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Tuesday, February 05, 2013

The Rec League Chronicles

I've posted from time to time about my experiences coaching my son's team in the recreational basketball league.  I've coached with the same friend for six years, and up until this year we won about 80% of our games.  Each year, the league assigns you a time, so the only guarantees are that we get our own kids.  In fourth grade, we were undefeated.  In the fifth grade, we got to the finals and lost.  Last year, we won 75% of our games with a small, inexperienced team and got to the Round of 8.  This year. . .

The league asked for kids' height on the sign-up forms, only not to provide the heights to the age group's commissioner when he formed the teams.  Some teams's members look like Harry Potter's Hagrid, while others' -- such as ours -- resemble the 7th and 8th grade versions of hoops' Lilliputians.  For starters, we're small.  The league then have to move two brothers -- very good players -- from our roster because of a scheduling conflict and replaced them with two very nice boy's whose abilities pale in comparison.  So, when we boiled it down, we have 3 of 10 players with a solid understanding of the game, 6 of 10 who are good athletes, and 4 -- all nice kids -- who don't know the traveling rule, don't know that you have to take the ball behind the baseline after the other team scores, haven't watched much basketball and are there for the team spirit and exercise.

So how do you coach such a team with only one hour of practice a week?  How do you coach a team when you are not always sure you'll get that practice, because you're hostage to the school district's calendar and with holidays and in-service days, the schools aren't always open?  What do you focus on when other teams are much bigger and when they are more skilled?  The league allows all types of defense, which means it's even harder to prepare, because not only might you not have practice, you also won't know whether you're facing a zone or a man-to-man defense.  The league mandates that your top 3 scorers must play in the first quarter and may not play in the second quarter.  Atop that, not every kid shows up for games every weekend because of other commitments or illness (which means that if an opponent were to be missing its worst 2 of its 10 players, they are at an advantage, although that can cut both ways).  Finally, the league has strongly suggested that you play your best five in the second quarter, but time and time again opponents skew their lineups to have their #4 scorer play in the first quarter to help open up a lead. 

Got all that? 

Of course, it's the rec league, and we're not playing for titles (really, although there are playoffs) or money, we're playing for fun, for teaching the game and to encourage the kids to get better.  We coaches can learn from them as much as they learn from us.  Our basic premise -- at least on our team -- is to work on fundamentals, teach a few of the game's finer points and try to connect with each kid to help him improve.  For the best players and the good athletes, we try to work on their team work, their "complete" game (translated:  throw bounce passes, screen, make your teammates better).  For those who don't know the game, we try to get them to work on something each week -- getting set for a good shot, defending better, rebounding better or moving without the ball better.  Right now, we're a game below .500.

Two weeks ago, we had a tough situation.  We didn't have the gym available, and we we're coming off a game where we were missing four kids, three because of flu and one because of injury.  We were scheduled to play the league's best team, and a big team at that.  We play four eight-minute quarters, and we lost by 21.  With four and a half minutes to go, my son, our second-leading scorer in that game, sat next to me on the bench.  He asked, "Dad, what are you thinking?"  I responded in a whisper, "That this game cannot end fast enough."  He laughed, and it was a funny father-and-son moment, but not one that I'd like to repeat.  Sure, the other team was better, but we didn't help ourselves.  They zoned us, and kids didn't move without the ball, they threw chest passes against the zone (many of which got intercepted), tried dribbling against the zone (sometimes going one on three, which guaranteed a bad shot or turnover) or dribbling, back first, against the zone, guaranteeing that a crafty defender could steal the ball.  They also generally had trouble creating space.

It would have been one thing if we played our best and got drubbed, but that didn't happen, and because that didn't happen the game spurned on my creativity.  I thought hard about the team's deficiencies and devised a practice to help address some of the shortcomings.  First, I created a "dribble drive" drill, in which I had a dribble go one-on-three as far as he could against a zone we instructed to collapse, only to have him turn and find two shooters whom we stationed on the perimeter, who could rotate closer to the ball to get an open look (the dribbler was instructed to pass the ball back to the shooters).  Second, we worked on some quick, bounce-passing drills, designed to have the passers make effective passes against a collapsing defense.  Third, we did a pick-and-roll drill.   Fourth, we worked on "jab step" and pump fake drills, designed to enable the ballhander to get his defender to take a few steps the wrong way.  Fifth, we walked our players through an offensive set, instructing each with a few guiding principles regarding moving without the ball.  It was a 55-minute practice, but it was the best we can do.

So what happened? 

Admittedly, our opponent this past weekend wasn't as good as our opponent the prior weekend, but you play who you play.  We were trailing by two near the end of the first quarter with about 10 seconds to go.  My son had the ball, and we yelled to him to take it as far as he could and shoot it.  So what did he do?  He took it as far as he could, but pulled the "dribble drive" drill out, took a few defenders with him, penetrated near the paint, and then executed a perfect chess pass to a teammate, who nailed a three before time expired.  In the second quarter, a player who the week before was prone to go one on three against a zone, hit a slashing teammate with a nifty bounce pass for a layup.  And, best of all, a kid who had scored one basket all season took in all the techniques, got open and was 4-5 on three-point shot attempts.  He worked to get open and shot the lights out. 

How did that happen?  Because each week it seemed that there were two kids -- the kid who showed flashes that he knew the game and the kid who was nonchalant, who didn't defend well, chewed gum and didn't give his best effort.  So every now and then I took him aside and said, "You know the game, but you cannot expect it to come to you.  You have a decent shot, but you have to work hard to get open.  And if you get open, take the shot."  Truth be told, his shooting style is a bit unorthodox (he shoots from over his head), and one of the shots seemed to be a bit of a brick (a laser that hit the backboard and banked -- hard -- through the hoop).  No matter, because sometimes you take good shots and they go in and out.  For this boy, he'll have a game to remember for the rest of his life.

As for the team, it grew the 1-point lead after one to a 9-point lead at the half, only to give most of it back after the third quarter.  Then, our fundamentals kicked in.  We defended better, moved without the ball well, rebounded better than all season and hit key shots when we had to, all for a comfortable victory. 

Okay, so we're not the most talent team, but what the boys proved after the drubbing they took a few weeks ago is that they forgot about the bad things quickly, focused on what they needed to work on, concentrated better and won a winnable game and finished strong.  There's an old saying, "practice well, play well," and I think it held true for this past weekend.  The kids know that they need to improve, and we gave them some principles that they could put into motion to win a game.  It was great to see the resilience after a bad week, and it was great to see the effort in practice get rewarded.

Best of all, it was great to see a wide smile from a kid we were not sure we connected with, a kid who, at least that very day, was a rec league hoops version of the "Little Engine That Could."  This particular weekend, this engine believed in himself and kept believing in himself.  I'd like to think that our encouragement helped, but in the end, he was the one who had to step up and make the plays.  That -- and the team play -- were great to watch.

The morale of the story and the season?  Do the best with what you have, play hard and don't give up.  Sure, other teams might be bigger and have more talent.  We cannot control that.  What we can control is our will, our level of effort and our execution.  That's what the kids learned this weekend, and they learned it well.


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