The best stories, like the best jokes, take a circuitous route. The words circle back in a way that surprises and pleases the audience. So it is with the story of my greatest experience in basketball.
It started back in the early 1990s when I signed up to coach a 12-and-under boys team in the southend of Halifax. I didn’t have any input on the composition of the team; I just volunteered, then took my whistle to the old gym behind Canadian Martyrs Church on the appointed night and was met by my team. A few practices into the season it became clear that I didn’t have many great players, but I did have an abundance of great athletes. And, I noted happily, to a person I had great boys.
At the time I was about 23 years old and had enjoyed the tutelage of a number of great coaches over the years. I knew, looking at my kids in the gym on those first few Fall nights, that I couldn’t teach them anything about athleticism. And I didn't know a lick about instilling or enhancing a kid's character. What I could foster were a few skills and a sense of team spirit. So we set out together on a season-long journey that saw us get better and better each week as we developed a mutual trust and deep respect for one another.
The only wildcard in the playing mix was Freddy (I’ve changed his name). Freddy was a wiry, red-headed kid who arrived at practice each night simmering with anger. He was, literately, mad at the world. Halifax being a small town, I knew that Freddy had a good reason to be pissed-off. The kids on the team may not have realized it, but I had learned that Freddy’s father had abandoned his family - and done so in a very abrupt manner. As a result, when the boy arrived in the gym he was always just a few Kelvins shy of his boiling point. Still, Freddy got the same treatment from me every night: calm but firm. I gave him a little more slack that the other players, but not so much that he was ever really disruptive or so much that he grew entirely unfocused.
Despite (or perhaps because of) this dynamic, the team came together. We started running plays and executing them well. And we won some ball games. Eventually, we made it to the City finals where, in King’s College gym, we posted a 1-point victory over a powerful and gifted “Community Y” team. From there, we headed to the Provincials and were soon into the final versus… the Community Y. The rematch was played on the south-shore of Nova Scotia and had been delayed a week by bad weather. Not a good omen, I thought. But we entered a small gym with its tiny balcony filled to capacity and played a perfect first half of basketball. By half-time we were up more than 20 points and the kids were so pleased they floated into the locker-room. I was less happy. By nature, I worry. And that day was no exception. In the locker-room I advised my players to keep playing hard and not rest on our lead. The kids nodded their heads but I was not convinced they truly believed a 20+ point lead in an 12-and-under game could evaporate.
Of course, it did. And by the last few seconds of the game, we were down by a point. The gym was a madhouse. Parents of the Community Y players had discovered that if they banged on the sheets of tin that lined the balcony, the noise it produced was punishing. It fed into our team’s waning confidence and helped create turnovers and missed shots.
With fewer than 10 seconds left in the game, the ball was in our possession but my kids were stunned. I called a timeout. As I walked into the huddle, I looked at the scoreboard to confirm what I already knew: we were down by a point. To be losing after having held the lead for the entire game gave my team the look of kids who’d been called into the Principal's office for throwing snowballs at cars. I tried to draw up a play, but with the banging on the tin and the chanting of the crowd, my boys were shellshocked and unreachable. I tried to pull them tighter but their heads swiveled between the crowd and my play-board.
Finally, I rose from my crouch and told them: “I am not drawing up a play until you are all paying attention.” By now the referees were blowing their whistles trying to get our team back onto the floor where the Community Y players eagerly waited. I stood there impassively. The kids didn’t know what to do. Some leaned toward the court, others stood stunned. They were waiting for me to release them. But I wouldn’t do it.
“No one. Goes. Anywhere,” I said.
Finally, the kids were still and as focused as soldiers on the Citadel. “Good,” I said, as the refs hollered for us to break huddle. “Here’s what we do... we run the play just like we always have…” I quickly reviewed a well-known play and the position of each player on the floor. The kids nodded and their faces lit up. Confidence seeped back in. And they sprang out onto the floor.
In my memory, the inbounding of the ball and subsequent play took a minute or two. In reality it unfolded in less than 10 seconds. It ended when the last player on our team got the ball in the key, very close to the hoop. He lofted the ball up, and… it banked off the glass and in. There was a split-second pause before the kids went nuts. An impressive group of pre-teens had added “Provincial Champion” to their little resumes.
Over the years, I largely lost track of the players from that team. I might hear a snippet about what one or two of them - Mark was doing (studying law), Cooper was up to (tending bar) - but mostly their lives were mysteries to me. I told myself that we had shared a great season and that was enough.
Then, a few years ago, shortly after my wife and I had moved our young family back to Halifax, we attended a formal dinner at a downtown venue. Hundreds of guests attended in tuxes and gowns, an after the meal we all stood as the chefs emerged from the kitchen and took their bows and mingled. Soon enough, a particularly tall fellow in a white stove-pipe hat was standing in front of my wife talking to her. Clearly, they knew each other. I was not part of their conversation and when the chef walked away my wife gently chided me:
“Why didn’t you say hello to him?”
“You were chatting,” I said, “And besides, I don’t know him.”
“Yes you do,” she said, “That's Fred.”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“You know... 'Freddy'… from your basketball team back in the '90s. Growing up, I knew his sister,” she added, "That's him!"
“You’re kidding me,” I said.
“He’s the head chef,” my wife continued. “He was in charge of preparing this entire meal.”
Now I was truly stunned. In my mind, despite the fact that Freddy had a wonderful mother and a fine sister, it was always 50-50 whether he would end up having a good life or a miserable one. (Truth be told, I probably would have wagered the latter.)
Over the next few seconds, I watched his stove-pipe hat move through the crowd, until it circled back and ended up in front of me. Freddy and I exchanged smiles.
“I just realized who you are," he said. "You’re coach Dave.” I nodded. He continued: “I just wanted to come back and say thanks. I was a pretty bad kid back when I played for you, but you were always good to me. I needed that.”
“You’re welcome,” I said. We shook hands and he headed back toward the kitchen.
Freddy had grown into "Fred" and he was now a very tall man My wife informed me that Fred had graduated from culinary college and worked as the head chef at one of Halifax's finest restaurants. He was married and had kids of his own. By any standard, he was a ‘success’. And his life, well, it seemed to be a very good one.
I have re-told this story a few times, mostly to coaches who have grown frustrated by parents interfering with their teams or feel that their volunteering is not having a positive impact. I always end with the same few words: “It’s funny to think that after playing basketball so many years, my greatest moment came as a coach - and it took 25 years to even realize it happened.”