Category: Human Interest- Olympics
The Champaign Flyers:
Chapter 6: Mid-Season
Alice: Although exercises, drills, and scrimmages are an important way to improve skills, there is nothing like the experience of playing a game against an opposing team. All of a sudden nerves, egos, and many mixed emotions are brought to the surface. Much of the middle portion of our season was filled with games against other area teams. These games gave the athletes real-game experience as well as an idea of the abilities of the teams which they might play in the District Tournament.
From the previous season, I had made contacts with other coaches and had gotten practice at setting up games. Because of this, I was more able to efficiently and effectively set up practice games for the teams during our second season together. Brendan, Jeff and I all had a better idea of the ability levels of the Special Olympics teams in the surrounding area, which made it possible for us to schedule games which would allow the teams to compete at their appropriate level of competition. Leading up to the District Tournament, our calendar for the 1987-88 season was packed full of practice games for both teams.
Jeff: In addition to being good practice for the District Tournament, these games were important to the players for other reasons. If we had an upcoming game, the players had something to talk about and look forward to throughout the previous week. Marvin, Steve, and Steve would start the chatter about how bad we were going to beat the other team at least five days before the game. The away games were especially important in another way. Many of players did not have opportunities to travel out of Champaign-Urbana. Even if we lost an away game, the trip was an adventure and a shared experience. In the future the players could say, "You remember the time we went to that town and had to change in that small locker room? " "Yeah, I remember that trip! We couldn't find any restaurants open after the game."
Flyers vs. Bloomington--January 14, 1988
Brendan: Only one week after losing both the regular season and exhibition games against Bloomington, we had to face them again; this time on their home court! It was our first away game and the first road trip of the year for the team. Our two practices that week had gone well. The players were really bearing down in hope of playing a better game against Bloomington this time around. With the realization that they were playing a superior team, though, they were simply hoping to keep it close and play to the best of their ability. Usually the talk among the team before a game was that of sheer confidence--that there was no way we could lose--but against Bloomington, there was no such talk. The usual cocky attitudes were replaced by quiet determination. We wanted to earn their respect and to prove that we were a better team than we had been only one week before.
I think that we started to earn that respect from them during the exhibition game in Assembly Hall by playing very hard and by outhustling them. We had only lost by three points in the short exhibition and that gave us some confidence going into this game. Our players were familiar with the Bloomington gymnasium because most of the team had been together for over five years and had played at Bloomington many times. They knew what to expect.
Bloomington began the game with the same starting five players as the previous week. Similarly, we once again began the game with Arms at center, Greg at power forward, Shoes at small forward, Rodney at off guard, and Richard at point guard. We had excellent versatility throughout our lineup. Steve Jacobs could come in the game and play either the small forward or off guard positions. He consistently hit the boards hard, passed the ball intelligently (the best bounce passer on the team), and played solid defense. Keith Schweighart was an animal underneath the boards and the best outlet passer on the team. He could play in either Arms' or Greg's spots as a big, physical player off the bench. He was not much of a shooter, but he was always hustling and pulling down rebounds.
Mike Kearney was our designated shooter--a guy who could come off the bench and make a high percentage of his long-range shots. He was not a great defensive player, but what a shot! He was as good from 30 feet away from the basket as he was shooting layups. Finally, Scott Murrell could come in at either center, power forward, or small forward. Scott was a jumping jack who could block shots nearly as well as Greg and who had a soft knuckleball jumper that swished through the net when he was hot. He was among our better athletes--a slender, but strong player, who always hustled. Our bench helped us immensely in many games; either when our starters got into foul trouble or when things were not clicking on the court and I was looking for a better team chemistry on the court.
When the game started, I was not surprised to see us playing even with them. We were playing our smartest game yet. We decided it was time to run relentlessly on Bloomington and hope for defensive breakdowns on their part. I knew that our guys loved to push the ball up the court, and that running the fast break helped them get psyched up and play smart defense. Arms was running the court well and Richard began the game with a hot shooting hand. Greg was snagging all of the defensive rebounds and Shoes was hitting the offensive boards with reckless abandon. Rodney, one of our most underrated players, was playing smart and staying out of early foul trouble. In past games, Rodney had a tendency to pick up several early fouls for trying to play defense with his hands more than with his feet. When trying to steal the ball from an opponent, a defensive player must have his body in position and cannot merely try to reach in across his opponent's body.
