He stepped to the line and missed both free throws. Our opponents burned much of the clock before hitting a short jumper to take a two-point lead with ten seconds to play. On the ensuing inbounds, the ball found its way into Jesse's hands and he missed an open ten-footer that would've tied the score at the buzzer.

So here we were in the same gym a year later playing a game that was supposed to erase the memory of that defeat, and we had lost again. When I looked at Jesse standing on the court with tears running down his face, I realized that I had really wanted this championship for him, not for me.

The Aftermath

When the game finally ended, the trauma began in earnest. Not surprizingly, the boys were devastated, and they weren't shy about expressing their devastation. Two or three players ripped off their jerseys and threw them down on the court, several boys kicked over chairs, and a handful actually left the gym. As I surveyed the wreckage that had become of my team, one thought came to me as clear as a bell: "What I do now will be more important than anything I've done all season long."

There are lessons to be learned in losing, and it was my job to teach them. The Hoover team was lined up and waiting to shake our hands, so I sent one of my assistants to round up the missing boys. He didn't return, and neither did Jesse and one other boy, which was disappointing. Not wanting to keep Hoover waiting any longer, our incomplete team shook hands, gave halfhearted congratulations, and wished good luck.

When I met up with the Hoover coach, the first thing he said to me was, "It's too bad we couldn't have had some good officials for this game." When our league's commissioner joined our conversation, I gave him my quick assessment of the game: "We got jobbed." He responded that those two referees probably shouldn't be officiating playoff games. (In the hours and days that followed, several people that I respect agreed with my assessment that we had been screwed. When I went to watch the finals on Saturday, people were still talking about it.)

And then I returned to my team. We gathered in a darkened gym that was adjacent to the main gym and I tried for a moment to collect my thoughts before delivering a different version of the same speech I had given in the same place last year. I remembered a regrettable motivational ploy I had used a few days earlier. I had showed up at practice with the plaque that last year's team had earned. It said, "Northern League Champions, Semifinalists." I had told that boys that I was proud of what that team had accomplished, but I ended with this clear statement: "I don't need another plaque like this one." At the time, it sounded like good stuff, the perfect tool to push them towards the finals, but as I stood before these sixteen boys, every single one of them crying, I wished that I could take those words back. That’s where I started.

I reminded them of the plaque speech, but then made it clear that while I was clearly disappointed that we hadn’t won, I was in no way disappointed in how we had played. I told them how much I loved them, how proud I was of what he had accomplished, said a few words about each boy, and all the while wondered if they were listening to anything I was saying.

I wrapped things up after five minutes or so, and I asked the boys to huddle up, hands raised together, for one final time. I told them to be proud of what we had accomplished, and asked one last thing. "This might be the last time we do this, so let's hear 'Eagles' on three -- but I don't want it to be quiet and weak. I want you to say it strong, like men. Now let's go... Eagles on three: one, two, three..." Their response was louder than it had been all season, and it buckled my knees.

With our season now officially over, we headed for our waiting bus. I stopped Jesse to talk with him, and he collapsed into my arms. Tears were still streaming down his face, his body shook with sobbing, and as I held him I started crying along with him. I did my best to comfort him, telling him how proud I was to have coached him, and how glad I was that he would still be sitting in my English class for the rest of the year.

Next I turned to Darren, a reserve guard who usually played but hadn’t on this night. Along with Jesse, he was the other boy who had disappeared when it was time to shake hands with Hoover, so I knew he was hurting. He was still crying, so I put my arm around his shoulders as we walked. I didn’t say anything of substance, certainly nothing I remember now, but whatever I said was apparently enough. Darren put his head on my shoulder, and together we walked to the bus.

All of the Hoover players had gotten rides home with their parents, but since only a few of our boys had family who had made the trip to the game, we returned home as a team. The bus ride home was somber, to say the least. The trip took about twenty minutes, and I didn’t hear a single word spoken the entire time.

I spent that ride and the rest of the night thinking about more than just the fouls that weren’t called, the shots that didn’t fall, and the decisions I didn’t make. I thought about the pain we were all feeling and tried to imagine if there was anything quite like this to be experienced outside of sports. Certainly even the most fortunate among us find their share of disappointment and tragedy in their lives, but the suddenness and finality of a loss like this is something completely different. In our case, twelve weeks of work was defined by how we performed over a thirty-two minute stretch of time on a Monday evening in front of our family and friends, and the disappointment that resulted from our loss hit me on several levels.

Aside from my personal disappointment, I was also overwhelmed with the feeling that I had failed. With each successive win during the regular season, more people began telling me that this was our year, and now I had failed to live up to those expectations. Certainly I had let down my players, but beyond that I had disappointed our entire school. When teachers who weren’t at the game would ask me the next day if we had won, they would naturally express disappointment, offering benign words of sympathy. In my fragile state, though, I would hear criticism in their words, see judgment in their eyes. Intellectually I knew that this was all imagined, but my intellect wouldn’t reassert itself for a few days.

Finally, I thought about my need to win. I remembered watching an interview with Bill Cowher soon after his Steelers won the Super Bowl last month. He spoke about how his disappointment had been so severe after losing the Super Bowl ten years earlier that he hadn’t allowed himself ever to think about what it would be like to win someday. I refused to believe that, thinking that any coach who considered himself to be at the top of his profession (as Cowher must have) would have to think constantly about winning a championship.

But then it occurred to me that like most things in life, coaching is more about the journey than the destination. UConn coach Geno Auriemma described it this way, “Coaching is about those moments when you get it right, whenever that may be. It might be in a game, or it might be in practice, when a kid looks at you and just gets it.” That moment for me came in that darkened gym after all our basketball was done for the season. The time I shared with Jesse and Darren, comforting them as if they were my sons, reminded me of what I was really there for, and it had nothing to do with winning championships.

The Moral of the Story

When the team gathered together in my room for a short meeting the day after the game I told them about how I had awoken that morning at about 5:30, and for the shortest time, probably less than a second, everything was all right -- and then the previous night had come back in rush. I asked if any of them had ever had that experience, and every hand went up. Almost in unison, they said, “Today.”

I talked to them some more about how proud I was of everything we had accomplished together, encouraged them to continue working hard, and promised that I would be there to celebrate when they won a championship in high school. Finally, I told them about what I had said to last year’s team at our season-ending banquet. “Last year I told my team that I didn’t think I’d ever have a team as good as they were, and that I’d never love a group of players as much as I loved them. Well, I was wrong on both counts.”

A few days later I would sit in the stands and watch the championship game, a contest between two teams we had beaten in the regular season, and there was some comfort in knowing that we were at least as good as they were. We might not have won our final game, but we had certainly proved that we were a championship caliber team, and that was something to be proud of. After Hughes won, handling a Hoover team that hadn’t played nearly as well as they had in beating us, I noticed that one of my players, Raynard, was also in the stands. I asked him a simple question.

“Do you remember how easily we beat Hughes?”

And then we both shook our heads, knowing that it easily could’ve been us celebrating at center court. Somehow, though, it was all okay.