Garth. He was the most unbelievable eight-year-old basketball player I have ever known.
Recently, I have been able to watch my seven-year-old grandson play youth ball. With every move that kid makes, with every shot he takes, with every incredible decision that kid makes on the court, I say to myself the same thing.
“Damn. My grandson IS Garth! Without the attitude!”
Back in 1991, my cousin, Mona, my six-year-old son and I coached a group of eight and nine year olds in The Chapel Hill Parks And Recreation League in the North Carolina town where we lived. We had some pretty good young players on that team. But there was none better in the league than Garth.
That kid was wild. Wherever the ball was, he was there. If the other team had the ball, the kid stole it. If we needed a basket, the kid found a way to score it. And as hard as I tried as a coach to get the other kids involved, when the ball was in play, it was damned hard to discourage Garth from doing whatever the hell he wanted to do.
As his coach back then, I could only shake my head, smile and enjoy the moment. My memories right now bring to me smiles as unbelievable as Garth’s play as an eight-year-old.
Toward the end of one particular game, Garth had just scored the go ahead basket with mere seconds remaining in the game. A timeout was called. Once the ball was put in play, I wanted our team to commit no fouls. I told the kids that during the timeout. And I wanted the other team to use up some clock while trying to score. So I instructed my team to play a tight zone defense – no pressure on the ball at all. We had the lead after all. As soon as the ball was put into play, “Wild Man” broke towards the in-bound pass, stole it and scored on a breakaway layup to seal the win for our team.
Well, I had to be firm and discipline Garth in the most harsh way possible. When he came to the sideline after the win, I bent down to his level and said, “Garth, man, you did exactly the opposite of what I told you to do.” He just looked at me, shook his head at my admonishment of him, and smiled. All I could say was, and with a greater smile than Garth’s, “Thanks, man. For not listening to me.”
A couple of years after that, I had the opportunity to meet and coach Zach. Except for the level of talent Zach possessed, that kid was the anti-Garth. As it turns out, Zach is a much better baseball player than he ever was a basketball player. But that kid was as talented as any kid I ever coached on the court. He was, to me, as joyful an addition to my to life as was Garth. He was just a good kid. Polite and honest. A team player. And very good.
At some point, a couple of years after I first coached Garth, the two of them ended up together on a Chapel Hill Summer League team that I coached. Man. I was thrilled about that. Garth and Zach on the same team! There was no way I could screw this up!
Well, I found a way. Sort of.
Again, I found myself coaching a tight battle late in a game. Late time outs were being called. There was confusion on the court and the on the sidelines. There was much confusion in my own mind. I instructed our team to do the exact opposite of what needed to be done at the time, and no one – not even Garth – questioned it. I screwed up big time. I was totally wrong about every aspect of the late game situation. It was a brain malfunction only acceptable to folks who are the age I am right now.
We lost the game. It was due to that simple moment of premature senility that night.
I knew how hard my team had fought that night. I hated that I let them down. At the next practice, I wanted to ease whatever doubts my team had about their play that night.
At the end of that practice, I called them all to a huddle for me to explain things.
“Look,” I said. “I screwed up last game. I am so proud of you all for fighting the way that you did, but that loss was all my fault. And I am sorry that I let you guys down.”
At that point, Garth had the most angry look on his face. He broke the huddle, punched me squarely in the stomach and before storming off the court said, “Thanks a lot, Coach!” Hey, the kid gave me what I deserved and even something I did not – the kid made me smile at my expected Garth reaction.
But the kicker – the real deal – came from Zach. After Garth stormed away, and while the others on the team stood in silent amazement, Zach approached me. He gently rubbed the spot that Garth had just punched, and he said to me so simply, so sweetly and with such honesty and heart, “That’s okay, Coach.”
Just as does Garth provide for me these days, so too does Zach bring such a warm and comfortable smile to my face. And when I see my young grandson play ball, I see in him both of my long-time young friends.
I cannot predict where my grandson will end up. But if that kid can somehow nurture the best of both Garth and Zach – the best of what I see in and know of him already… well…the kid will become one of the best basketball players ever.
But, for the love of God, don’t anyone ever let me coach that kid in a game!