Despite our hustle, our defense was still an obvious shortcoming. Bloomington was working the ball inside for easy buckets on too many occasions. However, when they missed their shots, Greg would typically grab the defensive rebound and get it to Richard. Richard would then quickly push the ball upcourt with Rodney and Arms on either side of him. This arrangement gave Richard the opportunity to look inside for Arms or to the perimeter where Rodney typically launched many of his shots. Arms was playing particularly well on this night. He was making great pump fakes, thus causing Bloomington players to leave their feet early (also known as being a member of the "paratrooper club"). By jumping too early, the Bloomington players lost defensive position and consequently either fouled Arms or gave him an easy layup. And of course there was Shoes, hitting the offensive boards hard, trying to follow up any missed shots along the way.
Richard was really the key to our attack on this night. He was creating many good offensive opportunities. I like to think of Richard as the old pro--the guy you could count on to make the smart play. He very rarely let me down. He was the leader on the court (a quiet leader), and honest almost to a fault.
During the course of this game with Bloomington, Richard stole the ball from their speedy female point guard, went to the other end of the court, and laid the ball in the basket for an easy score. As he came running back upcourt, he looked at me with embarrassment and said that he had actually fouled her. In fact, in that same game, there was a questionable traveling call on Richard. I was ready to jump on the refs for making a bad call, but I knew what I should do first. I looked at Richard and simply asked, "Didja?," and he gave a sly nod yes. I did not say a word to the refs because I knew Richard would be straight with me. That honesty was a terrific trait for him to have. The other players really valued his opinion.
With Richard making the right plays and with Arms on his game, we played Bloomington tough throughout the first half. In fact, at the end of the first half, we were only down a couple points. After getting down quite a few points early in the game, as usual, we played tougher in the second quarter. Was Bloomington going to lose? Did we have a realistic chance? At halftime, I stopped talking about how good they were. I stopped making it sound as if it was impossible to beat this team which was in a division ahead of ours. We were in the game! We had not even played as well as we were capable of playing, but nevertheless we were still in the game. The team knew that if we played our best during the second half, we had a chance to beat Bloomington on their home court!
As the second half began, we were playing well, but then Rodney got into foul trouble and had to take a seat on the bench. Next, the refs made a couple of close calls against us and I had to call two quick timeouts to try to keep my team from losing their poise. Next, Arms proceeded to miss a couple of shots and Greg fell hard to the floor several times. As mentioned previously, when Greg got hit, he would often lose his balance and go down. If he fell to the right, he could use his one strong arm to support the fall, but if he fell to the left, he fell hard. Eventually, frustration set in and Bloomington's talent became apparent. We played hard but by losing patience we had defensive breakdowns and made poor offensive decisions (such as forcing many unnecessary shots).
The final score was 32-49. We had lost, but our effort and overall play was much better than they had been the week before. The first half of this game was the best half we had played all season. We had played virtually even with a much better team. I was also happy to see that our poise and confidence had lasted longer than expected. Finally, the Bloomington coach had apparently remembered our discussion from the previous week because he substituted in quite a few of his players for much of the final quarter, giving both his players and our players a bit of a boost going into future games.
The confidence his players developed from getting playing time and from contributing to a victory was very valuable for them. Similarly, the confidence my players developed from playing against more comparable competition helped to give them back some of their dignity. One horrible third quarter behind us, the rest of the game was played even. We had reason to be optimistic with regards to the future, and I was proud of our team for not losing their cool and for playing as hard as they could against a better team. This game helped to set the tone for future games. It may, in fact, have been the turning point in our season.
Jeff: After watching the Orange team's game, it was our turn to play. Because Bloomington-Normal is nearly as big as Champaign-Urbana in population, Bloomington was able to form two teams like we had. This game was extremely exciting for the team and for several individual players in particular. In fact, the Bloomington game was the turning point for our season. Perhaps the most important aspect of the game had to do with Charles.
