I don’t know if there are ever any true “endings,” until you die. And from my experience of my dad’s, and even more so my son’s, deaths, for those still here these are not endings, either. Much of my life has been impacted and shaped by their deaths.
Thus, I’ve come to believe sports appeal to us, in part, because they offer finite size and clear, non-negotiable parameters. Games end. Seasons end. You “put them in the books.” You might look back on them wistfully and imagine if only you could do them over again, but done is done. Whistle blows, third out is called, horn goes off, bell clangs, and we have completion. This, along with the temporary experience of focusing solely on the game and putting all of life’s troubles aside for an hour or three, give us a healthy break. Completion feels really good.
This weekend, some of my favorite guys won a basketball game. We won the two-day Kaiser University Seahawks Games high school tournament and brought home the trophy. I love to win, so I enjoyed that. But winning was not the best part.
In the final game, we got behind immediately. We got way behind. We got almost there’s-no-way-we’re-catching-up-now behind. Of course, we all know that when you don’t believe you can win, you can’t. Coaching means helping your team believe they can win when they suspect they can’t. But you can’t believe for them, any more than you can hustle for them or make wise decisions for them. You encourage them to believe, you motivate them to hustle, you instruct them on wise decisions. Then they run out there and play and, as any coach at any level knows, how they play depends on them. They can make great passes or stupid ones. They can dive for the ball or watch it roll past their feet. They can decide that a team is unbeatable, or that they can’t make a shot, or that the person going against them is impossible to defend.
I’ve learned in coaching you can focus effectively on only a few things. If you try to overinstruct, you leave your players confused and everyone frustrated. “But I told them!” I’m a coach of simple things. We do a few drills many times. We practice fundamentals hard. We prioritize effort. We can’t always make the ball go in the hoop but we can always work hard to get the rebound or get on the floor after a loose ball. In fact, our pregame shout is, “Every loose ball is…OURS!” And often they are.
We focus on character. You can focus effectively on only a few things and that includes the non-tangible, deeper lessons of basketball. If you don’t prioritize talking about character, or who your players are as well as how they play, that easily gets lost in the louder demands of playing better. When the ball goes out of bounds in a scrimmage, our guys will acknowledge “I touched it last. Out on me.” That’s not always how basketball works, but that’s how we work.
Today we pulled off a mighty comeback. We were behind 17-6 after the first quarter, but I think we might have been down 17-2 before that. If that sounds like a reasonable distance to close, you may be thinking of the Golden State Warriors. We had won the game before 32-20. We’d spotted the other team more than half the points we’d scored our last entire game, and allowed them almost as many points in that quarter as we gave up the whole previous game. Rough start.
Our highest scorer could not play today. Our second highest scorer, and co-captain, Barry, got his fourth foul in the first half. He was as upset as I’ve ever seen him, frustrated with the calls and with himself. I shouldn’t have kept him in after his third foul, but we had already reached the desperation point of needing to stop the landslide and regain ground.
To understand this story, you will need to know this: the refereeing we experience is often the biggest challenge to our character. It certainly is my biggest challenge, nearly every game. Coaches often complain about refs, so I’ll just tell you that the aforementioned captain, possibly the nicest guy on our team, got a technical foul in the first game for patting an opponent on the shoulder. I’m not talking about a shove that we called a “pat.” Barry had fouled the guy and then gave him a couple soft pats, right on the shoulder where you pat people, to say, “Hey, sorry Man.” Technical foul, they got a free throw and the ball back. In the same game, two of our players got shoved hard–one knocked to the ground–after the play was over and the whistle had blown. No call. We not infrequently get three or four times more fouls called on us than the other team. I watch our guys called for barely brushing their players and then their players whack our guys in the arms or give an elbow to the head: no call.
Today was such a day. Our other captain, Will, reached levels of emotional distress–okay, really upset and pissed at what felt like injustice–that he chose to sit out for the end of the game because he knew he’d lost it. Will had played a tremendous game up to that point with at least five crucial–and dramatic–blocked shots. He did not quit, but he reached his threshold and could no longer hold himself together, so he came out. Yes, we needed him in the game to try to win but not as much as we needed him to live and model the right character. Thank God, I didn’t have a split-second of saying (or even thinking) “Get back in there!” Will is a mature young adult who knows his limits, who usually plays harder than anyone else. He’d never hit this wall before, which should give you some idea of how the game went. He took himself out because he couldn’t be who he needed to be on the court in those minutes, and who he is on the court ultimately is more important than how he plays on the court.
Our other captain, as I said, had four fouls very early and sat out the third quarter. But during the third quarter, without him or our leading scorer, we made our charge. We had closed it to 23-18 at halftime. We put on a full-court press and dug in and found more grrr. We got a handfull of steals (including several by Will), caused multiple turnovers, and made some great shots, including one of our reserves hitting three three-pointers. We didn’t get lucky with every bounce going our way and we certainly didn’t start getting the calls our way. But we worked harder. We found a way. I believe playing harder, digging deeper, finding you’re capable of more than you know, is a crucial aspect of how sports can develop character. We showed tremendous character that way.
At the start of the fourth quarter, I tried to send captain Barry back in. He said, “Coach, they’re getting it done. Let’s let them keep going.” You have to understand both this young man’s desire to play basketball and his respectful attitude to appreciate what happened in this moment. He always responds to me, “Yes, Coach,” or “Yes, Sir.” I don’t require that. But he does it. He also always asks for one more game, hates to be taken out, and generally wants to spend every moment he can playing ball. He’s that guy.
So when he said, “Naw, Coach, they’re doing it,” I respected his suggestion and left the other guys in. Barry then proceeded to holler himself hoarse, shouting for his teammates.
