Web Exclusives: The Varsity Typewriter
a PAW web exclusive column by Patrick Sullivan '02 (email: pas@princeton.edu)

December 19, 2001:
Turn about is fair play
Becoming a coach and remembering the past

By Patrick Sullivan '02

Bruce Springsteen's former chart-topping song, 'Glory Days,' seems altogether too pertinent for me lately.
Glory days, well, they'll pass you by. Glory days, in the wink of a young girl's eye.

I miss playing organized basketball. Although running proved to be my athletic forte in high school, during the winter season I played basketball. By a stroke of luck, I played on the varsity for four years — what I lacked in talent, I made up in defense and speed. And like any good future Tiger (or skinny white guy), I liked to shoot the three.

In four years, my high school team changed coaches four times. One in particular strikes a dissident chord in my memory. Although a nice person, 'Coach' lacked the necessary skills befitting his self-proclaimed title. A nervous, particular man, he would pace the sidelines during games, holding a ratty peach-hued towel, which he alternately chewed or draped around his neck.

Now, five years later, I too dabble at being 'Coach.' And while it's not as easy as I first thought, the experience promises to be rewarding.

Along with two good friends (both seniors), I coach a team of seventh through ninth graders, in a program offered through the Princeton Township Recreation Department. Our team — sponsored by a mysterious Dr. Vonder Schmidt — meets once a week in the evening for practice, and our games take place every Saturday morning.

Last Saturday, playing at the unholy hour of 8:30 a.m., our team handed the Green team a Duke-style drubbing, winning 37-16. By the luck of the league's lottery, our kids possess the ingredients for victory: We have a short, Brian Earl-esque point guard ('99), who at the young age of 11 makes incredibly sharp passes. We have a Chris Young-in-training ('02), an over-grown high school freshman who towers over his teammates, snatches rebounds without jumping and loves to shoot 3's. The rest the guys are Mason Roccas ('00): scrappy kids who get things done.

The tough part isn't watching this group of adolescents play — they take care of that largely on their own. The challenge lies in being a good coach. One hour, once a week is hardly enough time to make a favorable impression on 10 kids, but I really want to try.

As I recalled the shortcomings of my towel-chewing high school coach — in a nutshell, he failed to inspire positive energy or to applaud individual effort — I mostly remembered ways not to act. But I also remembered the positive things I learned in high school: fundamentals like good defense, crisp passing, patience, communication, boxing out, and above all, a genuine appreciation for the game of basketball.

Although I am the only inexperienced coach out of the three Dr. Vonder Schmidt instructors, my friends and I have similar basketball histories. We're tall, skinny, reasonably talented players and we all miss our high school 'glory' days. Personally, I still relive that game where I scored 22 points, baffling even myself (I remember looking into the stands that day, where my mom's face failed to hide her utter confusion over my scoring barrage). The three of us, however, appear most similar in our love of the game.

In this particular league, winning takes second billing to inspiring teamwork, and encouraging enthusiasm. Before the season began, the program supervisor reminded the 75 student coaches — all Princeton students — that every child, no matter what skill level, should receive equal playing time in games. As a coach, I have neither the ability nor the influence to 'create' a basketball player. Instead, my two friends and I teach basic skills like two-handed passes and the proper defensive stance. I want these kids to love basketball for the reasons I do: Being part of a team means making useful contributions as small as a rebound or pass, or as big as a buzzer-beater.

My larger goal is to be a coach, who unlike my high school coach, finds something positive to say about every player, on and off the floor. No coach creates or nurtures talented seventh graders by yelling at them, or by pointing out what they did wrong. Seventh graders respond to encouragement, support and suggestions, all given positively. When a coach instills an appreciation for the game through stressing these basics, he or she succeeds admirably.

With the skill-level of our team, the temptation exists for my friends and me to teach more challenging facets of the game, like a full-court press or motion offense or a 1-3-1 zone. Some of these guys probably know a lot of it anyway. But the point of this league, and therefore, the goal of my coaching experience, is to foster an enthusiastic love of the game.

Instead of nervously nibbling a ragged towel, pacing the sidelines in angst, or knocking over chalkboards during the half-time 'pep-talk,' I aim to be the coach that cheers for his kids, and congratulates a player who stepped out of bounds while running up court for his 'hustle,' rather than berate him for his 'clumsiness.'

Maybe I'm not trying to 'recapture a little of those glory years,' but through my coaching, I hope to teach players that one day too, will look back fondly on their basketball 'glory days.'

You can reach Patrick at pas@princeton.edu.