Thursday, December 4, 2014

Influential Coaches #11: Steve Chronister

Previous entries: Series Overview
January: Paul Westphal (basketball)
February: Tara Gallagher (basketball/softball)
March: Robert Joseph Ahola (rugby)
April: Rickey Perkins (swimming)
May: Bob Smith & Mike Craig (baseball)
June: Michael Minthorne (strength & conditioning)
July: Steve Radotich (football)
August: Tessa Paganini (volleyball)
September: Lynn Seitz (swimming)
October: Micah Hartman (volleyball)

I will begin with a statement that hopefully this piece will provide all of the necessary supporting evidence for; outside of my immediate family, Steve Chronister has been the single most influential person in my life to date. Not only was Steve my basketball coach for four of the first five years of my career, but he was also a neighbor (our houses were roughly one hundred yards apart), and his sons were two of my more constant companions growing up. He was a more or less constant presence in my life for the entirety of our seven and a half years in Anchorage.

We moved to Anchorage (from Bakersfield, California) in February of 1991, and into our just-built house on Woodway Circle a few weeks later. The Devonshire subdivision was fairly new (for one thing, it was still fairly teeming with vacant lots) consisting of three fairly long cul-de-sacs, of which Woodway was the last. If I recall correctly, fewer than ten of the houses in the neighborhood were NOT built by the same developer, but the Chronisters' house, one away from the end of the circle, definitely stood out the most. The house was two stories high, with a loft above those that looked down on the living room with its impossibly high and steep-roofed cathedral ceiling. The massive front windows (three of them around 36 square feet apiece, with two proportional triangular ones above them reaching toward the peak of the roof) looked out over the long driveway and the circle, in stark contrast to pretty much every other house, where the projecting garage was the salient feature. Steve had built the house himself, originally for a man with a bit of a gambling history. When that man lost a pile of money and could no longer afford to finish and move into the house, Steve and Lori made it their family home.

Unless the weather was miserable, Chris (a few months older than me) and Erik (a little over a year younger) were expected to play outside. So we (along with my next-door neighbor Ashley and various other children who lived on the circle) did. The houses on my side backed up to a thin ditch followed by woods, and so we retrieved a boatload of scrap lumber from the near-constant construction in the neighborhood and built a large fort overlooking my backyard. When that got to be a bit of an eyesore for the neighbors, it was summarily torn down and hauled off to the dump, only we retreated fifty yards or so into the woods and built one out of sight. But even more often than that, we played baseball and basketball in the street.*

*Perhaps you could say that the beginning of my coaching career was teaching Ashley how to play baseball when we were in elementary school.

It wasn't until fourth grade (my second full winter in Anchorage) that I joined Steve's (and John Main's) basketball team for the YMCA league. I can still recall our entire roster minus one last name: myself, Chris, Ronnie Robinson, Jimmy Wheeler, Corey Bradford, Matt Weimer, Matt Main, Grant Breager, Willie Hinckley, and Travis something-or-other. And Steve was no garden-variety youth league coach. He had formerly coached Bartlett High School to a state championship, and was probably the most knowledgeable basketball mind in the state of Alaska (certainly that I ever encountered). In fact, way back in the late seventies, shortly after he had finished coaching the last (so far) undefeated team in NCAA Division I history, Bobby Knight offered Steve an assistant coaching gig when Indiana came to Alaska for the inaugural Great Alaska Shootout.* How many coaches anywhere, let alone Alaska, can say that?

*Two points. First, it's sad that the proliferation of early-season tropical tournaments and the rule changes about how often you can play in them have made the once-great Shootout irrelevant. Second, Knight and Indiana lost their opening game to Pepperdine, the same team that would give Knight his last loss at Indiana, in the 2000 NCAA Tournament. Go Waves!

From day one, Steve was emphatic about practicing and mastering basic fundamentals. We were drilled on handling the ball with both hands, on making layups with both hands, on making crisp chest and bounce passes, and above all on our shooting form. Steve didn't care how many shots we made, or how far away we could shoot from; he only cared that we learned how to shoot properly, and that we practiced it often. He told us, without exaggeration, that if we wanted to become good shooters we should take a thousand shots a day (on our own time), and that we could practice our form when we were lying on the floor at home or in bed (which I did frequently). He had absolutely no patience for twenty-one, the game of one-on-many that just about every boy who ever plays basketball* eventually becomes enamored of, both because he believed we would learn bad habits and more importantly because we wouldn't spend enough time with the ball in our hands.

*In my experience, girls are not drawn to twenty-one nearly as much as boys. Perhaps that was a function of where I coached.

