Recollections of a reluctant kids sports coach

Kids BasketballThree years ago I volunteered to coach my sons' team in the local basketball league, for the usual reason men coach — because none of the other fathers would do it. I begged and snivelled and pleaded, but they all backed away slowly, their mouths filled with creative excuses. One guy told me it was my moral responsibility to coach the boys because not one but two of the boys were my sons, so there.

So I coached that first year, and then again the following year because none of the other fathers would do it and I had a year's experience anyway. I coached again last year because, heck, I have always been the coach for as long as anyone can remember. Partly as a way to try to stay sane I have kept notes about certain adventures and misadventures.

There was the time I started practice by making them run laps and then got into an interesting discussion with a dad about grilling fish and forgot about the boys until one of them threw up after running 30 laps. There was the time my point guard used such foul and reprehensible language to the referee that we had to call two time-outs in a row we were laughing so hard. And the time our centre told me he couldn't play because a girl he had a crush on was in the gym and she was making him all nervous and, could I maybe ask her to leave? And the time we only had four players but won anyway — I thought I was going to have to carry all four boys home after that.

And there was the game we played one time that was as close to perfect as I think I will ever see on this wild sweet holy earth, my boys sprinting and cutting and whipping passes and driving to the hole and not taking wild shots and actually playing defence and hitting the boards in such exuberant fashion that sometime during the second half I leaned back in my rickety folding chair in the echoing elementary-school gym and wanted to cry for reasons that remain murky to me.

There were other reasons to cry. There was a boy with a black eye and bruises who told me he fell down the stairs but when I asked him if his dad was coming to the game he winced. There was a boy whose mum and her new husband sat on one side of the gym and his dad and his new wife sat on the other and the son, a terrific ballplayer, never looked at either his mum or his dad but stared at me with fearsome eyes during time-outs. I could never bear to take him out of the game because it seemed to me that the game was the one place he was happy.

But mostly it's been hilarious and poignant. I have seen some of these boys grow more than a foot taller. I have spent hundreds of hours with them in all the school gyms in our town. I have given speeches at the end of the season about their diligence and grace as I handed out tinny trophies that they love and will probably have all their lives. I have made them run and laugh, which are good things to do.

They have made me listen to their horrendous thumping music which isn't as bad as I thought it would be. We have talked about politics and books and girls and burgers. They have brought me back into the bright redolent funk of gymnasiums and the cheerful tedium of practice and the quivering tension of games. They have brought me back to the sinuous quicksilver geometry of basketball, with its energy and violence and grace and joy and competitive drive, its swing and rhythm and music. They have trusted me and confided in me and wept as I knelt down and looked into their faces and did my best to calm them.

For a while they gave me the extraordinary gift of their company as they went from being goofy boys to lanky young men, and here at the end of the last season I'll ever coach, I find myself savouring every shred and shard of the thing I didn't want to do three years ago. I sit back on my rickety chair and watch them, and the curious thing is that while occasionally now there is a flash of real creativity and grace, the very thing that you watch games for, those moments when brains and bodies flow, it's the egregious mistakes that I will miss the most — the ludicrous shot, the hopeless pass, the hilariously bad defence, the brain-lock moments.

There was one last Saturday, when a kid got the ball, a new kid, a gentle sweet soul who had never played the game before in his life, and he was so excited to actually have the ball and a clear lane to the basket that he ran delightedly to the wrong basket and scored. Everyone cheered and laughed and shook his hand and he blushed and the game flew on ancient and relentless but I sat there shivering with joy.

Brian DoyleBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland magazine at the University of Portland, and the author of The Wet Engine, about hearts, and The Grail, about a year in the life of an Oregon vineyard.



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Existing comments

Basketball fathers of the world unite! A true insight reflective of many of us dads, and this dad in particular. Thanks.
Fulvio Frijo | 27 February 2008

I hope when the crunch time comes he continues to coach. He has the boys' best interests at heart.
michael skennar | 27 February 2008

Thank God for fathers like you who give so much of their love and time to the young!
patricia vaughan | 27 February 2008

Well done Brian. It is no easy task coaching a junior basketball team, especially when you have your own boys playing. I have coached both my son and daughter in their respective teams a few times. I am happily retired now and enjoy sitting with the other parents and watching the fruits of my labour carry on. Last night my son's team won a season final in double overtime. Again, I found myself 'coaching' from my seat ... Maybe I retired prematurely. Once a coach, always a coach?
tim brady | 18 March 2008

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