My eleven-year-old daughter, Lola, is short for her age, wiry, and fast. Her body type and skill set are not ideally suited to basketball, yet this is the sport she has chosen. Last fall, I signed her up for a basketball league in Pacific Palisades, and a few days later I received an email from Nicole, the woman who administered the league, saying that they were in need of coaches. I volunteered. She told me to attend the player evaluations, to better prepare for the draft.
There was only one other coach at the evaluations: Stan, an older man with white hair and a Hawaiian shirt. He carried a white clipboard with a basketball court stenciled on it and did not acknowledge me. A dozen girls took turns shooting from the top of the key, the free-throw line, and the elbow. Then they dribbled down the center of the court in a serpentine between orange cones. I took careful notes about each girl’s height and shooting ability. This was the first of two evaluations, though on the day of the second one, Coach Nicole called and said I didn’t need to attend. I completed my draft form and emailed it to her. She sent back a team roster and I noticed that I had received a couple of the players I had requested.
At our first practice, I took stock of the Fever, as our team was called. We had Anna and Jessie, both of above-average height, and Freedom and Lori, who could both handle the ball.1 We also had Portia, Sara, Atoosa, and, of course, Lola. I spent a third of the practice trying to get the girls to stop arguing, texting, and posting to Instagram. Finally, I organized a few basketball-related activities: layup lines, defensive drills, and free-throw shots.
1 Names have been changed because this is a story about eleven-year-olds.
Our first game was against the Sky, which was headed by Coach Stan. None of the girls on his team had been at the evaluation I had attended, and most of them were taller than the Fever’s tallest player.
We tipped off. Our team didn’t put up a serious shot until about ten minutes into the game, by which point the other team was shooting uncontested layups and we were losing 22–0. Our opponents were not only taller, they also could score from fifteen feet or more. Our team didn’t have a single player who could reliably hit an open jump shot, though we had plenty who would eagerly take and miss well-guarded twenty-five-footers.
By the start of the second half I was having a hard time persuading players on the bench to go back into the game. We ended up losing 55–9. Afterward, I shook Coach Stan’s hand. He smirked and said, “Nice game, coach.”
When Coach Nicole sent me the schedule for the rest of the season, I discovered that the league had only two teams. Every Sunday, the Fever would play the Sky, a team that, if the first week’s game was indicative, was superior in every respect, including coaching.
According to Coaching Basketball for Dummies, “Coaching is about putting a smile on a youngster’s face when she’s on the court and seeing the excitement in her eyes as she has fun learning how to perform a variety of skills.” But that pabulum wilts before the reality of getting demolished twelve Sundays in a row, not counting Thanksgiving weekend, by the same eight girls and their white-haired coach. We were the Washington Generals to their Harlem Globetrotters.
As our losses to the Sky mounted, I began to have dark thoughts about Coach Stan, who would loudly protest the occasional fouls called on his girls, even when they were winning by thirty points. Why did he bother? We never made our free throws.
I tried to figure out how to improve our offense. The Survival Guide for Coaching Youth Basketball was full of clever formations and plays. I tried a three-guard offense, an outside-in offense, screen and roll, give and go, none of which the girls could grasp or execute. I even studied Phil Jackson’s triangle offense, but I gave it up because I couldn’t understand how it worked. And the reason no offensive set would work for us was simple: every play, every scheme, every formation was designed to end with a player putting the ball into the basket, and this was something we could not do.
I had the girls attempt a new defensive plan: we would keep our fastest players near the half-court line to stop the Sky’s incessant and devastating fast break. But even if we slowed them down — and I can still picture those girls, blond-haired, gangly Clara; stocky, muscular Erika with the birthmark on her forehead; long, lean Katie with the awkward but effective shooting form — we were incapable of scoring enough to be competitive.
Girls began quitting. We lost Mara, among our best ball handlers, about halfway through the season. Her mother explained that she now had a dance class every Sunday. Atoosa, one of our two Persian players, simply stopped showing up; my emails to her mother started bouncing back.
I had the misfortune of coaching a losing youth-basketball team during the one season everybody thought there was a simple recipe for success. A few weeks after our first game, a new Malcolm Gladwell bestseller, David and Goliath, was published. In its opening chapter, a woefully undermanned girls-basketball team makes it all the way to the championship game using unconventional tactics. The coach, Vivek Ranadivé, was a first-generation Indian immigrant who had never played basketball; his team, a group of twelve-year-olds from Menlo Park, California, was short and untalented. Yet Coach Ranadivé had found a way to turn them into a true giant killer, a team of Davids.
Several parents had seen a segment on 60 Minutes about Gladwell’s book and mentioned it to me. When I looked into the story, I noticed that Coach Ranadivé had a surprising advantage. His two assistant coaches were Rometra Craig, a former Division I college-basketball player at Duke and USC, and her father, Roger Craig, a former All-Pro NFL running back. This plucky upstart coach had two elite athletes to help him. I didn’t have any assistants, and none of the other parents were volunteering.
The strategy that Ranadivé and his assistants used to win games was to press during every opponent possession. They defended every inch of the court, from the moment their opponent inbounded the ball. It’s an exhausting and challenging strategy, and illegal in many youth leagues. In our league, we could only press during the second half, by which point we were usually behind by twenty. Gladwell’s story fit the thesis of his book; it just didn’t work in the reality of my league.
