I swallowed yet another cup of water as my players took the floor for the third round game of the state basketball playoffs, a game that everyone knew we had no business playing. For over a decade, this basketball program resided in the cemetery of the dead and could be considered the laughing stock of the sport. Not only had a winning record eluded them for over a decade, the last three years were abysmal. Four total wins in those three years combined. With that kind of background, some had even questioned why I would take such a job. “You can’t win there,” I had been told on more than one occasion.
However, as I stood in that gym, only seconds before the third round of the playoffs tipped off, I took a moment to realize that not only had we done the unthinkable by having a winning record and making the playoffs, we had done the improbable by actually winning playoff games. Having watched our rise from the ashes throughout the year, charging into the playoffs, the entire community had rallied around our team. Signs and posters began to appear in store fronts and house lawns proclaiming that this team was Back From the Dead. By doing the unthinkable and the improbable, this team of high school boys had become the fresh water stream in an athletic program that had grown stale.
However, now I was asking my team to do the impossible – to beat a state ranked opponent, a team that had not lost a game in nearly three months and had averaged 88 points a game for the season. It did indeed seem like an impossible task for my team who could not even average 50 points a game. Everyone knew that our great run that season would come to end that night. Earlier in the day, at a school Pep Rally, I had chosen to play into that belief that the end was going to come that night.
“Tonight, we face our biggest challenge yet,” I had addressed both the student body and many community leaders who had packed our gym for the Pep Rally. “If you ask anyone, they will tell you that we do not have a chance to win tonight. And you know,” I had slowly emphasized, “they are all probably right. We don’t have a chance. Tonight may very well be the last game of this season.”
I could sense the uneasiness in the crowd that had gathered in the gym. What is he saying? This is no way to fire up his team and get us all excited about the game tonight. He can’t be admitting defeat! I didn’t think he was that kind of coach!
“Tonight we play a basketball powerhouse that anyone in their right mind would pick to blow us out of the gym,” I continued. “They are one of our classification’s giants in the state when it comes to basketball. Just look at their starting lineup. Six -seven, Six-seven, six-five, six-three and six-one.”
I now had the audience right where I wanted them. I wanted them to feel the impossibility of the situation before I changed gears. “But, I want to tell you a story,” my voice slightly rose. “It’s the story in the Old Testament of a man named Gideon who took 300 untrained men without weapons and completely wiped out the enemy army that stood with over 100,000 fighting men.
“And then one time there was this little scrawny shepherd boy named David who took five stones and a sling shot and defeated the single greatest giant of a man the enemy had.
“Moving through history, we see the American colonists taking up arms to defeat the highly trained British army.
“In 1980,” the speed and excitement of my delivery grew, “the United States Olympic hockey team had no chance of defeating the older, wiser, and better team from the Soviet Union. But some of you might remember the call made as the game’s final seconds ticked away, ‘Do you believe in miracles?’ and that underdog U.S. hockey team won that game.
“I could go on and on and list more of the major upsets that have happened throughout all of history,” I continued, “but I think you see my point. I don’t care what the experts say about how great of a basketball team we are playing tonight. And don’t misunderstand me, they are great. But that doesn’t mean that we are going to hand them a victory. Tonight, just like David did a few thousand years ago, we are going to gather five stones, five players on the floor, and we are going to take it to the giant.”
The crowd now sounded like a horses stampede as they realized my tactic. However, I wasn’t finished. “But we cannot do it alone,” I shouted into the microphone in order to be heard above the roar. “We need each of you there with us, cheering for us and giving us strength. If we are going to shock the world tonight, we can’t let up for a minute. We have to play a full 32 minutes of great basketball.” I raised my hand and pointed throughout the crowd. “So when we start to get mentally and physically tired out there, we need to rely on you to give us that energy we need.” The crowd cheered again.
My voice rose. “Together, tonight, we are not only going to win this game, we are going to shock the world.” As if on cue, the band began playing the school fight song as I shouted again, “We are going to shock the world.”
However, now, hours removed from being that confident coach in that Pep Rally, as I stood in front of the bench watching my five starters line up for the jump ball, I knew all those words I had so boldly spoken earlier that morning were nothing more than hype. Winning this game really was an impossible situation. I turned towards my assistant coach, a man much older and wiser than me and muttered, “Coach, I just don’t want to be embarrassed tonight.”
“You’ve done everything you could do,” he reminded me as he placed his hand on my shoulder as a father would do to comfort his son. “If there was ever a team primed to shock the world, this team is it.” His gruff, yet assuring voice resounded in my ears as he reminded me of my words in the locker room as I addressed the team before we took the floor.
