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Scenes from Youth Basketball

19 February 2014 By Justin Thau, Columnist No Comments

The 22nd Winter Olympic Games are winding up with a flurry of high-profile medals this weekend. The NBA season is raging on through the dog days of February. College basketball is slowly but surely gathering steam as March Madness fast approaches. Yet, for today at least, I’d rather tell you about my experience coaching youth basketball and the group of kids I’ve come to love.

Back in December, I was given the opportunity to coach youth basketball in Cockeysville. Having no legitimate background in competitive basketball, I took the leap of faith for a few reasons: I’m highly competitive, I’ve always enjoyed watching college basketball (especially this time of year) and I enjoy teaching.

Naturally, I picked up some basketball coaching books, most notably “They Call Me Coach” by John Wooden, the legendary UCLA Men’s Basketball coach that led his teams to 10 national championships during the 1960s and 1970s. I read through his book about halfway and then stopped for some reason I can’t label as anything other than laziness.

I walked into coaching youth basketball thinking I could teach Wooden’s high-post offense to a bunch of kids ranging from 12 to 15 years old. I even convinced myself at one point that I could be the next John Wooden. At the first practice, I attempted to be a professional coach – sprints, practicing UCLA’s offense, the whole nine yards. I even tried to tell myself and the kids that we were going to be like a UCLA team from the 1960s. We were going to be the best team, period.

About four or five games into the season, however, I changed my tone completely. The kids weren’t really trying to grasp any kind of organized offense. Some of them weren’t getting along. I didn’t really feel like anyone was enjoying themselves but merely feeling pressured to be something they weren’t.

And, really, that’s the thing I didn’t see coming this winter – coaching these kids taught me that trying to be someone or something other than you are doesn’t work. It is a perfectionist, unattainable goal that is doomed to be unmet. In the time you spend trying to be someone or something great from the past or present, you could be working on something much more fulfilling, rewarding and inspiring – being the first you.

Once I first realized this idea, I loosened up the team completely. I’d help rebound for kids in shoot-around. I’d practice in full-court scrimmages with them when we were short a player. I would be more laissez-faire than get-your-hands-off-me during the games. At one practice near the end of the regular season, I tried to teach them a play or two using music as a memory enhancer. When it became obvious they just wanted to get that pent up energy out, I joined them for a five-on-five scrimmage.

I just let them be them, really. I let our team organically grow into whatever it was going to be. The only things I’ve continued to stress throughout the season are lessons I’ve learned in life that I wish to pass on. Be there for your friends, be there for your family, and be there for yourself. Remember that you can’t control anyone’s actions other than your own. Believe in yourself and in each other and good things will happen. And, for goodness’ sake, learn to pass the ball once in a while.

Whether or not they know it, they’ve listened. I’ve seen quarrels dissipate into friendships, low self-esteem turn into fearlessness, and a group of kids varying in size, age and ethnicity become family. Really, that’s all I could’ve hoped for.

I’ve come to love all of them. Rudy and his desire to never give up. Brett and his constant belief in hope. Adam and his ability to be tough when the team needs him most. Jevon and his unconscious will to compete. Kade and his tenacity on defense against kids twice his size. Ben and his way of making those around him better. Junior and his love for family, shooting and picking his teammates up. Hunter and his willingness to be aggressive when nobody else will. Kyle and his hustle, style and quiet leadership leading by example.

When the season started, I told them we’d be the best team at the end of the season. After losing in the opening game of a double-elimination tournament this week (in heartbreaking, overtime fashion no less), I still believe we will be. Through all the triumphs and hardships a youth basketball season has to offer (more than you’d think, by the way), we’ve grown together as young men. I hope that this, above all, is what each of these kids takes away from the season.

Believing in those around you and yourself and allowing yourself to be the first you instead of the next somebody else are ideas I will always cherish, and I have these kids to thank for that. Although this may sound like the wrapping up of an obituary, our season has just begun. Whether or not this season is in terms of our ensuing playoff run or the rest of our lives or both remain to be seen. Regardless, it’s time for me to go be me and us to go be us. You go do you, too. The world will be a better place because of it.




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