Put me in, Coach!

Most people grimace when they hear me say that I knew I wanted to be an English professor after I read The Scarlet Letter in tenth grade English class with Mr. Metzger. “Ugh, I hated that book!” is the common reply. When I tell folks, then, that I actually wrote my dissertation on Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter, they look at me with great pity. Sometimes, now, I just tell folks I wrote about Whitman or Thoreau. I’m not sure why, but most people seem impressed by that.

Before all that, though; that is, before Hester and Chillingworth and Dimmesdale and Pearl, I wanted to be a basketball coach.

I read John Wooden’s book, They Call Me Coach over and over, and I even mapped out diagrams of the plays he described and wrote down the names of the players he coached (Lew Alcindor, Bill Walton, Gail Goodrich, Jamal Wilkes, et al) on stray pieces of paper or in my school notebooks.

Wooden developed what he called a “pyramid of success”–from what I recall, it was really just a version of Aristotelian virtues and ethics applied to the hardwood.  I didn’t know Aristotle at the time, but I did copy out Wooden’s pyramid and taped it to the wall above my bed. Here is a modern edition of Wooden’s book–I had a first edition, and by the time I was done with it, it was dogeared and stained:


One of our our family friends, Eugene Schantzenbach, was the head coach of the Emmaus High School basketball team, where I would eventually go to high school and play on the varsity team. Our mascot was the Green Hornet, after, I assume, the 1940s crime fighter character by the same name. The mascot name has since been truncated to just the Hornets, which I think is a real loss of cultural understanding.

Coach Schantzenbach would sometimes take me to practices with him on a Saturday morning–I was probably 10 or 11 at the time. I’d sit on the bench or throw passes to the players, and I thought that it was simply the greatest thing in the world. I still remember some of the players’s names–Derrick Hoppes, Tommy Campbell–and I can see them in my mind just like it was yesterday. They wore green Chuck Taylor high tops and this was the 70s so that had long, floppy hair.

One of my best friend’s father, Terry German, was the head coach at the at Dieruff High School, a cross-town, inner-city rival. I spent a lot of time at the German’s house–they were lovely, gracious people. Mr. German was a very large, imposing guy but he was easy going and kind, and he treated us like we were his players–he was always teasing us about our jump shots, how we dribbled or something like that. Later on, when I was in high school, I was a camp counselor at his day camp, Camp Olympic, and those were some of the very best parts of my childhood. He hired high school basketball players from Emmaus, Dieruff, Allen and Salisbury high schools–we all knew each other, and when we weren’t working with the kids, we were all on the court, playing. Sometimes we’d even come back to the camp at night and play under the lights. What I’m trying to get at was that Mr. Schantzenbach and Mr. German were my real-life John Woodens–they were all doing what I wanted to do when I grew up, before The Scarlet Letter, that is.

Sidebar: when I was a senior in high, my folks took a trip out of town for a week or so and left me home alone. I went out one night and came home only to realize that the house had been robbed. I called Mr. German and within minutes he and his son were screeching down our driveway in their AMC Gremlin. The car came to a halt, Mr. German popped out with a baseball bat in his hand and he whispered in his gravely voice, “Matty (that was his son) and Fretzy (me) get behind me.” So we did, of course, Matt holding on to his dad’s shirt from the back and me holding on to Matt’s as Mr. German proceeded methodically walk through the house, with the baseball bat in attack mode behind his shoulder and flinging open every closet, shower and room door in the house. I can’t even imagine what would have happened had he found the burglars.

Well, I never did realize that dream of being a coach until just a few months ago when my son told me he wanted to sign up for a basketball team. This surprised me a bit because he’s never played organized sports and has never even shown an interest. But, he does love Michigan State basketball and he and my daughter and I watch just about every game so I suspect that’s what motivated his decision.

On the night of the league orientation, the director of the program told the parents they needed coaches.

I paused for a moment and then I just darted  up to the guy and shouted, “I’ll do it!”

We are three weeks into our season, and I have to say . . . it’s going great! We have practices on Wednesday nights and games on Saturday. My daughter is the assistant coach, although, lately she’s become bored with her duties and just goes off and shoots baskets on her own. Here she is, shooting the ball in the wrong direction:


Here’s my son, racing down the court:


Oh, and here’ me, coaching:


It’s a league that doesn’t keep score at games so I can’t say whether we’ve won our games or not (I think we have, though). I’m teaching the kids how to set screens (they never do it), move without the ball, dribble with their head up, box out and play good defense. I’m still probably a better professor than I am a basketball coach, but with a few more wins under my belt, who knows!

I don’t know if my son will continue to play basketball or not. I sort of hope he does, because I’d like to keep coaching.

One thought on “Put me in, Coach!

  1. Fantastic! Your coach sounds like such a bad ass with the bat and the burglars — whoa! I’m always watching ’30 for 30s’ as you know, and my favorites are always about the coaches, coaching style and what motivates players. I read about Tony Dungy in The Power of Habit and how he coached to create pattern after pattern (obviously this is football, not basketball), but it was awesome. I’m sure you’ve picked up several tips like that from your previous coaches, and Tom Izzo — I’d love to see you yell up and down the court like he does. Hope you have a good season and eventually keep score!

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