My rec league team started its season in mid-November. I remember the night I got my roster, wondering who could defend, who could put the ball in the basket, and whether the team that the league gave me would be any good or not. After the first practice, I could tell that we had a good group of kids, some athletes, some more knowledgeable about the game than others. They paid attention, they practiced hard, and that was all that I could have asked for.
Fast forward three and a half months, and the playoffs began. We were cast as the #4 seed (out of 20 teams), having finished the season at 8-2. We lost to the #1 seed by 6 (although the game wasn't that close) and the #3 seed by 1 (without our more experienced point guard). We beat everyone else by at least 10 points or more, scoring over 30 in each game. Our goals were two-fold --to run the break and get downcourt before the other team could set its defense, and then to run a disciplined offense out of a 1-4 stack. Put differently, we beat who we should have beaten.
We played a team in the first round that won a play-in game to get to the round of 16. We had beaten them soundly during the regular season, something like 40-21, and that was the one game where we could have scored 60 had our players not insisted upon trying to run the break spectacularly after each rebound. We threw the ball away a lot, and we beat a team whose coaches usually ran plays for their own kids, who only passed the ball to each other. Atop that, the two coaches were perhaps the most difficult coaches for the referees to handle.
I make it a habit of wishing the opposing coaches good luck before a game and introducing myself to the officials (no need to this time, as they had officiated at our three previous games). The opposing coaches were on the refs from the jump, arguing that our kids were double-teaming their ballhandler (the rule is that teams must play a man-to-man defense, that switching is permitted but double-teaming is not). The problem with their logic was that they had three players lined up on the foul line between the elbows, spaced about as close together as dominoes, with the result that it was almost impossible for a pass to that area not to be contested by multiple players. To make a long story short, we won 31-22, taking time at the end of the game to clear out on defense to enable a kid on the other team who hadn't scored all year to score a basket. Our kids played a good, crisp game, ran the offense well and defended great. It was a good first-round win. There were two memorable moments -- first, my son defended a friend who had scored 6 baskets in his last regular-season game and held him to one shot, and, second, at the beginning of the second quarter the lead ref ran by me, shook his head and, gesturing to the other bench, said that he wished the other coaches would leave already (in their last regular season game, those coaches got into an all-out shouting match with the two refs who officiated this game). So, we made it to the round of 8.
We then faced the #5 seed, featuring one of the two tallest kids in the league, a 6' sixth grader with some moves around the hoop. You have to understand that we played on back-to-back courts at the same time another playoff game was taking place, with the result that there were about 18 inches between my shoulder blades and that of a coach of a team in the other game, our kids on the bench had almost no room to sit and one of the out-of-bounds lines was two inches from a wall. The parents had to sit at either end underneath the basket, and the gym was crowded, hot and loud.
As I think I'd written before, the technical rule is that a team's best three players may not play in the first quarter, and the spoken if not written rule is that you play your best five in the second quarter and your worst five in the first quarter. One modification that some coaches make is to ensure that they have 1 or 2 kids who has a few clues about the game play in the first quarter, or else the first quarter could be dreadful and a team could be far behind before the better players get on the floor. Most coaches do a pretty good job with these rules. This game turned out to be a big of a rugby scrum -- we held their second-quarter unit to a single field goal for the entire game and won 21-12. (This team took us out of our offense entirely by denying our entry passes into the post, so we had to change things up a big on offense). We were up 8-2 after the first quarter thanks to the spirited play of a feisty point guard who they couldn't defend, were up 10-2 at the half but only 14-10 after three. Their third quarter unit hit some shots, and we went into the fourth quarter with our biggest player and second-leading scorer having four fouls. We scored a bucket, they scored one and then we scored the final five points to give us the game. It was a hard-fought battle, and that took us to the Final Four.
I was a bit nervous going into the quarterfinal game, because as we walked into the gym the #1 seed, which was undefeated, tall and athletic, lost to the #8 seed by a point, a team that we had pasted about a third of the way into the season, something like 31-17. I was afraid that my players were going to get overconfident, thinking that they dodged a bullet, but thankfully they played well enough to win. The only thing that concerned me was their shooting --they didn't show great habits in some of our shooting drills in practice, and I feared that as we went deeper into the playoffs, we would get fewer fast break opportunities (as the most athletic teams would advance) and, therefore, would have to finish more shots in traffic.
The semifinals presented an interesting issue for us, in that the team we had waxed a) was much improved and b) had its point guard available (he missed the earlier game against us). He's a tall, strong kid whom I had coached two of the three previous years, and what I had recalled was that he didn't pass the ball much. At any rate, the gym was packed, and I gathered the team. I told them that we had a great season, that basketball is a fun game when everyone plays together and doesn't try to do it himself, that they needed to honor their prior victories by going out there and giving me the best 16 minutes (as each kid plays a half) they possibly could. I told them that our gold shirts were symbolic, because gold shines, and each of them had it in him to shine on that night. Vintage Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights.
