Like a lot of coaches’ sons, I could shoot a basketball pretty well by the time I was a Sophomore in high school. I was 5’6” and 125 pounds—ready for the big time: varsity basketball. When that first varsity season began, I thought I knew my dad, the head coach. He had yelled and urged and criticized me every day on basketball courts for seven or eight years. But varsity basketball was different. These were real games. The bleachers filled with people, the band played during warm-ups, and a newspaper reported the action. This wasn’t just my dad and I now. This was the real thing.
In the first few games, I ran around, did what my dad told me to do, and found myself averaging about 20 points per game. Then we met one of the traditional powerhouses of our area, and I learned about basketball and leadership. The coach of this opponent didn’t treat high school basketball like playing kids’ games. His teams didn’t build their winning reputation by being soft. Little towns surrounding Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, took their blue collar heritage seriously. They were proud of hard work and toughness. They had no interest in some 5-foot-6-inch squirt sending them down to defeat. Before the game, the coach was in the locker room revving up his players, particularly one much-publicized senior football player, about 6’1” and 180 pounds. I’m guessing that this is what the coach might have said:
If you have any guts, you aren’t going to let some little pipsqueak score on you. You get all over his rear end and make him understand what Ford City basketball is all about. I want him to hate playing against you, you understand?
The kid understood. He hit me during the opening tap and stood beside me, taunting me during every free throw and break in the action. His coach had told him to be physical with me; to rough me up and see what I was made of; to see how well I could shoot knowing that a fist was going to land in my stomach just after I released the ball.
On my first shot, I was knocked down. But the referee, probably watching the flight of the ball, didn’t see anything. Or maybe he was part of the blue collar Pittsburgh thing himself. Maybe that was all part of the growing-up process. A little kid 5’6”, 125, doesn’t get to swagger like an athlete in Western Pennsylvania unless he can take it. So maybe the ref saw the flagrant foul and looked the other way. I’m not sure. I just know that, during the next break in the action, I went over to my dad and told him what was happening.
“Dad, he’s hitting me,” I said.
My dad’s response (himself a successful coach with the Pittsburgh blue-collar pride and toughness) was instantaneous and thunderous.
“Darn right he’s hitting you. I’m going to hit you double if you don’t start moving your lazy ass! How can you be so dumb? Why the hell would you just stand there and let a guy hit you? Is that all the sense you have? You don’t just stand there and let a bigger guy hit you. Don’t you see Gary Reed over there? How can you be so dumb! Gary’s been beating up everyone in town for the last ten years, and you’re over here telling me that some kid’s hitting you. Take him over to Gary. Haven’t you ever heard of a screen? Don’t you know Gary’s on your team? Do you think Gary’s afraid of a little physical contact? Run him over Gary, run him off Gary, run him beside Gary, run him through Gary. If Gary’s a wuss like you, then we can all go home.”
To this day, when I hear TV commentators discuss at halftime the “adjustments’’ some coach is making in the locker room, it makes me laugh. Sure, every once in awhile there is some strategy or different technique that can be employed, but what mostly happens is a coach gets in your face and reminds you what sports are all about. It comes down a lot more to doin’ things than to talkin’ about ‘em. Proud Pittsburghers would call it a simple matter of rolling up your sleeves, putting your body and soul on the line, and not complaining, whining, or looking for scapegoats, escape routes, or excuses. Nike calls it just doin’ it.
When play resumed, I was a totally different player. I ran my defender over Gary, off Gary, beside Gary, and through Gary—the precise “adjustment” my coach had told me to make.
Gary loved every minute of it and didn’t have to be let in on the plan. Gary was 6’4” and 280 pounds, and he could move. Gary was a classic ‘60s bully. After school, as a junior high kid, he liked to wrap his arms around high school kids who were walking down the hill toward home. Gary would hold them tight and listen to them beg to be let go. He loved the whole cycle, the initial calmness (“Okay, you’ve had your fun.”), the threats (“You better let me go.”), the panic (“Let me go!”), and finally the tears, the rage, and the surrender. Gary had great patience! He would put his 280 pounds on a kid and lie on him for half an hour, just for the joy of the human interaction! The sound and fury, the pleas and threats, screams and chokes didn’t faze him.
Gary was an equal-opportunity bully. He picked on everyone, and he blew away the old notion that if you stand up to a bully, he’ll leave you alone. Standing up to Gary only urged him on. He flat-out loved a tussle, and he loved having my defender always in his vicinity. Gary smacked the kid guarding me, with an elbow the first time I ran by him, and the kid never even saw it. The kid literally did not know what hit him. But soon he was to know well. Gary stepped on his feet and hit him in the stomach, in the face, in the ribs, in the neck. Gary did everything to that kid that that kid had been planning to do to me, but Gary was so much better at it, so much more experienced!
Before halftime, I had 18 points and was essentially untouched except for that opening punch and the punch after the first shot. Also before halftime, the kid asked his coach to come out. He had had enough. He had been run through a meat grinder, and I had learned a lesson. I am not an advocate of hitting or hurting anyone, but I learned that day that it is often possible to take action in cases where you initially feel like a victim. Oftentimes, you need to look at facts from a different angle before you can take appropriate action. Today I know that lesson by a different name, and the story, I suppose, is more refined.
—Excerpted from the book, “Running The Show.”
THINK THE GAME
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