One of the most satisfying moments for any coach is to see an athlete accomplish an individual goal. As mentioned earlier, I had spent a great amount of time at practices helping Charles to improve his shooting form. The highlight of this game (and perhaps the season) came when Charles scored his first basket. To fully appreciate this moment, a little background information is needed.
During the previous season, we realized that several of our players had not yet scored a point during a game. Slowly as the season went on, one player after another scored. Only Charles was left. Although he shot the ball well, it would just not go through the hoop. Finally, the season came down to one last game at the tournament in Paducah, Kentucky.
We had been eliminated from medal contention, and by the end of the third quarter we were losing the game by a large margin. Brendan and I looked at each other and knew that there was only one thing left to do. We called a time out and put our plan into action. Charles was to stay under the offensive basket and not play any defense (the slang term for this is "Cherry Picking"). If we stole the ball from the other team or after they scored, whoever had the ball for our team was instructed to throw the ball down the court to Charles so that he could score.
The players executed the desperate plan perfectly. After a score against us, one of our players heaved the ball the full length of the court to Charles, but unfortunately Charles could not hold on to the hard pass. Next time up the court, one of the guards stole the ball and passed the ball to Charles. This time he held on to the ball and was perfectly positioned under the basket. He shot, and the ball rolled around and around the rim before popping out. With only a minute left, Charles had his final chance. He caught the long-distance pass, positioned himself, and shot. With all of the excitement and wild cheering from the sidelines, he shot so hard that the ball hit the backboard and bounced all of the way back to the free throw line. A big sigh went out from our sideline. As he came over to the sidelines, I could see that Charles was smiling. With his usual touch of class, the first thing that Charles said to me was, "I'll do it next year!"
If I had never seen happiness before, I certainly saw it during this game against Bloomington. The game started out normally. After a few minutes had gone by, I was getting ready to make some substitutions when IT happened. After getting a perfect pass from Ernie, Charles put up a five foot set shot and it went in. "YES!," I screamed at the top of my lungs as the ball went through the net. Joyously, Charles started running around the court with his hands raised above his head in victory. He came over to the bench and slapped hands with everyone. Nobody seemed to care that the other team had scored two baskets before we stopped celebrating.
After this first basket, Charles went on to score points in all of the remaining games. I am now convinced that basketball is 90% confidence. In Charles' case, I think that scoring that first basket made him more calm during the game. That is, when a pass came to him, he confidently turned, set, and shot, instead of nervously throwing the ball at the basket. Another great thing about confidence is that it spreads to other areas. Charles' improvement in shooting was accompanied by improvement in defense, rebounding, and leadership.
In fact, I think that this initial lack of confidence was the primary difference between the players on my team and the players on Brendan's team. Most of the players on Brendan's team had long since conquered the fundamentals of basketball and expected to score in the double digits in every game. My players began the season without a command of the fundamentals and consequently did not expect to do well during games. They then showed similar patterns of improvement, just as Charles had, in which they made rapid improvements in all aspects of their play after an initial success had boosted their confidence. During the Bloomington game, each member of my team increased their confidence, as Charles had done by scoring that basket. This Bloomington game was also an especially important game for me and DB.
I have learned several things in life: 1) the sun will not set in the East 2) money does not grow on trees, and 3) DB will not play defense underneath the basket. Even though he is the tallest player on the team, he thinks that he is a guard. Whenever I placed him as a center or forward, he slowly began to sneak further and further towards the guard's position. I am convinced that he does not mind playing defense, it is just that he loves offense. "DB, are you going to play defense?", I ask a dozen times during a game. He replies a dozen times, "Yes, Yes, Yes. Now give me the ball so that I can shoot."
From experience gained during the previous year, Brendan and I had decided that the best defense for the Blue teams was a very tight zone. That is, we would tell our players to stay in the painted area surrounded by the free throw region. We had found that if the players got too spread out or strayed too far from the basket, the other team could easily drive in for layups and nobody on our teams was quick enough to stop them. We had tried man-to-man, but this only worsened the spreading of our players. There would be times when nobody on our team was in position to rebound after a shot. Therefore, I had adopted the tight zone defense until the game we played at Bloomington.