“There is an old saying in sports,” I had told my team, “that you don’t have to be a better basketball team than your opponents to beat them. You only have to play better than they do for 32 minutes.” I drew each player into me by placing my clinched hand in front of me. Each player closed their fist and joined my fist in a tight circle of arms connected at what was now one central fist. “But I don’t want you guys to worry about playing better than them for 32 minutes. I want you to outplay them the first four minutes of the game. That’s all I am asking right now. Four minutes. We’ll talk about the rest of the game after that. Just give me the first four minutes of more heart than they have.”
As the ball soared into the air signifying the start of the game, my heartbeat must have looked like a bar graph tracking the daily ups and downs of the New York Stock Exchange. It might have even flat lined for the first ten or so seconds. Was it even possible to play better than them for four minutes?
As if to answer my question, my team played harder and smarter than any team I had ever coached. Our defense, the part of the game that had carried us all year long, became an impenetrable stone wall, never allowing our daunted high flying opponents to even get off the ground, much less soar.
“That is what I am talking about,” I gathered in my players during a timeout around the four minute mark of the first quarter, much like a mother hen would gather her chicks. Throughout the year I had grown to think of them exactly that way. These were my kids. We had laughed and cried together, experienced the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, and had quite literally not only united together as a band of brothers, but had also united the entire community. This was my family and I realized, as I locked my eyes onto each one of their eyes, that it didn’t really matter if we won or lost this game. We would forever be united because of what we had accomplished this year. We had emerged out of the ashes and were back from the dead.
“You guys did exactly what I asked,” I continued. “You outplayed them for four minutes.” I paused so that my next words would have the impact I desired. “Now I am going to ask you to focus on playing harder and smarter than they do for four minutes. Let’s end the first quarter with the lead.”
Any doubts that we could play a second segment of four minutes as well as we played the first four minutes were quickly put aside as we did not miss a single shot nor give up an offensive rebound the remainder of the first quarter. I will never forget not only the look of confidence in my players’ eyes as they sprinted to the bench at the end of the first quarter leading 11-4, but the gaze of confusion written on each of our opponents’ faces, staring at the scoreboard in disbelief, as they began their discouraged meander towards their bench. They were a team that had had averaged 88 points a game during the regular season and somehow our defense had held them to only four first quarter points.
The second quarter was almost a repeat of the first quarter as our defense continued to stymie our opponents’ offense while my point guard, like a skilled conductor, orchestrated our offense into a symphonic masterpiece of efficiency. By halftime, we still held onto a slim six point lead.
As we readied to take the floor for the second half, I turned towards my assistant coach with the words, “Remember when I said that I just didn’t want to be embarrassed in this game?”
He flashed a grin and nodded.
“Forget that,” I laughed as I downed another cup of water. It must have been my fifteenth cup of water I had swallowed since the game started. My mouth always feels like the Sahara Desert when I am nervous for a big game. “Well, forget that!” I exclaimed, tossing the empty cup into the trashcan. “Let’s just win this game.”
That is exactly what my team set out to do in the second half. Despite my fear that our first half had awakened the sleeping giant we were playing, we continued to play outstanding basketball, led by our defense and seconded by the fact that we missed only one free throw the entire game. During that pivotal third quarter, every time our opponent even dreamed about taking the lead, we would answer it with a perfectly timed three point shot that would deflate their sense of confidence before it had inflated enough to take control of the game.
As my players took the court for the final quarter of the game, I wandered aimlessly down to the end of the bench to gulp down yet another cup of water. Can we really win this game? Everything has gone right for us the first three quarters of the game, but can we really hope to stop their high powered offense for four quarters? God, give us strength!
However, as the fourth quarter began, our practically perfect play began to fade as our opponent slowly began to seize control of the game. Despite our brilliant game plan and outstanding performance, we simply could not hold down one of the most explosive teams in the state. With their season on the line, our opponent finally began to demonstrate signs of why they had averaged 88 points a game that season. By the time the scoreboard clock clicked under four minutes remaining in the game, our lead stood at only two points, 39-37.
“We gave them that four minute block,” I exhorted my team. “We cannot give them the last four minutes. We can’t even really tie them. We have four minutes left and I beg you to play your best basketball you have ever played for four minutes. That’s all. Play better basketball than they do for only four minutes and our season will continue. Every single possession on both offense and defense is going to count.” I forced myself to smile in order to help calm my players’ growing anxiety. They needed me now to be their calming influence. However, the smile was doing nothing to calm my nerves. At this moment I realized that a good coach must also be a great actor. “Guys,” I added through my forced smile, “this is the reason we have worked hard all year. This is the reason why we have focused so much on defense. This is the reason why we have insisted that we be disciplined in running our offensive sets with patience and precision. We have practiced and worked hard all year for exactly this moment.”
