WHEATLAND – I guess you would call this a sports feature column. As teams all over Wyoming are preparing for the 20-21 basketball season, I am taking a fond look back at over four decades of a passion that has driven me to highest highs and the lowest lows.
If you want to play the game of basketball and you can find the parallels to life itself, then it becomes more than a game. It becomes a teacher. I listened as my teacher taught me about life through an athletic career.
Unlike today’s athletes that begin their sports careers pretty much right out of the womb, I grew up in the era where pickup games in backyards were where teams were formed and driveways were basketball courts.
The first time I ever held a basketball was fifth grade and it’s funny that I remember it was at my best friend’s house on his gravel driveway. The basketball hoop was mounted on angle irons that sat above the garage door. I can also remember that the garage door had windows in it, so we had to have it rolled up when we wanted to play.
Like most things in my life that drove me, failure was a great motivator. I missed the first shot I ever took. Yes, funny I can remember that but I can’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning. I got cut from the first team I ever tried out for. I lost the very first game I coached.
You can see a pattern here. Because of my competitive nature, I didn’t take kindly to losing. Whether it was a game, a test or a bet. Beat me the first time, you have my attention. You also now have my commitment to try and never let it happen again.
But of course, it does. Happen again. The key to success is to never let it have the final word. Still to this day I preach to my athletes about the importance of always hitting the last shot before you leave a court.
I wrote a book of inspirational prose for my athletes somewhere around 10 years ago. One quote from that book always sticks with me. “Whenever I leave a basketball court, I make sure that the last shot I take is one I make. On my final golf hole of the day, I will never accept a “gimme.” It is imperative that I hear the ball hit the bottom of the cup for that hole. And on my run, I make sure I am sprinting at the finish. Tomorrow may not give me another shot, but it will leave me with the memory of the last one I took today. Finishing prepares you to be ready for tomorrow.”
My coaching journey was a window to a door that had closed. I broke my neck after my freshman year in college and the doctors said that I would be a quadriplegic for the rest of my life. It caused a major assessment of how I had lived up to that point. I wasn’t impressed.
As for me, tell me what I can’t do and I’ll show you what I can do. After I was told that all athletics were off limits for the rest of my life due to the injury it seemed as if the door was closed and locked. But no sooner than I heard the slamming, there was a sliding sound of a window being opened to coach basketball. In 1975 I coached my first basketball team. Parks and Rec. Seventh graders. We won the league championship and I was hooked.
From that springboard, I picked up a coaching minor at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire and by the time I was a senior, I was not only playing again, but I had a better understanding of the game as I had four years of coaching under my belt. I was invited to play and coach for the Canterbury Bankstown Bruins in New South Wales in what was then, their National Basketball League.
I have gone on to be able to work with some incredible coaches including John Wooden and Jim Valvano. Steve Kirk who was the head coach of the Nebraska Wranglers in the old professional women’s basketball leagues was also one of my college coaches, and so when an opening came up to coach the Minnesota Fillies, I was given that opportunity. NAIA Hall of Fame college coach Ken Anderson who was my collegiate coach gave me a great foundation of the game, and friend and mentor, ESPY award-winner and Hall of Fame coach Don Meyer who coached at both Lipscomb and South Dakota State gave me more about the game of basketball and how to coach it than any other coach I’ve ever had.
He was strict, he told it like it was and one time told me that I needed to change my team’s name from the Norsemen to the Possums. When I asked why, he said, “because your team plays dead at home and gets killed on the road.”
So, I started with a junior high team, and have since coached my own kids in elementary ball, I have coached both girls and boy’s varsity basketball, I coached men’s JV college and have coached at the famed 5-Star Basketball Camps in Pittsburgh and Louisville. In addition, I was invited to coach at the national team camps in Scotland.
I was inducted into the V-300 club of the Basketball Coaches of Michigan Hall of Fame in 2011.
By far the greatest privilege was coaching my own kids, each who adopted my love for basketball, but greater than that, they have gone on to be successful off the court.
I had the privilege of coaching many kids in my life and one team especially stuck out. They were a challenge, but as with all my teams, we became family. At the end of the first season coaching them, they all donated their shoelaces to a mother of one of my players who in turn strung them and braided them all together to spell out the word, “coach” and mounted it on a plaque which still hangs in my office today. It was so I’d always have a piece of them with me. And they have been with me ever since.
The last time I officially coached was 2017 when my youngest son was graduating from high school. This year marks my 45th year as a coach. As a gift, I was asked to help out with the basketball program at Wheatland High School. Not only is it an honor to work with young and talented coaches, but they have breathed upon the embers of a career that evidently is not quite done yet.
The game has changed and evolved in ways that I couldn’t even imagine when I started back in the ‘70s. I coached all over the world in big arenas and in snowy backyard driveways. One thing that has not changed is the passion that some kids still have for the game.
When you find one that is coachable, it’s like finding a diamond in the rough. I’ve won some games in my career and I’ve also lost some. That happens and comes with the territory. I always teach two main things, neither are how to keep track of their accolades or their defeats.
In their career, when I meet a team for the first time, I always tell them that when it’s all said and done, I don’t want their Huddle Stats. I want to know, first of all, what have you learned about the game that has prepared you for life? And secondly, did you make a difference rather than just making an appearance.
I remind them of those two questions as I say goodbye to my seniors each year in our final “coffee and exit interview.” If they can answer those two questions, then I’ve done what I was called to do as a coach.
The other day a kid I coached back in the ‘70s tracked me down and told me that he had been coaching for 20 years. Yes, that did make me feel ancient. He told me, “I still ask myself each night before I go to bed, what have I learned today and did I make a difference.”
It’s conversations like that that make things make sense as to why I was chosen to walk the path I’m on and to work with the kids I’ve worked with. Perspective that never came from the scoreboard, but from the heart of those who were touched by the game.
Perhaps in five years I will hit the half-century mark in a Bulldog gym. Or perhaps a playground where a pickup game is forming and I return to my roots. But either way, I will still be asking myself those questions.