As I write this column, March Madness has begun in earnest. The Tennessee Lady Vols just won the SEC tournament for a record seventeenth time. (Hooray!!!) On Wednesday, the SEC men’s tournament cranks up. By the time this newspaper hits your driveway, it will be “Selection Sunday.”
Then the real fun—the NCAA Tournaments—begin.
It’s hard not to notice, as I sit glued to the TV for hour after glorious hour, that college basketball players–even some of the “elite” ones–aren’t all that different from many of the players I’ve coached through the years. Way back in the 1970s, when girls had just started playing five-on-five, full-court basketball, I coached an eighth grade team. And when my daughters were little, I was their Junior Pro training league coach.
I watched those kids do some wacky stuff, but no wackier than what I’m seeing on TV these days. Granted, I’ve never seen a college player sink the winning basket in the opponent’s goal and then cry all the way home on the bus, as Milton Junior High School’s six-foot-tall, twelve-year-old center Cindy Wilson did against Roswell Junior High School in the championship game of the 1977 tournament. But I’ve seen players of all ages and stages do plenty of other things that make coaches want to gnash their teeth and wring their hands in despair. Such as:
• Failing to tie their shoelaces in double knots and then tripping while charging down the court
• Dribbling to the sideline or—even worse–the corner, making it a piece of cake for the opponent to trap them
• Muffing a WATCH THIS slam dunk when an old-timey lay-up would have been a sure two points. Not that I ever coached a seven year old who could slam dunk.
• Camping out in the paint and then acting shocked (“Who, Me?”) when the ref blows the whistle
• Celebrating a fabulous offensive play with such enthusiasm that they fail to get back and play defense
• Trying to dribble out of a press instead of passing
• Making stupid fouls. Why, with a four-point lead and 1.8 seconds left in the game, would you foul your opponent behind the three point arc? Why? Maybe college coaches ought to consider doing what I used to do in similar situations—send my team scurrying to the other end of the court with their hands by their sides until the buzzer sounded.
• Missing free throws. This makes me CRAZY. Time after time after time, close games are won or lost on free throws. I once knew a seventy-year-old woman who could hit fifty in a row. I saw her do it. “Nothing but muscle memory,” she’d say. “And practice.” How come twenty-year-old top NBA draft prospects can’t do the same? Why squander the gift of an uncontested shot?
When you get right down to it, though, I suppose mistakes are one reason we watch sports. Ball games would be no fun if everybody played perfectly. But here’s hoping that, in the weeks ahead, the teams I’m rooting for mess up just a little bit less than the teams they’re playing.
(March 16, 2014)