The Bloomington team was tall, fast, and agile. After the first few minutes of the game, I realized that this was going to be the toughest game of the season. But, I also realized that all of my players were playing better than I had ever seen them play before. In fact, they were doing things on offense that I had not taught them! It makes a coach's heart swell with pride when the team plays as one coordinated unit rather than as five individuals. At the end of the first quarter, we were only behind by a few points.
During the second quarter, something happened that changed the entire season. As usual, DB was starting to play defense further and further away from the basket. After giving up yelling and pointing to DB to stay underneath the basket on defense, I sat back in frustration. I knew that if we did not get more rebounds, we would never be able to pull ahead. As I sat back, I began to notice that DB, who was playing at the top of the key by now, was regularly stealing the ball from the Bloomington guard and then taking it down for an easy lay-up. After this same sequence happened three out of the next six times that Bloomington brought down the ball, I quickly called a time out. "OK, Ernie and DB, I want you two to be at the half court line on defense. (A full court press is not allowed in Special Olympics basketball) When the ball comes over the line, go for it. This means that the rest of you will have to player tougher defense under the boards and get more rebounds. Charles, I want you to stick on their big guy like glue. Ed, don't let anybody in the middle. Zach, guard #10." I instructed. "OK, on three everybody says Champaign," I said as twenty hands came together in the middle of our huddle. "One, Two, Three, CHAMPAIGN!" yelled the new Champaign Flyers.
The rest of the game was a sight to behold. As soon as the Bloomington guard crossed halfcourt, Ernie would slow him down, DB would steal the ball, and then DB would be on his way to another one of his big scoop layups. This turn of events would have been enough to please me, but I was to get another surprise that night. I noticed that whenever Bloomington was able to elude the Ernie and DB trap, they were being held virtually scoreless. The Bloomington guards were unable to pass the ball to their center because Sir Charles had him covered like a blanket. Meanwhile, Eddie Cole was also playing inspired defense. He was pulling down rebound after rebound. This display earned Charles and Eddie Cole the honorary title of the Defensive Duo.
Charles was to be in the spotlight once more during this game at the beginning of the second half. Now that he had gained confidence in his shooting ability, Charles decided to shoot at the opponent's basket after getting a defensive rebound. Of course the shot was good! He was obviously embarrassed when he realized what had happened. He had forgotten that we had changed baskets at halftime. Charles was teased about his "generosity" for the rest of the season.
Despite Charles' effort to help the Bloomington team score, we went on to win that game. Without a doubt, that was the finest game that one of my teams has ever played. Everybody on the bench had been cheering throughout the game, and everybody rejoiced when the buzzer sounded at the end of the game. And you better believe that I learned important lessons as a coach during that game: 1) Always go with a player's natural tendencies, and 2) Do not worry about one best player too much; rather, try to develop roles for each player. All of the time that I had spent trying to form DB into the perfect center had been wasted on the perfect guard. Likewise, all of my fears regarding rebounding and defense were wasted because Eddie Cole and Charles were prepared to handle the job. With the accidental implementation of the halfcourt press and the defining of each player's role on the team, we were now playing like a winning team!
The final Bloomington game incident involved Ernie. The Bloomington gym where this game took place was part of an elementary school. Therefore, the court was extremely small and the ceiling was relatively low. Despite outstanding basketball skills and savvy, Ernie liked to throw up an occasional halfcourt shot. Even though I chewed him out everytime the shot did not go in, I really did not mind these occasional long bombs because of all of Ernie's other contributions to the team. He was a smart decision maker. Of all the players on my team, Ernie was the best at knowing when to and when not to make a pass.
Well, five minutes into the game, Ernie got a pass near halfcourt and I saw his face light up. I knew what he was going to do. He cocked his arms, bent his knees, and let go another rainbow prayer. Just as the flight of the ball had stopped climbing, the ball hit the ceiling. I could not hold back the laughter. Ernie was standing at halfcourt with the funniest expression of disgust on his face. One thing about Ernie, he is a fast learner. He packed away the rocket launcher for that game, but shot twice as many long-distance shots during the next game.