Yet every practice and game, another father or mother would thoughtfully mention to me that they had read or seen something that could help us turn things around.
I started reading the motivational tracts of famous coaches: John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, The Essential Wooden, and The Wisdom of Wooden; Pat Summitt’s Reach for the Summit; Lou Holtz’s Winning Every Day. They all stressed that the benefits of team sports transcended winning or losing, but that was easy for them to say: they were all champions. Losing coaches don’t get to publish how-to books. Holtz, a national-championship-winning football coach at Notre Dame, called one chapter “The Best Part of Getting Knocked Down Is Getting Back Up: Tackling Adversity,” but a page earlier, he had urged readers, “Think about winning before you go to sleep and the moment you wake.”
My emails to the other parents began to sound increasingly desperate as I described new strategies and plans that might finally defeat the evil Sky. “We had a great practice yesterday,” began a typical email. “We have a plan for this Sunday,” Coach Karl would say, before laying out his doomed vision.
According to a survey conducted by ESPN, 23 percent of parents believe that youth sports are putting a strain on their families. Perhaps this is because an astonishing 32 percent believe that their child has a good chance of winning a Division I athletic scholarship. Eleven percent believe that their child could be a professional athlete someday. I took some comfort knowing that other parents, at least some of them, cared as deeply as I did. But why? What was actually at stake? Nothing.
My daughter, it was obvious, was not going to play basketball at a high level, or perhaps even for another season, given the experience she was having. As a dad, I had previously taken my daughter’s athletic endeavors lightly, rooting for her but not obsessing over wins and losses. But now that I was coaching, the metronomic regularity of the beatings my team was taking wore me down so much that I became irritable around the house. My wife and my father both told me to quit.
Lola tolerated our long season with equanimity. She accepted our circumstances, and when her teammates complained about our situation or lamented that we could never beat the Sky, she shrugged. She never contradicted my stated position that we would, eventually, somehow, find a way to win. But in the car on the way home from practice, she would ask me, “You don’t really think we can win, do you?”
We did actually close the gap with the Sky, losing our last regular-season game by just a dozen points. We finished the season 0–12, second place in a two-team league. Which meant that we would be playing in the championship game. Against the Sky.
In our final practice, I told my girls to forget scoring entirely, to forget offense. We were going to kill our opponents with a smothering defense. I told Lola, who was among the fastest girls in the league, to obsessively follow the Sky’s point guard no matter where she was on the floor. Our only chance was to change the dynamics of the game (yes, sort of like Ranadivé’s team did).
At the championship game, on a warm Sunday in December, my girls held the Sky to nine points during the first half. We went into halftime with a six-point lead, which prompted premature celebration from the girls, who couldn’t help but discuss how good it would feel when they finally won a game.
“I’m going to laugh in their faces,” Lori promised.
The Sky regained their shooting form in the second half, with Clara burying fifteen-footers and Erika running the fast break. But we somehow matched them basket for basket. Our team’s parents were jubilant.
Then, with about two minutes left, the Fever scored a basket and the points were mistakenly given to the Sky. Or so we believed. Mistakes like that are common in youth basketball, and usually parents or the coaches quickly correct them. But in this case, the mistake was allowed to stand: the scorer insisted the score was correct.
Down by two points, we got the ball with about twenty-five seconds left. We didn’t get a good shot, the Sky rebounded the ball, and they dribbled out the clock. But if those two disputed points had been correctly awarded, we would have been up by two. We would have been champions.
My players were in tears. Almost all of them ran over to the scorer’s table, insisting that we had been robbed. The scorer, an unkempt young man who ate chili dogs while he logged the game, showed them his book, which seemed to indicate that the score was correct. But what if he had simply logged the error and never fixed it?
Several of the girls approached Coach Nicole to complain. Nothing is more moving than a tearful eleven-year-old who believes she has been cheated. Somehow, Coach Nicole was unmoved.
“Coach,” Coach Nicole said to me, “can you tell your girls to get in line for the second-place-trophy presentation?”
“They really feel they’ve been cheated out of the win,” I said. “I mean, if you look at the season we’ve had, I mean, this really is tough if that’s what happened.”
“Hey, why do you have to be so negative?” Coach Nicole said. She turned to the team. “You guys played a great game. You should be proud.”
“But we won,” said Lori, “and you took it away.”
“I can’t stand this negativity,” Coach Nicole said. She walked over to where the Sky were celebrating.
I couldn’t persuade my girls to walk down the line and shake hands with the Sky. I could barely shake Coach Stan’s hand. Most of the girls left without their second-place trophies. Half were still crying. Parents emailed me into the next day, vowing to withdraw their children from the league.
I struggled to find a lesson we could draw from the experience.
We simply lost. And maybe that’s the lesson, the most brutal of all. Sometimes you will lose, regularly, decisively, completely. And there will be nothing you can do about it.
The next month, I signed Lola up for spring basketball. We were assured there would be half a dozen teams because soccer season was now finished. A few days later, Coach Nicole emailed me and asked if I would coach again.
I told her I would do it.