As a team, we also learned a five-out motion offense that was easy for young boys with short attention spans to remember (I can still, to this day, hear Steve saying "Pass and screen away. If you don't know what else to do, pass and screen away."), and how to play not just man-to-man and a basic 2-3 zone but a 1-2-2, 3-2, 1-3-1, and even box-and-one and triangle-and two hybrids. We learned how to set perfect screens to free teammates on and off the ball. In that first year we learned how to trap and rotate so that opponents could be suffocated as soon as they came across half-court. It helped in all of this that we had a natural point guard (Ronnie) and a bevy of athletic kids who were big for their age (Jimmy, Grant, Weimer, Corey, and Willie), with two of those particularly adept at setting punishing screens (Corey and Grant).* Chris was a terrific pest on defense, and Matt Main and I could be when we were focused. We got better once we were allowed to full-court press (sixth grade?), which enabled Steve to unleash our athleticism with a 1-2-1-1 trap that was bad news for opposing point guards.

*Our favorite play when we needed a quick score was for Corey to come from the top of the key and set a blind screen for Ronnie as he brought the ball over halfcourt and had a defender pestering him. Because Ronnie was excellent at brushing the shoulder of his screener, virtually every time it resulted in his defender getting annihilated like they'd just run into a brick wall. One time some poor enthusiastic kid hit Corey so hard (and just after he had turned towards him) that he bounced about five feet - back across halfcourt - with a bloody mouth thanks to his braces. Corey, meanwhile, might not have been touched for all you could tell by his reaction.

Because of the sound fundamental training and variety of skills and strategies that we learned, our team didn't lose a game for three solid years. When we moved up to the Advanced Skills division and added a couple better players (such as Mike Auelua, maybe the best pure athlete in our league at the time), we were immediately competitive, although certainly not unbeatable. But the stress on fundamentals never wavered. Steve still told us to take 500 or 1000 shots every day (always with perfect form), and to continue to work on our off-hand ball-handling.* Better yet, he was able to be that demanding while still making practices fun.

*From day one, Steve told us that if we ever broke an arm, we should break our right arm, so that we would be forced to work on our left - unless we were left-handed, obviously. When Ronnie broke his arm in (I think) seventh grade, he neglected this advice, as well as his conditioning, resulting in some commentary from the coaches early in the season and a slow start from our starting point guard.

I think the best thing that Steve taught me (I can't necessarily speak for anyone else, but feel free to chime in, guys) was how to see the game. I never developed into an elite player or even anything more than a pretty good one,* and it took me until I was eighteen and living in the Dominican Republic to fully grow as a basketball player, but I was able from an early age to see what was happening on the floor, which I think helped me a ton when I began coaching basketball myself back in 2001. The attention to detail that he gave every aspect of the game rubbed off on me (and many of our other players), allowing me to enjoy playing, coaching, and watching basketball more.

*Hooray, lack of lateral quickness!

Steve was not only responsible for approximately eighty or ninety percent of my growth in basketball, he also helped me revive a dying love for baseball when he became an assistant coach (and the primary hitting coach) for my Little League team during my last year in Majors (also the year that Chris and Erik both joined the team. I was an unhappy bench player on a team (and in a league, for that matter) dealing with some major nepotism issues, and had completely lost confidence in my ability to play baseball. Steve helped me fix my swing and rebuild my mental state, to the point that I was even confident enough to try switch-hitting in a game for the first time by the end of that season.

That brings up another key lesson that Steve taught me, one that has come in handy during my coaching career; being fair to your players. Despite the fact that he and John had sons on our basketball team, they had to earn their playing time just as much as the rest of us. Granted, in our first couple of years the rules mandated that everyone get essentially equal playing time, but that wasn't the case when we moved up to Advanced Skills. At no point was Chris ever more than the fifth-best player on our team, and he never got more court time because he was the coach's son; he earned his minutes by being, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the hardest-working and most focused player that we had. That approach stood in stark contrast to other basketball teams but especially to our baseball team, where the head coach's son got to pitch and play shortstop, and despite being no more than an average player for that level never came out of a game but once that I can recall (when he had an absolute meltdown on the mound while getting shelled). Steve held everyone to the same standards; even good players like Mike or Ronnie or Jimmy would soon find themselves on the bench if they weren't giving their best effort. It's an approach that I've always tried my best to follow in my own coaching career.

I moved away from Anchorage a whopping sixteen years ago, but the lessons I learned from Steve in both athletic skills/techniques and in personal character have remained with me throughout my life. Chris and Erik are grown and married now, but there's still a basketball hoop at the end of the driveway, and Steve is still there to teach you about basketball, about God, and about life. I haven't been to Alaska much in recent years, but I make it a point every time I'm in Anchorage for more than a day to stop by and see my greatest mentor, and I think I always will.

 ~ Stay tuned later this month for the series finale, a profile of the most accomplished coach I've had a chance to learn under. ~