Scott's Birthday Party
Mrs. Murrell: Perhaps the best thing of all is that the guys have FUN being a Champaign Flyer. Last year Scott's birthday came on the same day as practice so he invited the teams and coaches over for supper after practice. This gave me a good opportunity to observe the relationship between the coaches and the players. There was lots of laughter, fun, and jokes--mostly aimed at Jeff, Brendan, and Alice. There were young men and women of different backgrounds, races, abilities, family situations who were brought together by three remarkable coaches and given the opportunity to become a team that cares about each other and that can have fun together.
Alice: We were treated to a nice dinner of chili and apple pie for dessert. Everything was very well organized and planned. Scott seemed very proud and told us, a little shyly, that he had helped on all of the cooking and had set up the table for the party himself. Everyone was on their best behavior and we joked around and had a wonderful time. This was another great opportunity to get to know the players personalities off of the court.
Flyers vs. Charleston--January 20, 1988
Jeff: The next game for both teams was an away game. We met at the Douglas Center at 5:00 p.m. and went through our stretching routine, talked about the upcoming game, and then spent ten minutes doing lay-ups. At 5:30, we distributed the uniforms, loaded into the vans, and headed for Charleston. We arrived into town with only 15 minutes left before the game was scheduled to start. The town's Main Street was only one block long, so it was not hard to find where we were going to play. As we entered the town's auditorium/gymnasium, we were greeted by Charleston's coach. He informed us that we could change into our uniforms behind the curtain on the stage. As I followed the team across the court, I saw that the stands were packed with hometown fans and with the entourage of parents that we had brought from Champaign. This kind of support for Special Olympics was present at every one of our games and meant a great deal to the athletes and to the coaches.
Brendan: I vividly remember the atmosphere of these games. After traveling for two hours to a very small town that we had never been to before, I wondered if anyone would be at this game other than the players, coaches, and a few of the parents. From the outside, the gym looked like a big white barn, but inside it was a small, but very nice, gymnasium with stands full of people! Our players were immediately "psyched up" for the opportunity to play in front of a big audience. Another memorable aspect of this night was that before the game, the public address announcer (the only public address announcer we had all year except for the exhibitions at Assembly Hall) announced the names of the starting players and reserve players for both teams. As each player's name and position was called, the crowd applauded loudly. Next, the National Anthem was played. The entire evening was an incredibly well-prepared and exciting show. All of these details had created an atmosphere which really charged up the players, coaches, and fans.
Jeff: The small gym, the capacity crowd, the announcement of the lineups, and the playing of the national anthem gave both games the magical small-town flavor and excitement of a high school basketball game. It felt as if we had the attention of the entire town. Few of the athletes had ever enjoyed this kind of attention. Nothing is more satisfying to an athlete than to hear the roar of a crowd in response to a good play.
My team was scheduled to play first. The opposing team was comprised of athletes from the entire county. During the pre-game warm-ups, I noticed that the other team had three tall, quick players. "OK guys, listen up! Tonight we have to block out and get rebounds against their big guys. Do your best and remember to play as a team. OK, on three-- ONE, TWO, THREE, CHAMPAIGN! Go get'em!"
During the first few minutes of the game, the score was nearly even. Nonetheless, their three tall players were dominating underneath the basket on both offense and defense. Luckily, however, a high percentage of our outside shots were going in, and Ernie, Zach, and DB were stealing the ball frequently. As usual, I was making many substitutions throughout this half. The scorekeepers probably hate me for making all of these substitutions, but I feel that it is important to get everybody in the game as much as possible. Also, I found that Becky and Vonna did not have the stamina to play for long periods of time. My quick substitution policy seemed to alleviate the problems of fatigue and frustration which had surfaced the previous year.
