Coach

Afraid he'd blow it, my ex-husband didn't want to coach our daughter. He changed his mind -- and we all won.


Susan Straight
December 7, 2005 5:46PM (UTC)

When my husband and I bought our old farmhouse, only three blocks from where we'd both been born, I fell in love with the driveway. It was gravel and dirt, lined with the original cement curbs. I raked the cigarette butts and lug nuts from the gravel, and my husband lined up his tools on the curbing.

It was our first driveway. He held court there in his discarded barber chair, while his friends and brothers worked on old engines and talked continual smack. A friend bragged how he used to bring down starlings with a slingshot and cook them in the field, and a brother-in-law laughed about the door to his Pinto, stolen by Midnight Auto Supply, two friends who lifted car parts on order.

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But eventually, all the men mentioned the same thing.

"When you gonna put up a hoop for your kids?" they'd say to my husband.

"When you havin' kids?" they'd say to me.

He'd been a basketball star, a pretty big name in Riverside, where we were both born and raised. I'd met him in the ninth grade, hanging out after his summer league basketball games, where I'd wandered over from the tennis courts after practicing my backhand for the tennis team.

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Through high school, we were a couple, and I kept the books for varsity basketball. Dwayne was 6-foot-4, 190, a good size for a power forward back in 1978. His jumper was low-trajectory, but it went in, and he had a huge wingspan for blocking shots and pulling down boards.

Our senior year, we went to the finals for Southern California, and he made second team for Riverside County. He went off to junior college in Monterey, where he was a juco All-Star. I went to USC, played only intramural sports, and became a sportswriter and editor. Dwayne moved up to a Cal State school, played for a coach he didn't get along with, and a team that faltered into a losing season. He came home to Riverside.

We got married in 1983, and he began working as a correctional officer at a juvenile facility. I began teaching. We bought the old farmhouse, with the gravel driveway, and he put up the homemade plywood backboard and iron hoop before the first baby was born.

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But we didn't have sons. We had three daughters, we hit the hard part of life, and we got divorced. Not suddenly but steadily, the driveway became a girl place, with skates and scooters and bikes replacing my ex-husband's engines and spare tires. But our middle child, not the tallest but the one spare and mean and small like me, turned out to be a serious ballplayer -- a natural. She did have big hands, a long wingspan, and speed. By the time Delphine was 10, she'd been holding her own for two years against boys in YMCA and roughneck Park and Rec ball. She needed a new hoop.

I took down the old backboard, and cried a little in private. My neighbor put up a new one with a breakaway net, and then he poured a concrete driveway.

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For the next two years, I spent hours out there guarding her while she brought the ball down the long driveway, aiming for the chalk marks where I told her she should take off for her layups. I tried to trim the nodding English roses, but their reaching thorny branches necessitated her development of a sweet head fake.

"Fifty layups!" her dad would call that summer, revving the engine of his truck after dropping the girls off. "Then put your right hand in your pocket and dribble past your mom left-handed."

"Anytime you want to step in here," I would holler back, as she was getting taller and faster. He'd just grin and drive away.

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Almost every day, I was in the driveway chasing my daughter at top speed while she fended me off and launched her jumper. She practiced a long-range three-pointer by standing in our next door neighbor's driveway and shooting over the block wall. But one day, I held the ball while she stood with eyes gleaming under a scrim of tears and said to me, "They don't want me on their team cause I'm a girl."

The boys on her teams wouldn't pass her the ball. She was too good, and they didn't like it. The boys on the opposing teams had taken to gashing open her lip with elbows, when the ref wasn't looking, and when she got knocked down, one boy stomped on her hand.

She played the rest of the game with a fractured finger. She only got angrier, and better.

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But that day, I knew I had only 10 seconds to decide -- comfort her, or arm her.

"It's always gonna be like this." She turned her head so I wouldn't see the gleam. "You have two choices. Get sad and be a victim, or get mad and kick their butts."

She took the ball and shouldered past me for an aggressive layup, then started shooting free throws with angry precision. With my toe, I nudged the big V-shaped dent in the old curbing, the mark of a missed hammer years ago when someone tried to pound a U-joint into submission. Then she passed me the ball, but she said, "I wish Daddy would coach."

