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In Hernando Youth League basketball, coach shares thrill and agony

Dan DeWitt enjoyed coaching a Hernando Youth League basketball team, and the players had fun. From left, coach DeWitt, Austin Scurlock, Logan Chute, Dylan Scurlock, Ming Chin, Avery Miller, Jesse DeWitt and Cody Olander.

Special to the Times

Dan DeWitt enjoyed coaching a Hernando Youth League basketball team, and the players had fun. From left, coach DeWitt, Austin Scurlock, Logan Chute, Dylan Scurlock, Ming Chin, Avery Miller, Jesse DeWitt and Cody Olander.

With nine seconds left in the season's final game, a matchup between our not-so-great team and the league champs, we fouled one of their guards as he tried a three-pointer.

We were ahead by three, and as the boy went to the line to shoot his allotment of three free throws I sickeningly reflected on my advice during the final time-out: None of you guys are in foul trouble; be aggressive on defense; contest every shot.

How did it end? I'll get back to that. (Yes, I know the result of a kids' basketball game is small incentive to read on. Sorry.)

First, though, let me take you to the beginning, to the time last fall when I signed up to lead a Hernando Youth League basketball team, a decision motivated by volunteer coaches' usual mix of wanting to help the kids and total selfishness.

Being called "coach" is the first perk. It's not quite up there with your family's "sweetheart" or "Dad," but it's a rush when it comes from an 11-year-old boy looking to you for fair leadership or a shooting tip he might carry with him for the rest of his life.

When everything works, when a player breaks open and receives a neat bounce pass, it's not just them, it's you. For a moment, you're Bobby Knight without the bullwhip.

Even when illusions of brilliance fade, you know you can at least out-coach the pinhead who ran the team last year, the one too dense to see that your kid would make a great little point guard.

Because that is the parent's prerogative: to sit in the stands and second-guess when things go wrong.

And go wrong is exactly what things did.

We lost a string of close games during the season. A violation of an arcane rule turned our one decisive victory into a stunning forfeit.

I didn't out-coach my predecessor or anyone else in the league. Our team was flustered by strategies as basic as the full-court press, and I couldn't persuade my son to stop dribbling and just throw a dang pass.

Parents in the stands looked ticked off and were no doubt second-guessing like crazy. When I gathered the kids around to talk strategy, they stared off into space.

And who could blame them? This was a great bunch of boys from all over the county. Some had real promise as players. Judging from their living situations, a few could benefit from the influence of a capable adult male.

I lost sleep thinking about how I was letting them down. I promised myself never to coach again and started counting down the weeks until the last game.

That came Feb. 21 against a squad with sky-colored jerseys that its opponents all referred to as "the big blue team.''

In a league of 11-,12-, and 13-year-olds, its three front-line players were close to 6 feet tall. In two previous games, they'd roughly doubled our score, dropping in shots as our players flailed at their armpits.

But this time, surprisingly, a few of the plays I'd picked up from desperately trolling the Internet seemed to work. My son passed; his teammates sank open shots. We took an early lead, and it barely mattered to me that the blue team had reclaimed it by halftime. At least we hadn't embarrassed ourselves.

But what followed were 14 magical minutes that make you understand why Hollywood makes sports movies.

Because, while I'd basically given up, the players hadn't.

They fought for rebounds, set picks, dived for balls and lured the other team into foolish fouls. Shots flew up from among clusters of blue-shirted defenders and, amazingly, went in. One of our smallest and youngest kids sank a jumper and then a crucial free throw. With about two minutes remaining, we had what seemed like a safe 6-point lead.

Maybe it was my aforementioned bad advice during that last timeout. Maybe the other coach said something that lit a fire. All I know is that somehow the spell was uncast. The surreal glow that had seemed to light all the action since halftime gave way to the usual overhead glare. Everything returned to normal.

Those tall boys got most of the rebounds and made a couple of shots. Though their guard missed all of his end-of-game free throws, the ball wound up in the hands of another player just beyond the three-point line. He heaved it up and, as the buzzer sounded, it dropped through the net.

You probably don't need to be told that the other team won easily in overtime.

Though I cringe at the memory of that last shot, I feel the same pride in our effort that I did at halftime — only more so and with real justification. I've even started to think about volunteering next year.

I remember the thrilled parents' cheers from the stands during the game and their smiles and handshakes afterward.

They were proud of their boys, and their boys were proud of themselves. Because, of course, they did it, not me.

In Hernando Youth League basketball, coach shares thrill and agony 02/28/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 28, 2009 11:45am]
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