The second half did not go as well. First of all, the Flyers could no longer make a basket from the outside. Second, the referees inadvertently stopped our fastbreak. The Special Olympics rule book states that a full court press is illegal. For example, after a member of the Flyers gets a defensive rebound, the opponents must retreat to half-court. Only after a Flyer brings the ball across the half-court line may the opponents try to steal the ball. Unfortunately during the second half, the Charleston coach put in a player who did not quite understand this rule. Every time we got a defensive rebound or a steal, this player would try to take the ball back. Of course each time this rule infraction occurred, the referees would momentarily stop play, tell the Charleston player to retreat to the other half of the court, and then allow our player to proceed with the ball. Needless to say, by the time our player was allowed to proceed, the entire opposing team was in their proper positions underneath the basket. Any chance of us getting a fastbreak or catching Charleston's defense offguard was gone. My vigorous protest to just let the play continue was heeded by the referees, but by then Charleston had built up too big of a lead and won the game.
This is a good place to discuss Special Olympics referees. Despite my complaint, the people who referee Special Olympic contests are truly remarkable. First of all, it is very difficult to officiate a game in such a way as to make it fair for both teams. Normally, the referees begin a game by strictly adhering to the rules. After they have had time to evaluate the performance of both teams and of each individual, they fairly adjust their officiating. For example, because of excitement, many of the players on my team and on the opposing teams would move their feet after catching a pass. The official rule states that a player must keep one foot stationary. However, because the players generally do not change their position on the court despite the feet shuffling, most referees allow such violations.
A second reason a referee's job is difficult is because of the numerous complaints that he or she hears from the players and coaches. As an interesting side note, I have never heard one of my players directly complain to an opponent. (Actually, there seems to be an understood caring and respect for each other among the athletes. Maybe this understanding stems from the fact that they know that they all share similar challenges in life.) Instead, they save their evaluations and frustrations for the referees. Ernie is particularly fond of helping the referees do their job. "He is out of bounds! That's walking with the ball! Look at that, you can't do that!", he would yell throughout the game. After reminding the players that I am the coach and that I will make sure that the game is officiated fairly, I have caught myself pointing out infractions to the referees on numerous occasions. Of course, we quickly forget about all of our own violations that were overlooked! Nevertheless, it is easier to blame the loss of a close game on the referees rather than on our own lack of hustle or to concede that the other team is better than us.
Brendan: After watching the Blue team's nip-and-tuck game, it was our turn. The Blue team's close loss gave my team added incentive for trying to win our own game. Practices had been going well before this game. I had stressed the need to be tough under the boards, and the action during practices was fast and furious.
On a couple of occasions, Scott and Marvin got into a bit of a shoving match, but instead of criticizing them for losing their cool, I turned the tables on them. I let them know that playing aggressive was part of the game. In order to succeed at this level, they had to be tough inside. Using their hips and elbows was part of the game. Getting hot was okay, but only if you use that aggression to play hard--not dirty--but hard. Under the boards a lot of things happen. You get hit with inadvertent elbows and shoved to the floor from time to time. You have to play aggressive and use your body to the fullest advantage. To see Scott and Marvin's intensity meant that they wanted to play hard and succeed. Neither of them wanted to back down, and that was a positive sign. It was my job to take that energy and channel it into their defensive play and rebounding.
Jeff: If Brendan's comments seem rather harsh, I have to say that before I started coaching I would have agreed with you. In part, they reflect the intensity in which Brendan lives his own life, but on the other hand I have come to understand this attitude after coaching the Orange team the following year (see the Epilogue). Clearly, encouraging aggressive behavior was probably not appropriate for my Blue team, but I now believe that it was appropriate for the Orange team for the following reasons.
Aggressiveness at this high level of Special Olympics competition does not necessarily lead to poor sportsmanship. The athletes know exactly where the line is between fair and dirty play, and have utmost respect for the rules and for each other. Asking these athletes to play non-aggressively would be like asking defensive lineman in football to just lightly tap each other. Because teams are matched based on ability, each player assumes that the other players will be playing to the best of their abilities. It is this expectation that keeps the game safe for everybody and that allows athletes at this level to display their remarkable talents.
