"No problem, Jim," I said courtingly. "We're having a little practice tomorrow night, and I'd like to see you there."
Jim came to practice and acquitted himself fairly well. He made layups, blocked a few shots, and ran up and down the court without falling. But he showed little enthusiasm for the game. During our first scrimmage, his initial shot was almost swatted out of the gym and down a hallway. A few other attempts were dismissed likewise. He shrugged, unconcerned, and instead of bearing down, hummed a catchy show tune. Jim never made an encore at practice. Too many rehearsals, he said. Wistfully, I crossed his name off the roster.
As a rookie coach I committed my share of blunders during the course of the season. The mistakes had little to do with court strategy. For example, there was the time I led the team down the path of indolence and false confidence. We were playing the State University of New York at Purchase, a school with a gleaming new athletic building and a fledgling basketball program. By halftime, the Green Machine had raced to a 25-point lead. I should have delivered a forceful, locker-pounding halftime speech about going out and playing as if the score were tied, but the allure of the luxurious surroundings proved too great. Many on the team vowed not to play in the second half unless we sampled the amenities, and so I conducted what must have been the only halftime session ever in a sauna. Back on the court, glassy-eyed, smiling and rubber-limbed, we staggered like winos through the second half and lost in the final minutes.
Opposing coaches with their portable blackboards and polyester suits dismissed us as cannon fodder. And although every team on the road must contend with some form of fan abuse, not many men's teams have to put up with wolf whistles. Wits on rival layup lines elbowed each other, guffawing, "Where's Sarah Lawrence? I hear she's their leading scorer." Wisecracks rained on us continually, and it was not always easy to take the floor before a hostile crowd with the name SARAH LAWRENCE emblazoned on your chest. One player confided to me that he felt like the hero in the Johnny Cash song, A Boy Named Sue.
Perhaps because we took such regular beatings on the court, we rejoiced mightily in small victories. Our most dreaded games were against Manhattanville, a rising power in the Division III ranks, with a coach who left his regulars on the floor until the box scores of our games looked like misprints. The Manhattanville players were a well-drilled, humorless bunch who seemed to take offense that we had even dared to show up for games.
Midway through the first half of one game we hung close with a patient, slowdown offense. As Manhattanville's frustration mounted, its players glowered at each other every time Sarah Lawrence made a basket. After a foul call the captain berated his teammates. "We're only up seven on these clowns," he shouted, an angry vein bulging in his neck.
These were magic words of motivation. For the rest of the half the Green Machine played like the Celtics. Bill, our center, grabbed every rebound in sight. We dropped the sagging zone and pressed frantically on defense. For the first time all year we converted on a fast break. Then an alley-oop. Plays I had diagrammed in my dorm room actually worked. The basket inhaled our shots like a powerful magnet. Jumpers, twisting layups—a parade of unanswered points put us into the lead. The crowd grew mute, and the only sounds I remember were the squeaks of rubber soles and the ball pounding the floor and then caressing the net on yet another perfect shot.
I think the Manhattanville coach was too stunned to call a timeout. None of us could comprehend what was happening until Alan, our best defensive player, stepped to the foul line. He looked up at the scoreboard and said nonchalantly, "C'mon, guys, we're only up seven on these clowns."
We held the lead at halftime. The final score was irrelevant. (I'll never tell.) In the game inside the game we triumphed, a brief stretch where we defied our abilities and confounded our stronger opponents. What more could a coach ask for?