COLUMBIA — The curly-haired seventh-grader had a question.
“Do you think we can win today?” he asked, confronted with the reality of our season — one win, 10 losses and an hour until our next game against a team that had beaten us by 26 earlier in the year.
I let his question hang in the air like a high-arching free throw. Did we really have a chance? Would I be misleading him if I said yes? He knew as well as I did that our junior high basketball team of mostly fifth- and sixth-graders was about as intimidating as a boy with a sling and a stone before a giant.
When I finally did answer him, I didn’t tell any stories about Davids or "Hoosiers." I didn’t grab him by the shoulders, stare into his eyes and try to stir up emotions that would help him run through the gymnasium wall. If anything, I sounded like Mister Rogers not John Wooden.
“Yeah, I think it’s a possibility,” I said with more casualness than conviction.
“Really?” he said, shaken loose from the grip of his iPod touch and making eye contact with me.
“Sure, but I’m mostly concerned with how we play.”
Two hours later, the final horn would sound and the scoreboard would end our speculation.
My dad has coached junior high basketball for more than 20 years. When I was 8 years old, I sat beside him on the bench and watched him diagram plays for my sweat-soaked heroes. As an eighth-grader, I stood on the court, and he yelled at me from the sideline, “Play defense with your feet.” At 28, when Christian Chapel Academy in Columbia needed a junior high boys basketball coach, I thought, “How hard can it be?”
It turns out my first experience coaching the game I love, and bear as my last name, was not as simple as dribble-pass-shoot. Coaches teach. That’s it, more or less. I only wish I had realized it was the more I needed to worry about.
Sure, there wasn’t recruiting, postgame interviews, outside pressures to win or any threats to my job security. I was a volunteer after all.
I was burdened more with trying to teach 14 boys, only four of whom had actually played organized basketball before, how to be a team, how to grow as individuals and how to focus for more than 5 minutes while the other half of the gymnasium was being used for a daycare program.
All coaches, who have paced the sidelines and shouted over squeaking shoes in practice, have carried a burden like this. It burns long after the scoreboard goes dark.
“You go home with it,” Hickman girls' basketball coach Tonya Mirts said. “You lay in bed thinking about it.”
Like Mirts, I thought of what I said to the players and how it was received. I thought of how to run a drill so as to help the players develop. I thought of how to help a player use his strengths.
“If you’re a coach, you’re a teacher,” said Norm Stewart, who coached the Missouri men’s basketball team for 32 years. “And if you plan to coach for a long time, you have to come to grips with that.”
Twelve years after retiring, Stewart said he doesn’t miss storming the sidelines at Hearnes Center. What he misses is more deeply embedded in a coach’s DNA.
“I’ve missed the teaching,” he said.
The general perception is that coaching is probably about 90 percent Xs and Os, whether defensive strategies, like Mike Anderson’s Fastest 40 Minutes of Basketball, or offensive styles, like John Calipari’s dribble-drive motion.
Before the season started, I went to the Columbia Public Library looking for books on coaching basketball. It took one day of practice in the middle of November to put those books into hibernation. Fourteen players scrambled around the gym with as much energy as popcorn popping.
At the second practice when I tried to teach the fifth- and sixth-graders how to set screens. My feet were shoulder-width apart. My knees were bent. My hands crossed in front of my groin. After my demonstration, one of the sixth-graders said, “So you want me to grab my Twinkies?"
Two days later, when a player took a pass in the face and another took one in his Twinkies, I began to wonder if my afternoons would have been better spent watching Oprah. Even one of the players, when it took the team more than 10 minutes to make a shot a practice, had his doubts and expressed them during a ride home, “We’re not going to win a game.”
Winning seemed about as unlikely as making a half-court shot. But then again, I wondered, is winning the ultimate goal? Is a Hollywood ending what we’re aiming for?
“Loss is a fiercer, more uncompromising teacher, coldhearted but clear-eyed in its understanding that life is more dilemma than game, more trial than free pass,” Pat Conroy wrote in his book "My Losing Season."
I began to see that my path as a coach was not going to be a free pass. I had not inherited Missouri's most talented junior high team, and I was not the next Mike Krzyzewski.