As a coach you quickly learn to recognize that shoving under the basket by one player might be a routinely non-harmful sign of good aggressive play, whereas for another player it would signify nervousness, fatigue, or a need for serious disciplinary actions. In regards to personalities and emotions, Special Olympians at this level of competition are no different than any other group of athletes. Each player has a different temperament, level of aggressiveness, and desire to win. It is the coach's job to keep the competition safe and fair for all of the participants. A coach must control the action of the game while allowing for the natural range of emotions which occur during a game.
Brendan: After completing our warm-ups, the starting lineups were announced and everybody was anticipating a good game. During the early part of the season, my team had problems getting off to a good start. It seemed as if my team sleepwalked through the first quarter of each game, thus letting the opposing team grab an early lead and the momentum. We would typically come back and play well in the second quarter, then have another lapse at the beginning of the second half. You can only work yourself out of so many holes. But this game would be different. We were playing a team that was more to our level of ability, and because we had played tougher teams earlier in the season, it made this team seem beatable.
The opposing team had a young red-haired southpaw who only had the use of his left arm (much like our own Greg's use of only his right arm.) He would shoot from long range at the drop of a hat. They had a couple of big guys who looked like "bangers" underneath, including one muscular black guy who looked like a slightly smaller version of Charles Barkley, a star player in the NBA.
The start of the game was a seesaw battle. Arms and Richard were leading the way for us offensively, with Greg and Shoes hitting the boards. Early in the game, Arms got fouled on many occasions with his famous pump fakes, but as usual had trouble making his free throws. At times, he got the ball and pump faked unnecessarily. Greg and Shoes were hitting the offensive boards with Arms, so our inside game was tough. On the other team, the lefty bomber made a couple of shots from virtually a different area code. But I figured that if he could continue making 30-footers all night, then they deserved to win.
After an evenly played first quarter (which was unusual for us), we exploded in the second quarter. The story of this game would turn out to be Keith Schweighart. Keith was a bruiser under the boards. He will never be mistaken for a graceful ballerina. The guy is all muscle and plays aggressively. I had been working with him on grabbing rebounds and then looking to start the fast break. Since the last Bloomington game, we had been trying to perfect our fast break (i.e., relentlessly pushing the ball up the court in an attempt to catch the opposing team in a poor defensive position).
This night, everything came together for Keith. He must have grabbed 15 rebounds and made 8 assists to either a streaking Rodney, Richard, or Arms at the other end of the court. With Scott and Greg playing well, our inside game was at its best. The practices that week had been fiercely competitive and had translated into clean, aggressive play in this game. Keith even made a basket or two during the game, which really helped his confidence. Mike Kearney came off the bench in the second half to light up the scoreboard with shots from deep outside which rivaled those made by the lefty on the opposing team. Three-pointers were being counted in this game for shots from beyond the 19 foot mark, and Mike made several. Steve Jacobs contributed in his usual quiet manner as he played tough defense, hit the boards, and gained valuable experience handling the ball from the point guard position late in the game. Everybody played nearly the same amount of time and we won going away (i.e., 48-31). The teams shook hands after the game and we had finally broken the ice with a big victory. It seems as if a big weight had been lifted from our backs.
After the game, the fans in the stands really surprised me. Even though we had beaten their team quite thoroughly, many of the fans came up to me and expressed thanks for coming this far to play their team. They also thanked my players for a great game. A couple of the fans told me that they could really tell that we were learning how to play basketball the way it was meant to be played. They were glad to see everybody play and knew we had not tried to run up the score on them. These comments made me feel as if all the hard work was suddenly worth it and that my goals had been met.
Jeff: As I mentioned earlier, every opposing team seemed to have a competitive player much like our own Marvin. In this case, it was the the left-handed guard who made all of those long-range shots. During the game, I noticed that he would chew out his teammates for making mistakes. However, after the game, I noticed that he was the first one on his team to come out to shake hands with Brendan's team.
