The tension was high in the gym of Riderwood Elementary School in Baltimore County the other night. For a moment it appeared that the basketball was going to go in the basket. Parents who had been sitting on the sidelines came to their feet. Coaches yelled. The scorekeeper perked up, thinking he might have some business.
It was a false alarm. Instead of going in the basket, the ball sailed over the rim. The first half of the titanic struggle ended in a 0-0 tie.
I was one of the coaches of one of the teams. As I gathered my team of 9- and 10-year-old boys around me at halftime, I offered my troops this bit of stirring advice, "Be sure and get a drink of water." Meanwhile, my assistant coach, Jack JTC "Mr.-Instant-Offense" Kieley, came up with a plan of how our guys could score a basket. It consisted of running our tallest kid, Hugh, toward the basket with our best dribbler, Greg, hiding behind him. Hugh would clear out the opposing players and Greg would shoot. It didn't work, but at least it sounded good at halftime.
The other team, coached by John Stout and Angel Mata, had a better offensive plan for the second half. It seemed to consist of having their big kids shoot at the basket, repeatedly, sometimes three or four times in a row, until the ball fell in.
The other team beat us 16-7. But on the bright side, our team did make one free throw and executed a remarkable pass. That pass rolled along the gym floor, set of legs and arrived in the hands of a kid who was standing underneath the basket. We missed that shot too.
If this sounds familiar, then someone in your household iprobably playing basketball, or some version of the game, today. This is tournament time, the time of year when kids' basketball leagues wind up their seasons by playing either single or double elimination tournaments. All winter long, kids have been bouncing basketballs, coaches have been scheming and parents have been shuttling their offspring to sweaty gyms. At tournament time, the season is compressed into a few final pairings. Now there seems to be a basketball game every hour.
If you have several basketball players in your household, and not much common sense, you could spend the entire day driving from gym to gym. That is what I am going to be doing today. And judging by the number of cars I see going in and out of gym parking lots, I think a fair number of other parents are also making the basketball tournament rounds.
At each gym I stop in, I play a different role. When I stop at the gym at St. Paul's, where my oldest son is playing in a middle-school tournament this weekend, I am a fan. I sit with other parents of team members and cheer. I have learned there are two keys to enjoying a middle-school basketball game. First, sit in a seat that has back support. Long games can be hard on the backbone. Secondly, refrain from "helping" the referee make the correct calls. The refs don't want fan assistance.
When I walk into the tournament being played at Carver High school, I arrive as commissioner of the Towsontowne 13-15-year-old boys' recreation league. You might think that a limo came with such a mighty job title. Wrong, I don't even get a reserved parking space. Early in the season I did get to call up other dads and cajole them into volunteering to coach a team. Veterans of this song and dance, such as Michael Camiel, Charlie Cooper, Jim Fabian, Doug Sachse, Jon Calhoun and Ed Muth, didn't need much encouragement. But newcomers to the coaching ranks, such as Stephen Scally and Joseph Connor, had to be lied to. I told them coaching was easy and fun. Then there were the Novak brothers, Roger and David. They ended up taking a team after each brother volunteered the other for the job of head coach.
I also took the job with the belief that, following in the tradition oleague commissioners everywhere, I could arrange to have my kid play on the best team. That plan went awry when my kid decided he wasn't going to play in the league this year. This meant I ended up being a commissioner beyond reproach, a commissioner who couldn't be accused of stacking the teams. What a bummer.
When I walk into the gym at Riderwood, I join the ranks of dads who coach teams of 9- and 10-year-old boys. They are Bob Barczak, Jeff Kalkstein, Bruce Rice, John Frank Turlington, Joe Fields, Tim Phelps and Jerry Blair.
While I can't speak for those guys, I think I know why I spend my time playing basketball with the youngsters. I do it, of course, because I like the kids. And I do it because I get to carry a clipboard, and I get to draw up elaborate plays. Since the old ones didn't work too well, I have drawn up a few new plays just in time for the tournament which starts this week. And I do it because for a few weeks of the year, I get to be called "Coach."