“To be successful you have to take what you get,” said Mirts, who has coached for 20 years.
I might have been the one being taught the most. I adjusted expectations. I simplified practice. I learned patience.
During the second week, I pulled one of the boys aside to work on his shooting form. We got rid of the basketball. We broke it down into pieces. Arms and angles. Feet and alignment. We were methodical in bending knees, raising arms, holding the follow through. Eventually, we returned the basketball to the process. He shot a free throw — swish. Our smiles were wide.
Coaches, like players, “Must be life-long learners or they’re not going to be an effective coach for very long,” Mirts said.
This is part of the reason why, after 31 years of coaching, including 22 years at Columbia College, Bob Burchard is still coaching. He continues to transition and learn. He is as aware as ever of his weaknesses as a coach.
“I don’t think I’m as smart at games as I like to be,” Burchard said. “Some people in games can focus in on how they’re getting hurt and make adjustments. I’m still trying to figure it out.”
Burchard acknowledges there were some administrators who likely struggled to deal with his learning, but they can’t question his heart. Burchard takes the role of teacher seriously.
“Coaching has more to do with teaching and with skill development and motivation and team building,” Burchard said. “That’s 90 percent and the other 10 percent is X’s and O’s.
“If you’re in love with the X’s and O’s, then you’re not going to like this job. If you like to teach and shape and mold players, then you will.”
My first attempt at motivation had a strange instigator — a mustache. The players were convinced a player on the opposing team in our second game of the season had one. I never saw it, but by the time I was told about it for the fourth time during halftime, I had heard enough talk of facial hair.
I remember telling my players what they needed to be concerned about was our lack of effort on the court. They had played the first half scared. It was accurate to say our opponents were “a bunch of giants,” but I believed our team was capable of more than it realized. I tried to tell them as much.
This moment seemed about as well received as my instructions to run suicides at practice. We didn’t score in third quarter and for most of the fourth quarter.
Finally, with about with less than two minutes left in the game, I called a timeout and revisited, for what seemed like the 20th time, the play I wanted them to run on offense. Our point guard would pass to the other guard on the right side of the court. The point guard would then cut to the right corner where he would receive a pass and look to shoot.
Surprisingly, they ran the play, and our point guard made the shot.
“Just like you drew it up, right coach?" the referee said as he ran past me.
It was almost as if he was reminding me to catalogue the moment as much as I catalogued the talk of mustaches and giants.
“Yeah, exactly,” I said with laughter to help break the tension of the 25-6 deficit.
Sure, things were rough. But the team was making progress. And, so was I.
“I think you remember some marker events,” Burchard said. “Moments where you can say, ‘Yes, they got it.’ ‘Yes, we can actually achieve something and play the game.’”
One of Burchard’s favorite stories from the 2009 season, the year the Cougars went to the NAIA National Championship game, came after they had lost a big regular-season conference game. The loss made him stop and reflect on the season. It wasn’t long before he realized that several of the team members couldn’t play together. So he decided to reshape the team. He formed two different teams of five players each. Instead of mixing up his substitutions, he would just substitute one team of five for the other.
“That was a special time,” Burchard said. “The whole evolution of that team came about through failure. That was truly an amazing change of attitude and direction midseason.”
During the course of my team's four-month season, I had enjoyed several such evolutionary moments, but the best and most enduring one came last.
Yes, our basketball team still had a talent hole a mile wide. Yes, the opposing team had a player who could probably beat me one-on-one. Yes, we had previously lost to this team by 26. But as I had said, I thought we could win.
Even a 20-8 halftime deficit didn’t dampen my optimism. In the locker room, there was no talk of mustaches or losing. They were focused. They were resolved. They listened and absorbed. And I drank up their desire like Gatorade.
I’d like to say we came out in the second half and rallied back to win the game. Sure, we scrapped and clawed and got as close as seven points, but they were just a better team. There was no "Hoosiers" ending.
Yet as I walked back to the bench after shaking the opposing coach’s hand, I looked up at the scoreboard and felt myself getting choked up.
“A lot of coaching is realizing and just enjoying the moment,” Burchard said.
The scoreboard read 28-19. We had lost. The season was over. But I walked off the court with more than the final score.