Coaching your own child must be the most difficult and unnatural of acts. Performing surgery on your own child would be terrible, but a doctor wouldn't do it in front of hundreds, maybe thousands, of spectators. Prosecuting your own child? Must be against the law.

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At one basketball game, I remember hearing one kid ask his teammate, "What do you call Coach at home?" Everyone laughed.

For no other profession do we subsume the person so completely. We don't call someone Professor in the same way, or Lawyer, or Teach, and we use the doctor's last name. As adults, we usually revert to the person's given name when we meet him at a party or a store.

This is not always true -- Phil Jackson is always Phil Jackson, in a zenlike way. But most high school or college coaches are forever that. Before they are thought of as fathers, or policemen, or landscapers, they are coaches.

Remember that scene in the movie "Beetlejuice" when the dead high school football players keep congregating around the desk of Sylvia Sidney, the diminutive dead social worker. "Coach, can we get on the bus now?"

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She finally screams, "I'm not your coach! He lived!"

Is it because coaches have seen all our youthful failures and weaknesses, in public, in the way no one else does? Doctors see our diseases, self-imposed and not, and lawyers see our crimes. Teachers see us for years, too, in strength and foolishness, but again, not in public, with immediate public judgment on themselves.

Alan Shapiro, a poet, has written some of the best lines about high school basketball I've ever read. In an essay, he says this of his high school coach: "Unlike most of the coaches I had had by then, he was too irritable to be a tyrant. He saw himself less as a Vince Lombardi 'molder of character' than as an undeserving and long-suffering victim of the inadequacies of the adolescent players he was stuck with Like a despairing husband with a wife he knows he can neither change nor live without, he'd stroke his close-cropped head in exasperation, pleading with us, whining, for God's sake, get back on defense His dedication to coaching was a function not of an overwhelming desire to win but rather a fear of losing, of humiliation. Not to be embarrassed by us was his sole ambition."

For Dwayne, the idea of coaching was frightening. We both remembered high school sports as heated and tribal, but not as professional or all-consuming as high school sports seem now. In fact, we each had a couple of terrible coaches -- my tennis coach was a semipro who sneered at us, and routinely made me run miles on a leg with a stress-fractured femur. Dwayne had a football coach (who no longer coaches football but still coaches travel basketball) who routinely grabbed boys by the face mask and punched them, or tossed them around the locker room when they lost.

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And so it was that when I called to ask him the big question, Dwayne laughed and said, "Oh, heck no. Uh-uh. No."

Unequivocal.

"Why?" I said, not in front of our kids, but standing in the laundry room, where no one ever came looking for me because they were afraid they'd find unfolded uniforms.

He said, "Because I'd blow it. I'd lose my temper and yell at someone. Maybe not even her. I'd scare somebody. Maybe make somebody cry."

I thought about that. This is a man who routinely intervenes in fights at the correctional facility, and has been shot by a Taser gun during an attempted escape. He does know how to holler.

But he had other hesitations. We talked about former coaches, about hollering and strategy, and we ended with why he'd quit college. "It was a business," he said of basketball. "It wasn't fun anymore."

I understood that.

But that year Delphine got so good, at 12, that she was recruited for an elite Southern California travel ball team, and even watching her became too much for her father. He'd holler from the sidelines because he couldn't help it, and after the games, he had too much to say to her, and he didn't know how to say it in an acceptable manner.

He didn't attend any games for two months. She remained stoic. I remained frustrated, as an all-girls league was forming, and her older sister wanted to play, too.

By then, I couldn't even talk to Delphine after games, either. I knew how our conversations would go.

Alan Shapiro has also written eloquently about parents and basketball. He says of his father: "In his eyes, I could do no wrong, especially as an athlete. If I had a bad game it was the coach's fault for not utilizing my abilities, or my teammates for not playing up to my level No matter how I played, he praised me, and the more he praised me, the more acutely I would feel the discrepancy between the player he imagined me to be and the player I knew I was The pressure of trying to justify his excessive faith in my abilities made me resent him even as it terrified me that I might let him down."

