One of the underrated negative aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the loss of high school athletics for many in this country. Reading about the plight of this year’s athlete has inspired me to reflect on my so-called athletic career. On my first day of high school, my English teacher, Mrs. Douglass, told us that there was a strong chance that we would meet people that year that would attend our wedding in the future.
She wasn’t wrong. In my first week of high school, I met my future best man at my wedding, and another future attendee at my wedding: my high school basketball coach.
First, a little backstory. My freshman year I was cut from the junior varsity basketball team. My sophomore year I made the JV team and played sparingly. Hope looked slim for my varsity chances during the upcoming junior year. Coach K, whom I had briefly met freshman year, was appointed the varsity men’s basketball coach prior to my junior year after serving as a women’s assistant the prior two years. Thanks to a few fortuitous transfers and a modest improvement on my part, I was the last player kept on the varsity team my junior year. Here are some lessons I learned from him:
1. Demand more from yourself
During our first week of practice my junior year, Coach K told us that his goal was to be one of the most demanding people we ever met. During this same junior year, I played exactly 0 minutes of important basketball. I only entered the game if we were winning by a lot or losing by a lot. Nonetheless, that did not deter Coach K was acting like I was Kevin Garnett (Coach is a diehard Celtics fan) preparing for Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
My classmates were surprised to see me limping into class, bruised and battered from basketball – wasn’t I the last player off the bench? He did not care that I was not going to play a meaningful minute of basketball for him that year. I was on his team, so I deserved to get coached just as hard as the rest of the players earning the lion’s share of minutes.
2. Master the fundamentals
Every single day of practice under Coach K began the same way: 10-15 minutes of the dreaded ‘shell drill’. It’s a simple drill designed to reinforce common defensive concepts and help players understand their defensive positioning depending on where they are in the court. His philosophy was that defense wins championships and that thinking on the court reduces your speed. If we drilled the proper defensive positioning in practice every day, then we could let instinct and athleticism take over in the games.
In addition to our daily shell drill, we also had drills focused on the most basic of fundamentals: how to properly throw a bounce pass, every single kind of pivot, and how to set different kinds of screens. His constant message to us was that it didn’t matter what type of plays we ran or what press defense we had if we couldn’t master the fundamentals first.
3. Out-prepare everyone
In addition to the fundamentals we practiced, if we were preparing for a particular opponent the next day, we would spend a segment of practice dedicated to that upcoming team’s best players and plays. Our scouting reports included the standard items (the other team’s best player, best shooter, etc.) as well as extremely detailed items (sideline out of bounds plays the other team ran in late game situations)
In fact, some of my most vivid memories from my high school days were when an opposing coach would call out a play (“Box!”) and Coach K would whistle and rapidly spit out what they were about to do and how we should defend it: “It’s the screen the screener play! Abe, lock and trail! Jake, fight through the screen! No threes!”
Years after my career ended, as we both sat down to catch a weeknight high school basketball game, I asked Coach how he managed it all (at the time, he was an Athletic Director, Head Women’s Coach, and Assistant Men’s Coach at one of the larger public schools in the state) He looked at me in his inimitable way and said: “I guess I’m just a grinder, Abe.”
4. Compete in everything you do
During the next spring, a few months after my junior season had ended, we began informal workouts. We usually shared the gym with the women’s team and since we were usually left to self-organize, time was usually spent casually shooting around. One day, we decided to have a full scrimmage, but we were 1 player short of the requisite 10. Coach K happened to be in the gym. Coach, who is fairly cross-eyed, took off his glasses and laced up his sneakers.
As the game progressed, our team needed one point to win and Coach managed to steal the ball from one of my teammates. I sprinted ahead with him on a two-on-one fast break. Coach, who always preached making the right play, drew the defender and dished the ball to me.
Unfortunately, likely due to his lack of glasses, the ball went sailing out of bounds. That didn’t prevent Coach from giving me an earful for lack of hustle and hand-eye coordination. It didn’t matter that it was barely the offseason. It was a competition, so he just had to win.
5. Specific feedback drives improvement
Around that same time, Coach took every single returning player individually out to lunch to review the season and offer suggestions on how to improve. I was warned by players who went to prepare myself mentally for the incoming brutal honesty. As I picked out my 5-dollar footlong from Subway, I steeled myself. Coach sat down, and as I scarfed down by sub, and politely let me know that I had to get stronger, improve my shooting, and play better defense in order to see the court next year.
While it stung to hear, it gave me concrete goals to focus on during the summer when we were left to our own devices to workout. That summer, I got up before the sun rose, lifted weights at the YMCA, and kept a food diary to make sure I was hitting my calorie goals. I tweaked my shooting form to make it smoother and more repeatable. I used my sister’s chalk to draw agility dots in my driveway in a futile effort to improve my lateral quickness.
When the school year came around, I could proudly answer Coach’s inquiries about my offseason progress by telling him I gained 18 lbs and improved my shooting (I left out the part about the agility – I never was much of a defender).
6. Pay it forward
During college, I found myself as a 21-year old head coach of the middle school I graduated from a few years previously. The first thing I did once I was hired was to call Coach K. We met at a Moe’s right by my old high school and he walked me through a comprehensive thumb drive of files he prepared for me. It was replete with a list of drills, articles on how to build a winning culture, plays to run, how to manage tryouts and parents. Anything and everything a first-time coach would need.
We spent over 90 minutes in that Moe’s as he patiently walked through his files and made recommendations on how to translate some of the material to the middle school level. He told me to call or email him if I had any questions.
A few months later, when our mighty middle school team managed to secure our league championship, one of the most satisfying parts was receiving his email – “Congratulations. You earned it” – knowing that coming from him, that was very high praise.
I’m one of hundreds of players Coach K has coached throughout the years, and while it’s been well over a decade since I laced up my sneakers and played for him, the lessons he taught me will echo in my mind for more than a decade to come. Thank you, Coach.