Forty’s House o’ Fun

The crowd stood tense, holding its collective breath in anticipation of the first shot. After ten minutes of play, Williamstown had finally drawn a shooting foul.

The shooter crouched at the free throw line with the ball in his hand, the tension etched on his face. Stretching up to his full four foot ten inch height, he lofted the shot, nearly falling over the line from the effort. The ball fell nearly a foot short of the rim, igniting a wave of disappointment that cascaded across the gym. Even the Adams cringed at their opponents’ miss.

The shooter took the ball from the referee, a middle-aged man with a mustache and scant hair, and lined up for the second shot. Again, the crowd stood motionless and silent. The shot went up, glancing off the front of the rim before falling through the basket. The crowd roared.

Players swarmed our shooter, a reserve guard who had just scored his fifth point of the season. On the sideline, I breathed a sigh of relief; we had finally broken the ice. The inevitable glance at the scoreboard quickly drained my euphoria. The score stood at 33-1, with six minutes to play in the first half. Things looked grim.

In fact, we did not score again in the first half, trailing 45-1 at the break, and eventually losing the contest 62-10. Our record fell to 4-4. In the next game of the tournament, we lost 56-6. Such has been one aspect of my experience this season as the coach of the Williamstown Fifth and Sixth Grade All-Star Team. The other side, of course, has made it fun, and has enticed me into doing it again next year.

How, you are certainly thinking, will a guy who loses two games by a combined score of 118-16 get rehired? Let’s just put it this way: it’s a good thing winning isn’t everything in Williamstown.

I don’t mean to suggest that my team is awful. We have talent, and we won the New York league in which we played. The kids are enthusiastic and resilient; as clichéd as it may sound, they just want to play. Overall, it has been a great experience.

Unfortunately, the size of Williamstown relative to the rest of Berkshire County makes it hard to compete in Massachusetts. Imagine Williams playing as the bottom seed in the ACC tournament, and you have some idea of where we stack up.

Also, admittedly, I know more about hanging out with kids than I do about basketball. (Allow me to drop a thank you in here to juniors Bob Stanton, Rob Kaufman, Liz Tilley, Dan Dickens and Mike Valenti, all of whom passed on valuable knowledge and advice during the season, and to Joe Steinberg ’01, who recognized immediately what I was doing wrong and told me repeatedly what it was.)

It has been a great winter, despite the tough losses. Those of you who work with kids know what makes it so rewarding. It was a great thing to see my team huddling together, planning how to create baskets for the weaker players or seeing my smallest player make his free throw to prevent the shutout by Adams. Those moments saved a season that began as a massive debacle.

I spent the first month as an assistant coach who had to be at work during many of our practices and games. On the rare occasions we could find a gym to practice in, some of our players failed to show.

We played sloppy defense, we were out of shape and we could not score at all. (We still can’t score very well, but the other two got much better.) Then the head coach had to resign, and I was left with a team I had barely seen all season, who had won only one of its first four games, and that game only by a scant margin.

Fortunately, we had our next three games against teams we could compete with. We won all three, thanks to several timely, buzzer-beater threes by the reserve point guard and a greatly improved defense. Those wins established that we could play high quality basketball as a team, rather than 11 individuals, and imparted an invaluable confidence on the players.

The tournament that followed displayed for the world the quality of the team’s character, a trait that drew several comments from opposing coaches. After the second game, I suggested that we skip the next tournament to avoid similar thrashings. The team roundly and vociferously rejected that idea.

Despite trailing by 30 or more, they had never given up. They continued to play as if the game was on the line, never getting down on one another and never worrying about the outcome. In every huddle, I told them that no matter how talented it might seem, a team needs character and poise to win. No one can ever deny that they have both, regardless of the score.

I wrote this column for them, because I think they deserve some recognition for what they were able to do, and because I am extremely proud of them. What I’m hoping to share with you, as those of us who coach Williamstown sports already know, is that the kids and the community here are very special. Thanks to everyone who played and helped along the way. I couldn’t have asked for more.