It’s been a little over three months and I still haven’t been able to shake it.
Whenever the thought pops into my head, I seem to drift away from what’s going on around me and replay the chain of events in my mind. It used to happen every day. Fortunately, I have since learned how to get a grip on my thoughts and can hold back from going down ‘Memory Lane.’
Two years ago, the Pleasant Valley boys’ 8th grade basketball team and I won the first Great Pocono Basketball Tournament championship in school history. The tournament had been running for 33 years. To be the first team in PV history to win it was a feeling like no other. It was indescribable.
This past year I found out what it was like to lose in the championship game. It was one of the worst feelings I had ever felt. I didn’t know I could feel that bad about something. It was a feeling like no other. It was also indescribable.
Those who have never coached of a team would probably never understand. They wouldn’t know how much it really means to the people involved. I’m not trying to speak for the 28-year-old coach either. I’m speaking for the 12 and 13-year-old players. Some of these ‘kids’ are surprisingly good for their age. What’s nicer is the fact that they are willing to listen and learn in order to get better while striving to win at the same time. Plus, when you spend two hours a day with each other for four months, you really do become a team and a family.
Two years ago we may had been viewed as the underdog against Pocono Mountain West. We split during the regular season, but our win was at home and it was our first over the Panthers since at least 2007-08. That didn’t mean we weren’t confident though. Thankfully, our desire to make history and become the first PV champ propelled us to the title.
This year we were probably looked at as the favorites heading into the final versus West. We were 22-0 and had beat teams by an average of 19.5 points-per-game. Once again we had a goal. It was to become the first PV 8th grade team (and perhaps only team at any level) to go undefeated throughout the entire season. As you can tell I liked to find ways to keep the kids motivated.
This time we came up short. One point short to be exact. We led the entire game but fell behind with about two minutes to go. We played the foul game late and managed to have the final possession. We got the shot we wanted, but missed a floater from about 10 feet at the buzzer.
So imagine that for a second. Imagine being undefeated, having already beaten West twice during the regular season, and missing out on your quest for history by one point. Our first and only loss had come in the championship.
Although I have since tried to focus on the great season we had, at the time it felt as if that one loss trumped all 22 of our wins. I would have gladly traded ten of those wins for the trophy.
It felt worse than losing the 100-yard dash in kindergarten because I thought my mom called my name and stopped in the middle of the race. It was worse than losing in the SADD volleyball championship in high school, or shooting an 82 and looking back to see two three-putts and an ‘8.’ It felt worse than all of those combined. In fact they pale in comparison.
Now, I am not looking for any empathy or pity. I am writing this so I can get these thoughts off of my chest. Those of you that know me well know how hard I take losing. In this case it felt worse because I couldn’t do anything about it. All I could do was coach from the sideline and hope my players finished the plays. I couldn’t make a shot or grab a rebound. I sure as heck trusted my guys to make the plays because my group of starters was certainly talented enough, but at times you feel helpless as a coach when the fate of the game is out of your hands.
Thinking back, I blame myself for two things. Before the game I told myself that I wasn’t going to let my one big man get in foul trouble. I wasn’t going to let him pick up enough fouls to where he had to sit for an extended period of time.
As it would be, he picked up two fouls in the first quarter. West must have had an ‘and-one’ because when I went to sub, its kid missed the free throw and play continued. Looking back, I should have called timeout right then and there to get my player out of the game. Instead I let play continue. And wouldn’t you know that we went down the court and he picked up an offensive foul on the very same possession.
I know it is a tough thing to hold against myself as most coaches probably wouldn’t have called timeout, but a coach who told himself before the game that he wasn’t going to let his kid get in foul trouble might have. He went on to sit for the entire second quarter. Six minutes on the bench for one of my best players. I am 100 percent certain that we could have made up two points if he were in.
Secondly, West was double-teaming my talented point guard on its press. Most of you won’t know what I am talking about, but I should have changed his position on our press break to allow him to get away from the double team. It was something I only thought about weeks later. Had I thought about it at the time we may have been able to do a better job of getting him the ball in space. I don’t know if it cost us any points, but it sure would have made things easier.
One of my better players also hurt in back in AAU try-outs earlier in the day. It definitely affected his play, but I am not going to pin the loss on him. Do I think he could have made up one point if he was 100 percent healthy? Absolutely. But we missed our fair share of free-throws and lay-ups throughout the game.
It’s funny to lose by one point and think about all of the things that could have went differently. How many plays, if reversed, could have made up one point? A shot here. A steal there. A rebound here. A non-stupid foul there. It’s crazy to think about.
A few days later, one of my kids asked me if I was still proud of all that we had accomplished as a team. That was when it kind of hit me. I had let one loss, albeit an important one, overshadow our season. I had taken all those wins for granted.
I told him that of course I was still proud of them. I wasn’t going to let one loss tarnish all that we had done. I may not have entirely meant it at the time, but I believe it today. A 22-1 record is something that should be honored. We got a small trophy for finishing second, but my kids deserved more than that. So I went out and had a trophy made with all of their names on it. It now sits in the middle school trophy case next to our championship. Although we didn’t exactly make the history that we wanted to, I made sure that these kids would go down in history as one of the greatest PV teams ever assembled. We all put in too much work to justify a small, plastic trophy with no names for people to remember.
Will that one loss haunt me for the rest of my life? I’m sure it will. But thanks to Eli’s one question, and time doing some healing, I have come to appreciate my good fortunes as a coach these last two years. While it may not be for the exact reason I want it to be, I will always remember my 2010-11 team and all that we accomplished together.