Brendan: I now knew deep down that my team could play even better and I wanted to see how they would perform against a better team. We were always pushing. That is the way my team wanted it, and that is the way I prepared them for the games. Except for Keith and Mike Kearney, everybody took the game extremely seriously. Keith and Mike were funny guys who took a lighter approach to the game and who turned out to be very valuable members of the team. Their humor released a lot of tension in many situations and they never stopped trying when they were on the court. Maybe they did not have as much pure talent as some of the others, but their contributions to the team will never be forgotten.
We now had a renewed enthusiasm for the game after our first victory and were looking forward to the District Tournament to be played in, of all places, Bloomington. However, our team was heading in the right direction and I could not be happier with our progress. Everybody's attitude was terrific, including the attitude of my pet project, Arms. I was very proud of him for turning his attitude around 180 degrees. Richard and Greg remained the old pros who were not phased by anything and always played hard. Shoes, Steve Jacobs, and Scott were always hustling. Mike Kearney and Keith were improving every day. Rodney was shooting the ball better and not getting down on himself as much when making mistakes. He was playing hard and displaying a great deal of vocal leadership out on the court.
Flyers Orange Rematch vs. Coaches--January 29, 1988
Brendan: We had one more scheduled game before the District Tournament--against the coaches. This second game against the coaches was notable for several reasons. First, we wanted to see how our team had progressed both physically and mentally. Second, Alice had arranged for the game to be videotaped. We wanted the players to see for themselves our strengths and weaknesses. And third, we wanted to prove that we could play well against the coaches.
As discussed earlier, a couple of my players lost their cool when things did not go their way during the first game against the coaches. Therefore, I wanted this to be a test for my team. I wanted them to maintain their cool and play with the poise necessary to beat an experienced team. I knew that we had to make progress mentally more than physically before we could become a winning team. These players had been playing together for several years now, and their basketball skills were excellent. They could all dribble, shoot, and rebound (when they wanted to and when their heads were in the game). However, they lacked the mental toughness to concentrate on a game for the entire four quarters. I knew that they could. They just did not and it was my job to find out why and try to fix the problem.
Playing the coaches again, we knew what to expect. We knew they were patient and passed the ball around a lot. We had to have good court sense and vision to compete. Because we were missing a couple of players that night, I put on a jersey and ran with my team (carrying my overweight body up and down the court while trying to coach at the same time).
The videotaping did not seem to bother the players at all, but I knew they were all anxious to see the results afterwards. Yet, once the game began, we struggled. We had been working hard in preparation for the rematch against the coaches, but we lacked crispness on offense and quickness on defense. We were a step behind all night and despite shooting well, went on to lose badly again.
However, this game was different from the first game. Despite our skills being sluggish during the game, all of the players kept their cool and continued to play hard. It was just one of those games where we were not in rhythm and there was not much anyone could do about it. I huffed and puffed my way up and down the court chasing the speedier Coach Bettger (Jeff) as well as Jaime, Joanne, Max, and others around the court, but it did not help the team much. Although we lost in the end, I was happy with the progress that we had made mentally. Our players kept hustling until they were tired enough to be taken out, and while frustrated by losing, did not get down on themselves during the course of the game. It was a step in the right direction for my team.
Watching the videotape gave us a lot of laughs and provided us a way to see our mistakes. We were able to poke fun at ourselves while also pointing out ways to improve our game. It was a thrill for the coaches, players, and parents to see everybody on TV. Some of the comments made by the players and coaches were particularly funny.
Jeff: I was surprised at how good Brendan's team had become. I was actually giving my all physically during the game. During practices, I was usually too busy talking to players to spend time shooting myself. The same was true for the other coaches. Nevertheless, as Brendan mentioned, we were more patient with our offense. We passed the ball around until somebody had an easy shot. This was probably not fair to the Flyers because most of the teams they played usually had one good guard who would bring the ball up the court and then shoot it. The Flyers would never have to face this type of patient half-court offense.
We were always playing one step better than the Flyers, assuming that this would make them a better team. During half time, Mrs. Kearney said to me, "Give them a break." I realized that at this point that maybe we were ruining some of the player's confidence. I told the other coaches to take it easier on offense during the second half. Throughout the game I tried to coach as I was playing. If I was open, I made sure to point it out to the player who was supposed to be guarding me at that time.
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