That was exactly what I would do to Delphine, and I knew it. I was done playing in the driveway. All I could do was wash uniforms and drive, and work on her father.

Finally, one night in the laundry room, I called him after a great travel ball game and said, "Yeah, everybody says she's going to play college or WNBA. And it's so sad, because when the reporters ask her how she learned to play ball, and whether or not her dad played ball, they're going to look up in the stands and see you, but she's going to point to the short blond woman and say, 'No, my mom taught me.' That'll be embarrassing. But you'll get over it. If she gets you tickets."

"Fine," he said. "I'll do it."

He started as an assistant coach, and then coached both Gaila and Delphine during two seasons of the all-girls league. He coached Delphine's eighth grade team, losing the city championship in the last few minutes of the game by leaving in the second string too long, because he was loyal to their playing time. He followed the rules, and the opposing female coach ignored them. Our daughter had missed the last three-pointer, and I'd never seen her so heartbroken over any loss.

"I wanted to win it for Daddy," she sobbed into my shoulder.

My husband's father had come to watch his son coach in the same junior college gym where he'd played all-star games. My parents came, too. Hearing my ex-husband down on the sidelines, shouting what he'd always shouted from the stands -- "Get back on D! Watch the trap! Box out!" -- to girls who'd never played until this team formed, I thought about how he hadn't come close to being what he'd been afraid of. He'd stayed honest, and kind.

When they cried, he said, "Oh, man, ain't no need cryin', cause we had fun." When they apologized for fouling, he said, "You ain't foulin', you ain't playin'."

Both our daughters have come up to me in a kind of sullen wonder, at different times, and said, "You know, Daddy's a really good coach. Everyone loves him. It's so weird."

I asked Delphine how she felt about it, given their long freeze-out of before, and she said impassively, "I like it when Daddy coaches me. Then it's just about the game and the whole team, not about me."

All business, both of them, and in their studied casual talk on the bench after games, I see her nodding and him calm.

This year, he coached high school varsity basketball for the first time, for Gaila, our eldest. In the spring, when the varsity coach cannot have contact with his team, under California Interscholastic Federation rules, until summer begins, someone else coaches. Dwayne was asked.

He has lost his name now. His name, to all our daughters' friends and even to their parents, is Coach.

Not Coach Sims, usually. As with many men who look the part completely, he is just Coach. Whatup, Coach? Coach, can you give me a ride?

He will be that forever, to a certain generation of girls. Dwayne is 46 now. He's 6-foot-4, 300 pounds. He looks like a linebacker, rather than a power forward. He had been afraid that his size and appearance would make girls and parents fear him, but instead, because he's so intimidating, he rarely has to raise his voice. He just folds his arms, squints like coaches do, and says, "Let's go."

According to his daughters, his advice is simple and doable. For point guards, "When you pass the last defender, cross over so she can't come behind you and poke the ball." For posts, "Stay at the free-throw line on the inbounds and look like you're tying your shoe, and then jump up and snatch the pass. Free layup." For anyone, "On the fast break, follow your teammate on the layup, cause you might get a free putback."

Not innovative, but it worked. And that's what the team wanted, someone who didn't scream at them and take them out for the smallest infraction. Someone who was so low-key he didn't learn their names for a long time. "G, tell the one whose mama drive the Hummer to go in for the tall blond one," he'd say to our oldest, who had to translate. "And tell lil Gray to go in for big T."

Of course, he didn't have the pressure faced by a paid coach. And his size was occasionally a disadvantage, as when he stood up to argue a call, and the short blond ref blanched and nearly fainted, and then compensated by dogging Dwayne's team.

He never got a technical. He laughed most of the time. And his favorite advice: "Y'all know what to do. I'm just sittin' here."

He went 7-0 that spring, his first season. We got him the classic polo shirt, in XXXL, with no name embroidered on the chest. Just the one word.


Susan Straight

Susan Straight is the author of "A Million Nightingales," "Take One Candle Light a Room," and "Between Heaven and Here."

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