A brush with death

My egalitarian coaching system for kiddie basketball could have gotten me killed.

By John Passacantando
July 14, 2000 11:32PM (UTC)
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"What the hell are you trying to do? Lose the game?" The rhetorical blast came with a spray of food crumbs and saliva from the contorted face of an engaged parent. He was built like a repo man and looked very capable of manslaughter (premeditation would have exceeded his abilities). He had a good point, though. Maybe I would have to reassess my strategy.

Months earlier, I had been enjoying my regular workout at the local YMCA when I noticed a sign that said they desperately needed another coach for the 5- to 7-year- old basketball league or the whole thing was going to be canceled. Adorable little kids, I thought, easy volunteer job, pretty fun and I'd get a break on my Y membership. Plus, I was single and impossibly optimistic (still am optimistic).

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To wit: It was 1990 and I was 29 and I decided that this coaching gig was just one more opportunity to institute great social change at the grass-roots level. I implemented elaborate rules that basically gave everyone a chance to handle the ball, a chance to shoot and, most important, to have equal time on the court. Oh yeah, and it was supposed to be fun, too.

I should have seen the warning signs during one early (and rare) practice session. As I ran the kids through some basic drills -- layups, foul shots and then three-on-three -- I noticed something disturbing: The kids weren't sharing. In fact, one of the kids shot every time he got the ball, no matter where he was on the court or how many other kids were covering him. The tendency didn't appear to be organic -- definitely more nurture than nature. This was confirmed during game times as parents, with alarming gusto, attempted to reinforce all instances of ball-hoggery.

But I figured that I, with my rigorously just system (I actually used a stopwatch to enforce equal time on the court), could overcome these reflexes. I was motivated -- and my impulses were far from lofty. As tempting as it is, I cannot, in good conscience, launch into the musty diatribe about parents who attempt to achieve vicariously the athletic triumphs they never had. I won't even disparage the mercenary agendas of parents who think that by pushing their kids into competitive sports they are really building some kind of super 401(k) program.

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Really, the important background here is that as a Little Leaguer, I stunk. My brother did, too. The only difference was that I had a coach who gave me lots of time on the field despite my batting ability. (In my time at the plate, the bat played no constructive role whatsoever.) My brother had a coach who played every game like it was the seventh game of the World Series -- and his two sons were being showcased for the Hall of Fame. My brother was relegated to lots of time with the bag of extra bats. I got plenty of game time, enough to actually strike out twice in one inning, which is likely to be my only Little League record. I never thought it was fun, but my brother really hated it.

So there I was, coaching a team that had lost its first four games but had so far achieved its socialist ideals. We were only a couple of points behind with a few minutes left in the game. I wasn't paying much attention to the score, I knew vaguely that it was close, but I had the stopwatch to watch. And it was time to cycle out two players and put two more in.

One of the kids coming out was my hotshot: He never threw a pass the whole season and happened to be the offspring of Repo Dad. Right on schedule, I took him and another player out and put in the twins, two girls who could not actually throw the ball as high as the rim -- but they sure looked excited to play, especially with the crowd cheering so loudly. Or was it yelling?

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That's when Repo Dad came after me. He did scare up a few doubts: What was I doing anyway? Aren't parents supposed to be the coaches? Was I crazy to think that Vince Lombardi had no place in a kids' basketball game? Was I really consigning these kids to a lifetime of mediocrity by passing up the opportunity to teach them that we are competitive animals, predators who must eat or be eaten? It took only seconds for the Trotskyite on my other shoulder to hiss, "Nah!"

I guess I just figured that when you are 5 years old everyone should get to play. There's plenty of time for Darwinism later. Maybe I was thinking about my brother and I and how organized sports had to compete with our ultimate outing: a day in the woods behind our house with a backpack full of Mad magazines, sandwiches, a BB gun and more bottles than you could sink in the river in a lifetime of shooting.

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We're doing OK in life without anything close to rabid competitive drive. Of course, neither of us made it to the U.S. Open or to the finals at Wimbledon. But our dad, who was a star high school athlete, has never indicated that he wished we were still playing baseball. All my experience caused me to think that organized sports for kids were just a slightly more mature extension of pin the tail on the donkey and other games that we played at birthday parties.

So it was still the most important thing during that game, even in a hail of food-studded spit, that I get those twins back in the game for their fair share of the fun.

What I didn't realize at that basketball game was that I really was in danger. Somebody a lot bigger than me believed this game had to be won at any cost. Michael Costin, the 40-year-old father beaten to death last week during a kid's hockey game near Boston, wasn't even killed during an official game. Reading about his death, now that I am a 38-year-old father who still clings to goofy coaching principles, I realized just how serious Repo Dad was and how naive I was in ignoring him.

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In the end, he didn't even hit me, but he did roll out a chain of expletitives that I hadn't heard since pumping gas at an Exxon station in New Jersey. The clock wound down, the twins stayed in for their requisite time, we lost and Repo Dad yanked his kid home.

I then proceeded to tell my team how proud I was of them, what a good effort they had given, and in my own pre-"Life is Beautiful" spin (Roberto Benigni would be proud), I think I was able to convince the kids, especially the twins, that Repo Dad's outburst was his way of showing how excited he was for our team.


John Passacantando

John Passacantando is executive director of Ozone Action.

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