Monday, May 11, 2009

Last Game

Since 1985 he has coached his and other men's sons in the games of basketball and football. Last Saturday, May 9th 2009, his legacy ended.

You might think such an accomplishment would be heralded in newspapers, this man who has coached scores of young men, five of his own sons, and his only daughter; you might expect a video montage, a gift of a plaque or some other token marking the feat; at least you'd expect the announcer to mention the end of an era; but his journey ended the same way it happened, in the Auxiliary gymnasium of Minico High School, no announcer, just players family members as fans, a pair of local yokels officiating. No newspaper covered the event. As usual he recieved no salary for his work.

The game started poorly for the boys from Blackfoot. Worn out from 4 games in two days, the urgency wasn't there. The star player, his son, was out with an injury leaving him with only six players against an opposing team with ten. A call was made, and a younger player from another team came to bring it up to seven.

The team was comatose on the court. It appeared no amount of cajoling would ignite the fire. Would it end this way; in an ugly blowout? Would the coach who preached hustle, rebounding, defense, and leaving it all on the court, end his tenure unable to coax one more game out of these young men?

Down ten points in the first half he pulled his best two players who were the most unresponsive. Put in the end of the bench and left them in. He called "black" their full court press daring the players to fight. He spoke as a coach of experience, drawing out strength from places his team didn't know existed. And they fought back.

The fans, who until this point had been considering getting an early start on the trip home, woke up, and called encouragement to the team. The whole atmosphere changed on both ends. No longer what this just one more game to get through before heading home, no this was a contest of the wills. The younger inexperienced players didn't know not to try, they dove on the floor, they stole passes, they snatched rebounds they shouldn't have gotten, the the tide started to change. As they tied the game up, the entire gym knew: this was basketball they way it was meant to be played. The venue didn't matter, they players' skill level didn't matter, each player on the court was a convert to Coach's religion of Hustle. Each fan riveted as wills clashed in an struggle for supremacy. The opposing team was also converted and it was a battle.

Two halves weren't enough to decide the clash and so an overtime was played. Eventually the older players caught the vision and were allowed to play. Coach paced the sidelines, making adjustments, funneling years of experience into the players, making adjustments, giving encouragement. He was in his element. They say it takes 10,000 hours to become a true master at something and coach had put that in several times over.

Down five points in overtime things didn't look good, suddenly a player hit a clutch three, tieing the game with mere seconds left. A second overtime was called for.

Overtimes are a thing of passion; a contest of the wills; playing chicken with fatigue. Who will break first? Who will listen to the lungs screaming for air, their legs begging for rest, their mind's desire to unfocus?

Or who will listen to their heart, yearning to win? The teams have proven they are evenly matched, and now it comes down to who wants it the most. Our Coach's team did. They jumped out to a five point lead and never looked back. The other team fought, but with less desire, less precision.

Coach stood, victor one last time. Fate had blessed him with a fitting send off, a contest of method and motivation. You have to wonder if he felt as Captain Kirk did as he died alone, on a strange alien world, his final utterance, "it was fun."

And so what of a memorial to this unassuming shaper of boys. This man who has donated mornings, weekends, and vacations, to help his sons, and those of other men, achieve something. To instill in them more than just proper post technique; to instill in them a passion for challenges and for life. Perhaps the most fitting tribute is what he already has, for it was never about personal glory, the gyms he coached in never even had reporters, but when those young men meet him after years have passed, they still honor him with that title that he has earned so well. That title that symbolizes his unselfish dedication to helping these boys realize their potential. When he meets those he has taught, broken down and built back up, the still call him "Coach." And that might be memorial enough.

As Coach left the gym that Saturday afternoon, he forgot his clipboard. It sits on a bench, in Minico, waiting for someone else to take the mantle.

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