Several years ago friends of mine asked their six-year-old daughter, Annie, if she knew what I did for a living. Apparently having read my work, Annie never considered the possibility that my writing might pay the bills. Besides, there was another answer that seemed obvious to her. "He's a coach," she said confidently. That was understandable because at the time I was addicted to coaching youth sports, a condition from which I still consider myself in recovery.
I coached everything, and I coached year-round. It didn't matter whether I was fairly knowledgeable about a sport, like baseball or basketball, or essentially clueless. (Try teaching soccer to a bunch of eight-year-old boys when the extent of your expertise comes from watching Bend It Like Beckham.) I jotted the permutations of Little League lineups on Post-it notes, diagrammed basketball plays on pages torn out of my reporter's notebook and littered the house with what I considered my brilliance. There's a scene in A Beautiful Mind when the wife of Russsell Crowe's character finds that his office is a jumble of papers hanging from the ceiling and stuck to the walls, proof that he's mentally unhinged. His place didn't look all that different from mine.
There were even times, I will admit, that I was coaching kids while doing—yes, Annie—my real job. Once, while sitting courtside at the old L.A. Forum watching Shaq and Kobe orchestrate a comeback against the Trail Blazers, I was also on my cellphone, trying to get my assistant coach to switch from zone to man-to-man in a pivotal fifth-grade rec league basketball game. I later interviewed Braves lefthander Tom Glavine about his pitching mechanics not so much for my story but to get tips for one of my Little League lefties, who couldn't find the strike zone with a GPS.
It was the chance to share experiences with my own three kids that started my coaching career, but that proved to be just one of the benefits that kept me coming back season after season. There was something about seeing my fourth-grade hoopsters, the mighty Encinal Eagles, come to the bench during a timeout with that What do we do now? look in their eyes, believing that I actually had all the answers. There was something about watching Max and J.J., two kids from vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds, not only become pick-and-roll partners on the court but also best buddies away from it. There was something about being there as Tyler, who was desperately afraid of the ball when he stepped into the batter's box, finally conquered his fear by getting hit by a pitch—and realized that it didn't hurt nearly as much as he thought it would. (Sorry about plunking you in BP, Ty.)
Over the years dozens of pro and college coaches have unburdened themselves to me about the pressures of their profession. I listen and write down their words with what I hope is a sympathetic expression, but in the back of my mind I'm thinking: Quit whining. Youth coaches deal with issues that the guys who make the big bucks never face. During one third-grade basketball game I looked down the bench and told Jonathan, my scrappy little point guard, to go in, which he immediately did, sprinting onto the floor and inserting himself into the action without waiting for a stoppage in play. The referee gently guided him off the floor while giving me a look of disapproval, as if I'd tried to get away with using six players at a time. You think that ever happens to Mike Krzyzewski?
Dealing with players' agents might be delicate for executives who run real teams, but it can't be any more sensitive than negotiating with Roland the centerfielder's mom. A few days before a Little League playoff game, she informed me that Roland would have to leave early for his piano lesson. I resisted my initial urge to tell her that I didn't care if Roland was scheduled to play at Carnegie Hall, the only way she was going to whisk away my sixth-grade slugger would be with the aid of Tasers and tear gas. It took some intense discussion to persuade her to reschedule the lesson, and the crisis was averted.
I've had powerhouse teams and powder-puff teams. There have been games in which my kids have been so far ahead I've made them do everything but shoot blindfolded to keep the score down, and games in which they've been on the other end, when the baseball scoreboard operator mercifully pulled the plug in order to save us further embarrassment. But I learned one thing that I would pass on to anyone who carries a whistle and clipboard: Forget about the wins and the losses because, in time, you will forget about the wins and the losses. I don't remember how far my son Ben's middle school basketball team went in the playoffs, but I do remember his giving up a chance for a breakaway layup in order to pass it to a teammate who hadn't scored.
That's the kind of thing that stays with me, even now that my kids are grown and I'm trying to go cold turkey. The boys I coached have become young men, their once-smooth faces now stubbled, their voices as deep as mine. I was getting gas recently when a driver pulled up to the pump beside me. It was Roland the centerfielder, though I couldn't place his matured face at first. But the moment he said, "Hey, Coach," I knew exactly who he was.
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I jotted the permutations of Little League lineups on Post-it notes, diagrammed basketball plays on pages torn from my reporter's notebook.