By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
One of the parents seems to be afflicted with Tourette's. His words spill out at high volume, louder than even the boombox: "Get it! Grab it! Take it! Take it! Attack! Get up on him! Make your layups! Follow through! Pass the ball! Shoot that! Shoot that! Come on now! Get on the floor! All the way, baby! Got him!" At one point, I think the referee is going to stop the game and ask him to quiet down.
The scene is so chaotic that I can't possibly focus on everything that is happening. I have to just make sure the kids know where they are supposed to be on the court. That's not easy. At this age, you tell a kid something, and he's already forgotten it by the time he reaches half-court.
By the end of the second quarter, a quiet migration has begun. Some of the fathers begin making their way around the court toward the bench. In a half-time huddle, I look up and see, above the kids, the heads of five fathers, peering at me intently.
They really want to win this game. It's very important to them, and they look skeptical about my ability to do it. After the huddle breaks up, some of the fathers speak seriously with their kids. This is coaching by committee.
The score remains tight through the third quarter and into the fourth. I still haven't been able to get meaningful playing time for most of our players, but we are still within two baskets, and a couple of my kids are playing way above their level.
Meanwhile, one of the fathers has taken up residence next to me in front of the bench. Unsure of what to do, I let him stay there. This is a mistake, and a more experienced coach would ask him to leave.
But I have a different, even worse problem. Another one of the fathers is seated across the court, seething, because his kid has only played a couple of minutes.
Someone tells me later that he has been bad-mouthing my coaching the whole game, but I am oblivious to this—until he gets up out of his seat and walks over to me, right across the court, as play continues.
"Why aren't you playing my son?" he asks me, angrily. "You need more guards out there. You should put him in."
Totally unprepared for the confrontation, I stare at him like he's from another planet. "Uh, OK," I struggle to say, again letting my inexperience show.
So I put his son in.
The game is decided in the last two minutes. We lose by a basket or two. I tell the kids they've done a good job—they have played well above their level. There is no shame in losing to a good team. Unfortunately, these positives have been lost in the aftermath of the game. A couple of the kids stand at half-court, sobbing uncontrollably. Parents cluster and handicap the loss. I'm angry at myself for losing and for allowing the parents to control me, and I'm angry at my own behavior, at being unprepared for all 14 kids showing up. I tell two dads, in colorful language, that I'm unhappy with them.
The father who told me to play his kid tells me his son will never play for Riverside again. I let him know the feeling is mutual: "I like your son. He's a great kid, but you are done with the program," I say.
Never again, I tell myself as I leave for the train. This was it. I wouldn't coach again. Nothing was worth this kind of aggravation—especially not youth basketball.
I was wrong. Coaching has a draw to it, only because it's great when a kid does something you've taught him to do. A few months later, I returned, and I've been doing it ever since.
In the basement of the stately Riverside Church on the Upper West Side, past the wedding hall and down a narrow hallway crammed with janitorial supplies, there is a claustrophobic little basketball court.
The court is hemmed in by close-set walls on three sides, and is trimmed with a dusty, broken scoreboard and banners of past championships. Despite its modest feel, the court is hallowed ground—a mecca for generations of elite basketball players.
It was here, four decades ago, that the Riverside Hawks—the dominant youth basketball program in the country for many years—was founded. From Nate "Tiny" Archibald through the McCray brothers, Kenny Anderson, and Elton Brand, it was here that 65 NBA players, along with uncounted college ballers and many coaches, honed their game.
At around 6 p.m. on a recent Friday night, the court's cathedral silence is broken by the sounds of the kids from Riverside's powerful 12-and-under team and the rapid-fire cadence of their coach, Mark Jerome, 39.
"On the line," he says, as the boys jog to one end of the court. "OK, three-man weave, continuous. Go twice."
Three of the boys set off on the time-honored drill, passing and moving with purpose. The others wait in line expectantly.