As we trotted back onto the court for the final four minutes of the game, I could sense the hype and anxiety in the hundreds of fans that stood behind me on our side of the court. I recalled the words I had spoken at the Pep Rally when I had begged them to be the extra energy the team would need to stay focused and full of energy. The sound of hands clapping, feat stomping, and voices cheering echoing behind me screamed into my heart that they were heeding my advice.
Tracy Mixon began the momentum change when he swiped the ball from one of their guards before bouncing the ball ahead to a breaking Kole Weberfor a layup. A defensive stop led to another Kole basket to open our margin again to six points.
Moments later as Kole drove around his man once again lofting a shot into the air, I felt my feet lift to my tiptoes, hoping to give Kole that one extra amount of lift he needed to get the shot over the hulking defensive center. It wasn’t enough as the defender blocked Kole’s shot towards the baseline. However, before I could even groan, Kenton Stridde snatched the ball out of the air and went right over that defender, who was now off balance, for a score.
However, despite our few minutes of greatness, our opponent could not be denied as they quickly battled back cutting our lead to 43-42 with a minute and half remaining. Was it really going to end like this? After playing almost perfect basketball for the entire game, were we really going to succumb to our opponent’s greatness in the final 90 seconds?
Following a time out, our highly favored opponent took the court poised to take their first lead of the ball game, with their point guard at the foul line. Lord, let him miss, I pleaded. My prayer was answered. As his shot missed, it bounced off several hands before Kole Weber scooped the ball on the dribble and sprinted down the court. Although I had learned throughout the year to trust my point guard, I couldn’t help but cringe as I watched him challenge the same big center that had just blocked his shot a few minutes earlier. However, just before Kole committed to shoot over him, he passed the ball back out to Tracy who calmly knocked in a three point basket.
On the next defensive possession, needing to stop our opponent once again, James Stroleny, just as he had done countless times all year, anticipated a pass to their post, knocking it away before chasing the ball down. As he fed ahead to the breaking Tracy Mixon, my mind raced backwards to a time much earlier in the season when Tracy had forced a three point shot on the run instead of slowing the game down, causing us to lose that game. However, this time, having learned from his failure earlier in the season, he did not force the shot. After driving towards the basket to draw the defense towards him, Tracy pitched the ball back out to a wide open Kole Weber who, in perfect rhythm shot the ball. As Kole’s shot arced towards the basket, from the corner of my eye, I could see dozens of fans also shoot their arms skyward, willing the shot to go through the net.
That three point basket forced the opposing coach to disgustingly call a time out.
As my team huddled around me, smiles showing on each face, I knew they believed they had just won the game. However, in my coaching career, I had witnessed some very strange endings to games so I would not allow them to celebrate, despite a 49-42 lead with one minute remaining in the game. “We know how quickly they can score points,” I reminded them. “We cannot relax on defense and we cannot turn the ball over on offense.” I pointed to the scoreboard. “We don’t have to score another basket to win this game. We simply need to run as much clock as we can, hit all our free throws, and play great defense without fouling.” I stopped so I could lock in my eyes on each of my players, on each member of my basketball family. Harking back to the motivational strategy I had used throughout the entire game of winning small segments of the game, I smiled one last time, hoping to give them the last bit of confidence they needed. “We have to play better than they do for only one minute. That’s all.”
As confident as I sounded to the team in the huddle, I felt far less confident. A turnover here and a few missed free throws there, then we could easily lose this game. God, please calm the nerves of each player that shoots free throws the rest of this game.
In the bleachers behind me, and the bench around me, it seemed that everyone’s excitement was on the verge of exploding from their body onto the floor as the clock ticked under a minute to play. However, I didn’t care about the crowd. I could not bring myself to enjoy the moment. Despite what every fan and player seemed to feel, I could not yet believe we were actually going to win this game. As a result, I continued shouting instructions to my players between swallows of water as my parched throat and desert mouth still felt every fear and nervousness I had felt throughout every single second of this ballgame.
As I continued to make substitutions, bringing my best free throw shooters and ball handlers in on offense while putting in the best combination of defensive players on the floor when our opponents had the ball, I stayed focused on doing everything I could to secure the victory. I paced the floor and downed cups of water that my manager faithfully kept refilling for me, all the while respectfully shaking off any congratulations that were coming from my players on the bench. I watched in wonder as my players on the court paraded to the free throw line making an impressive eight for eight free throws in the final minute.
With ten seconds left, as Kole Weber sank his last free throw to put us ahead by eight points, I finally burst into a smile and gave my assistant coach a high five before going down the bench slapping the hands of each of my players who were not in the game. At that moment, I finally allowed myself to believe we were going to win the game. At last I could relax and try to savor the moment.
Ten seconds later, the final buzzer made it official as we officially pulled off the single greatest upset of that year’s playoffs. Fans poured onto the court in jubilation, embracing each player, as I stood alone and tossed an empty cup into the trashcan. I no longer felt the desert, but had found my oasis moment.