When I finally put him back in with four minutes left in the game, he took over. He ran the offense, hit four of four free throws including the clutch two that put the game out of reach–or should have–and led the team.
Now I have to describe the end of the game where I saw our team’s character most clearly.
With six seconds left, we had a three-point lead–I thought–and our opponents took a long shot and missed. We got the rebound. Ball to Barry. They fouled Barry. Three seconds. Barry hit both free throws. Game over?
The opposing coach, with whom we have a spotty history (last year he charged on the court to start a fight with Barry–nope, not kidding), went over to the scoring table and began a rant. A long, colorful rant. According to him, the scorer, who was a very young guy, by the way, had messed up their team fouls. Thus, we should’t be in the bonus. Remember, Barry had already made both free throws. Their coach is arguing after the fact. But he would not stop. The refs threatened to give him a technical but let him keep going. Then, and again I just have to ask you to believe me, they may have taken away the free throws and given the other team the ball. This was not clear. I mean, I asked and they did not tell me.
So picture this: we thought we were up by 5, three seconds to go. Now they are inbounding the ball after a timeout on our end of the court, meaning within range of throwing up a shot, down by…two. Did I mention about the officiating?
Okay, if you know basketball, you probably have realized that this is severely askew. If the free throws didn’t count, they still fouled our player, meaning it’s still our ball with one or three seconds left (again, unclear) and all we have to do is pass it in and touch it and the game will be over. If they get the ball, that has to mean the free throws counted.
But on the stat sheet I have in front of me right now, with stats tallied by my daughters but reflecting the official scorers final score, we won this game by two. Not three. Not five. I don’t know how we lost the extra point–they subtracted both free throws and a bonus point?–but they were inbounding the ball with a chance to win the game that we understood we had already put out of reach.
Now you have the picture. But our guys didn’t react to this. They didn’t freak out. I sat down and our team stood and waited on the court while their coach blustered and berated a kid and screamed at the refs about how the whole thing was unfair and rigged (I might have agreed, but I think he meant it a different way). In that moment, I saw what our players had done.
We made the comeback. Their team threw elbows at our heads and we kept our character. We got calls against us and we did not lose our cool. We played harder and focused more and dove for loose balls. Their player got a technical for slamming the ball onto the court (it bounced really high) after a call went against him; we talked with the refs about the calls, politely and calmly, during stopped time between plays. None of the concerns we raised seemed to get any traction, but that’s what we could do, and we did it, and then our guys just ran harder. Our tallest guys, who hated running at the beginning of the season, were outrunning the other team.
It was a glorious win. Both of our captains manifested the spirit and character that earned them the position of captain. One of our seniors, Gabe, who didn’t play last year and was still very green at the beginning of this season, played the best I’d ever seen him play. This was Kaiser’s high school sports festival, so there were trophy presentations and a bit of pomp and circumstance. The parents of our players, and our girls’ team, gathered around and congratulated our players.
Yes, I like winning, and we got exactly the result I’d hoped for. But so much more than that, I think it might have been my favorite coaching moment so far.
*Our guys didn’t give up or get discouraged when we fell behind.
*They didn’t let the bad calls get to us, even though some of them were flagrant and upsetting.
*Rather than quitting, letting up, or losing our tempers, we simply bore down and played harder.
*In the moment when the choice was between compromising his character and doing whatever it took to win, one captain asked to be taken out.
*In the moment when the other captain could have decided, “Okay, it’s up to me now,” he showed his belief in his teammates and asked not to be put back in yet.
In the way that coaches second-guess themselves, I wonder if, had I put him in at the start of the fourth quarter, would Barry have fouled out and not been available when we needed him in the clutch? Remember, one ref had definitely zoomed in on him and was very quick to call him for anything.
Even with all this, I did not manage to get all our players in the game. That may be the hardest part of coaching for me. Of course, most coaches will tell you there are times (and levels) to play everyone and times (and levels) where you can’t. It still eats at me. I experienced not getting playing time on my high school team after I had worked hard to become a good player starting in…fourth grade? I know that feeling–at least how I felt–and I hate causing our guys to experience it. There are games when I can get everyone significant floor time, others where I take a risk and a guy steps up or doesn’t, and then games where it feels like we’re fighting tooth and nail for every point and I can’t break up our momentum or lose the advantage that a certain player gives us.
Today, maybe because it was such a sweet victory, I felt especially bad that I didn’t play all our players. I can’t tell you in this moment whether I made the right choice or not (and I’m guessing you fall on one side of that question or the other depending on your relationship with sports). We either won by 2 or 4 or 5* and didn’t seem to have any extra margin or breathing room. That doesn’t mean we would have lost if I’d put them in. I don’t know how they would have stepped up. Today, I didn’t risk finding out. I pray those players can take that with grace, use it for motivation, and let it develop their character–but I really don’t say that lightly, since it took me years. And God’s work in my life. And years…
We pray before games and after practice. I’m not always as consistent with this as I’d like to be, but I’m also someone who tries hard not to go through the motions. Today, for the first time as far as I can remember, I prayed in the huddle between quarters. I asked for extra help from God keeping our patience, not losing our cool, and not responding in kind and escalating the rough play we were experiencing.
As we were in the parking lot about to leave, the organizer of the whole sports festival happened to walk by. He stopped to tell me how much he appreciated the way our kids played. He said he knew we came from a Christian school and he could see it in how we behaved in that final game when things got so heated. I’d already seen this in our guys, but it was wonderful to hear that their character shone through to strangers, as well.
Lord God, may we always keep our character of reflecting your image in the world as our highest priority. Amen.
*How often do you get to say that?