Friday, November 11, 2011

How did I get here?

To answer the title question, I suppose the answer is that I spend an inordinate amount of time coaching, playing, watching, talking about, and thinking about half a dozen (or more) different sports, so why not add writing to the list? I like writing. I've occasionally been told that I am an entertaining writer (even if at least one of my college history professors wishes that I had been more serious about my "scholarship").

In a way this happened entirely by accident. Early on during my senior year of high school (at Woodberry Forest, an all-male boarding school in Virginia - class of 2001), my parents informed me that we would be moving from Long Beach, California (where I myself had no ties except to the superb weather for playing outdoor basketball all summer long) to Valdez, Alaska. Now some people might get excited about moving to a place as exotic as Alaska; however, we had already lived in Anchorage for over seven years, from 1991 to 1998, and I had hated it. I only assumed that Valdez, at the same latitude but with 1.5% of the population (4,500 people as opposed to 300,000), would be worse. Fortunately I turned out to be wrong about that, but that's a whole 'nother story. I certainly sulked for much of the 300-mile drive to our new home from the Anchorage airport.* I learned from my mother during this drive that the Valdez Torpedoes Swim Club needed an interim coach for the summer, because the pool had just reopened and they had a few swimmers but no coach. I was volunteered for the job because the woman who ran the club went to church with my parents. And so I found myself coaching swimming three days a week for something like $150/month** while also having an ordinary summer job for an eighteen-year-old at the hardware store. Purely by circumstance, I found myself coaching straight out of high school.

*The scenery on this four-and-a-half hour jaunt is some of the most spectacular in the world, but on a dreary June day with low cloud cover and a high of 55, you can imagine that I wasn't too thrilled to be returning to Alaska. What made it worse was that I had been in Pensacola, Florida, not twelve hours earlier. It wasn't exactly a welcome change.

**The irony of this is that although it makes sense on some level for me to get my feet wet coaching swimming, because I swam year-round for about ten years (more than I participated in any other sport, even basketball), I didn't particularly like swimming. I did it to keep in shape for other sports; although I love being in the water, I didn't like swimming laps for two hours. I think it wasn't until my junior year, when I had a moderately successful high school season, that I threw myself into it mentally in any way.

Not only did my career start by accident, but it continued that way as well. My parents and I made a decision that I would take a year off between high school and college, and we had lined up a college-like study abroad semester for the spring in the Dominican Republic.*** For the fall, I had an internship at the KTUU (Anchorage's NBC affiliate) sports desk with the fantastically acerbic John Carpenter, since I was interested in sports journalism. There were various perks to the job, primarily the fact that I got a press pass for the 2001 Great Alaska Shootout and therefore had a ringside seat when a relatively unknown Dwyane Wade exploded onto the stage**** with an MVP performance against a pretty loaded field (runner-up Gonzaga, Indiana, Texas, Tennessee, Oregon State, St. John's, and host team Alaska-Anchorage). But the internship and the paper route I did in the mornings to pay for gas didn't fill all my time, and more importantly, didn't give me a physical outlet. So I popped over to Lumen Christi High School, which I had attended for ninth grade before going to Woodberry, and asked if I could show up to the start of practice the next week and help out as a practice player or something. The coach/athletic director agreed to let me come, and so I figured I'd at least get to play some basketball for a couple hours a day until I went back to Valdez for Christmas. That was until I showed up for the first day of practice, and Doug Bushey, the aforementioned coach/athletic director, came up to me and told me "We're having a girls' team for the first time this year, and they don't have a coach yet, so you go over there with them." Okay. That was that. An eighteen-year-old was sent off to coach high school girls, ostensibly on my own (there was a dad of one of the players there for the first three or four days). It seems particularly surreal now in light of everything that's happened at Penn State, but I got over my disappointment at not being able to practice with the boys' team and got down to coaching.*****

*** There's a better-than-even chance that at some future date I will write an extensive post about how great the DR is.

**** In the semi-finals, Marquette played the Jared Jeffries-led Indiana team that wound up playing for the NCAA title that year, a team I remember for only three reasons: first, because they did play for the title; second, because Mike Davis seemed like a total asshole at Shootout press conferences (I sat next to Lew Freedman and took notes - I know, I know, any of you who have ever been in a class with me are incredulous that I would write something down for the purpose of remembering it later); and third, because of a play in this semi-final that elicited a "HOLY SHIT!" from yours truly and got me excited for the possibilities of Dwyane Wade. To wit; Jeffries had the ball on the block and gave his defender an up-fake. Wade was coming from the top of the key to help, bit on the fake...and hurdled Jeffries, who was only seven feet tall with a baby afro. The only other time I could remember seeing anything like it was, of course, when Vince Carter leapfrogged Fred Weis in the Olympics. Since Wade seemed to be of normal height, it made this leap maybe more amazing.

***** This pattern of accidentally falling into coaching gigs kept happening; in the summer of 2002, I was accosted on the street by a former co-worker of my dad's while walking to the gym and informed that I should coach his son's Little League team. I pretty distinctly recall that there were no actual questions forthcoming from Mr. Kurt Hallier, just statements. Then, when I moved to DC, my mom stumbled upon a Craigslist ad for a middle school basketball coaching gig while looking for possible jobs for both of us. That led to four and a half years of year-round coaching (and assorted other work) at National Cathedral School, which is the single longest time I've spent anywhere as a student or employee.

Since then, apart from the two study-abroad programs I did (the DR in 2002, Argentina in 2003-2004), I've rarely been away from the bench, whether it's been Little League, high school sports, or club volleyball. I've effectively known that I wanted to coach or be involved in athletics in a similar fashion (being an athletic director, for example) since probably my junior year of college. But even when you have a definite idea, and a vague plan, you never know what may happen. For instance, I would say that I am better suited to coach basketball than any other sport. It is the sport that, far and away, I have the most continuous experience playing and watching (20 years now), and still the sport I have the most experience coaching. I certainly feel that I have a deeper knowledge of basketball fundamentals than I do for volleyball, baseball, swimming, football, etc. But this winter, for the first time in seven years, I won't be involved with a basketball team. Instead, I'll be focused on club volleyball and off-season strength and conditioning training (primarily for volleyball, again). At pretty much every step over the past four or five years, the doors that have opened to bigger and better opportunities have been in a sport that I myself have minimal competitive playing experience in, and it still fascinates me to look and see how everything has unfolded.

That's basically the reason I've started writing; to chronicle my own career as it happens, while also examining what happens in the college and professional landscapes. I occasionally suffer from stream-of-consciousness-itis, but I'll at least attempt to keep most of what I write here on topic (for the two or three of you who are actually reading), and keep my various strong opinions unrelated to sports to myself. If I seem like I'm ripping off another writer's style (such as Joe Posnanski with the "Pozterisks" - can we call them "O-sterisks" here?), well, sorry, but it might happen. Hopefully at least I can inform and entertain a few people.