“My car can jump higher than you can.”
My middle school basketball coach bellowed that at a practice one afternoon nearly a decade ago. You won’t be surprised that my playing career never quite…took off.
Perhaps out of pity — perhaps because I could remember the plays — Mr. F kept me on his team. And while I never helped him win a basketball game with my play on the court, we developed a friendship that lasted even after I moved on to high school and college.
In May, Mr. F invited me to join him as an assistant coach in a summer basketball league for middle and high school girls.
I had grand visions. With slicked back hair like Pat Riley I would pace the sidelines, scheming unbeatable defenses.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I soon learned the first rule of coaching: you can’t set up a full court trap when your players are crying.
With less than a minute remaining in an early-season contest, our team was trailing by four. Hoping to put some points on the board, we subbed in our best three-point shooter. But when a turnover delivered the ball to the other team, we took her out in favor of a stronger defensive player.
Our young sharpshooter didn’t understand—she figured she had done something wrong. As she returned to the bench, tears began to trickle down her cheeks.
I have never been so intimidated by a 12-year-old girl. (Well, at least not since 7th grade school dances.). As an assistant coach I expected to draw X’s and O’s — not to comfort crying preteens.
Even my tactical suggestion to clog the paint was being thwarted by an opposing three-point shooter.
And I wasn’t even vocal enough. A referee took me aside and advised, “You need to yell at me more.”
It probably wasn’t all my fault, but our team didn’t play well. After a 2-1 start, we dropped five straight and slipped into last.
I wish I could tell you that we turned things around in time for the playoffs, won the championship, and celebrated with a pizza party. Unfortunately reality didn’t cooperate with the standard narrative arc.
But moments before the tipoff of one of our final contests, something encouraging happened. Our team’s best player approached me and asked whether I would hold onto her earrings. Of all her friends in the gym that night, she was trusting me — whom she’d known for just six weeks — to guard her studs.
After struggling to find my place on this new team and in this new role, I was starting to fit in.
If Mr. F will take me, I’ll be back next summer.