They went out and played a bad first half, turning the ball over, forcing shots, not switching on defense, and we were down 8-1 after the first quarter and 14-7 at the half. I had called a few timeouts to settle everyone, and the fact of the matter was that a) their size was huring us, b) our kids weren't switching to take on a ballhandler who blew by one of our defenders, and c) we weren't finishing our shots. I told them to stay calm and play their game, and I told the third quarter unit that if they could reduce the deficit to four the fourth quarter unit -- featuring our best players -- would win the game for them. I was pretty relaxed, but, truthfully, our shooting was also killing us. The ball just wouldn't go in.
And then something magical happened. Our third quarter unit -- featuring our younger players -- figuring out that they needed to switch before they heard my voice, and they defended voraciously. And our point guard -- the smallest kid on the team but perhaps the most athletic -- became a one-man wrecking crew. On defense he challenged the other team's point guard on several occasions, had three steals in the quarter and converted each for baskets. You could hear gasps in the gym, because before we knew it, we were up 19-18 with only the fourth quarter to play. It proved to be quite a battle, that quarter, with great defense, tough rebounding, a few missed shots inside, but our leading scorer hit a nifty runner with under a minute to go and we fended them off, winning 25-24. We were headed to the finals.
We were hoping to play the #3 seed, the team that had beaten us by a point early in the season, but that was not to be. The #2 seed, which hadn't played the #1, #3 or #4 (us) seeds during the season, beat the #3 seed by about 12 points. The #3 seed had several good shooters and, as icing on the cake, an outstanding fifth grade travel player who wasn't required to play in the second quarter and who could play in the first quarter because he wasn't one of his team's top three scorers.
Facing this great team, we had a few disadvantages. First, our leading scorer had a longstanding pre-existing commitment to a travel tournament for his best sport, so he was out. (Our first/third quarter point guard decided that he didn't like soccer any more, so he backed out of that tournament to play for us -- even after I told his parents that I understood commitments and fully expected him to play soccer). Then, our second-leading scorer and tallest player showed up at the championship game yesterday under the weather -- his mother told us that he had been battling a stomach bug the night before and that morning. Put simply, he looked pale, sweaty and doing his best to keep his head up.
Finally, our charms ran out. Our opponents -- with the fifth-grade travel player leading the way in the first quarter, got off to a 9-0 lead, and that was pretty much it from there. (I still wonder what if I had adjusted my lineups to break-up the 1/3, 2/4 lineups that I had gone with much of the year to adjust to his playing in the first quarter, but I'm not sure that it would have made that much of a difference). Our boys battled back valiantly, but we just couldn't put together a run. We didn't switch as well on defense as we had in the prior games (a tribute, also, to their speed), and we missed too many makeable shots, something that I had diagnosed from our shooting drills in practice, where the kids just weren't as crisp shooters as I had been used to). We executed at least 6 plays to perfection, only to have our players miss their shots. In the end, we lost by 16, our worst loss of the year.
It was, though, a great season. My goal was to get the team to the Final Four, and we did that. We reached the finals with a nice group of kids that got along well, supported one another and listened to their coaches. The kids played hard, they learned more about the game, and they improved their skills. The great thing was to see the best sixth graders play so hard and encourage everyone else -- their leadership had everyone else on the team wanting to keep up, and that factor almost alone made the team so much easier to coach.
Sure, we lost in the championship game, but sometimes the shots don't fall, and sometimes the other team is just better. There's nothing wrong with that, that's all a part of the game. What made me feel very satisfied, though, was the way the boys conducted themselves throughout the season, the way they played with poise and dignity, the way they battled on each possession, and the way they approached the game. After four months, it was time for the season to end, as it's time for the kids to move onto their other sports. But I'll remember these kids and their parents for a long time -- for their good spirits, their good habits, their enjoyment of the game, and their receptiveness to me and my fellow coaches. I coach for the ability to teach skills and transfer my love of the game to the kids, and I did just that. The teaching part is the most compelling -- there's not much you can do on game day except to yell "hands up", "switch" or call out the plays. But it's the interaction, talking to kids, helping build their confidence, challenging them to try to develop a new skill, that keeps a coach coming back year after year.
Again, we lost in the championship game, a pretty good accomplishment when you think about it. But, at this age group, we won, too, in so many ways other than the final score on the scoreboard. And that's what makes a worthwhile season.