Mr. Basketball Ch. 17

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*This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used in a factitious manor. Any resemblance to actual events is purely coincidental. All character’s involved in sexual activity are 18 or older.*

I sighed as I looked over the notes I had written on my notepad. I thought of something and quickly scribbled it down before thinking again. The door squeaked open as Donte walked in.

“You all right, Jake?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I sighed. “Just giving some final thoughts as to what I want to say tomorrow before the game.”

“Did you remember the part about the press saying we weren’t good enough?” he asked.

“I do,” I sighed. “I think I want to leave that part out for now. Maybe I’ll add it in, I don’t know. I want to say something different, something they haven’t heard or maybe they aren’t expecting from me. Remember, Evan has heard just about everything there is to say at this point.”

Donte smiled now. “Go with the classic speech then just roll into cussing them out like you did to me that one time.”

I looked at him questioningly for a moment. “Which time? I did it so many times they kind of run together.”

We both chuckled before he motioned to me to pass him the notepad. I slid it across the table as he sat down to see what I had. I watched him glance over my notes as I thought back to the cuss out incident he must be referring to so many years ago.


I remember the first time I met Donte. It was way back when I got my very first college coaching job down in Commerce. He was the hot shot, top recruit of the team in his senior year. His college career had not gone the way he had hoped. He knew coming in that he wasn’t going to be competing for a national championship here but he had hoped to be competitive and maybe leave the school for a bigger school once his grades improved. He had the talent to play at a bigger program but his bad attitude and poor grades left him with limited options.

I sat each player down before we started team activities that fall and told all of them what I expected from them. He was the last player to come into my office that day and I knew after the brief meeting that we were going to bang heads. I had spoken to all his teachers from last year and the tutors that he had had as well. They all painted a picture of him as a deva who thought the world owed him something. I was not about to put up with it.

I flat out told him that if his grades and attitude didn’t improve before the start of the season I would suspend him and look at pulling his scholarship. I was not the coach of old and I wouldn’t be putting up with the bullshit of the past. We were changing directions with or without him. Hopefully with him but we, as a team, would get by without him if he so chose.

I knew he wasn’t happy when he walked out of my office. It was the first time since he had been here that somebody was actually going to hold him accountable for his actions and follow through. He was used to getting away with things because he would make up for it on the court. I had enough on my plate that first season with a system change, parents wondering about their kids, the players themselves unsure about what was to come, and the school as a whole wondering who Jake Tillman was and why did we hire him again. I didn’t need him undermining me.

The big incident he was referring to happened a few days before we were going to play Tech. Tech, back then, was a decent division one school that made the tournament each year. They weren’t one of the big time schools but they were a big name to us to play against and a win against them would get people looking at us. It was going to be a tall task to beat them but it wasn’t impossible.

At that point in the season we were rolling. We lost the first three games, not badly, a few mistakes here and a few there costs us games. The guys were learning my new system and in the key moments they were falling just a little short. Then we had a break through and continued on a roll after that going on to win nine straight games. My system finally clicked with them and they started playing well in the system.

I had sat them down in the meeting room and went over some film then started with a game plan. I wanted them to do this and work on that and change this so we would have a chance at winning. I knew they could do it if they worked hard, I just had to get them to believe they could do it. Once we left the meeting room we headed out to the floor to practice. That’s where the incident started and changed our relationship for the better.

I forgot something in my office so I had to make a quick stop to grab it. Donte and Rich didn’t see me turn the opposite way after we left the meeting room. They must have thought I was at the front of the line going to the floor. After I grabbed what I needed from my office I headed out and ended up at the end of the line right behind them.

“Man,” Donte said to Rich as they bahis firmaları walked out. “Coach is crazy, ain’t no way this is going to work. We might as well not even show up on Friday.”

Rich didn’t respond, he just shook his head.

“Gonna be the same thing as last year,” Donte continued. “20 point smack down. Coach gotta know we ain’t got the same skill as them.”

“Maybe you,” Rich joked. “I got a teardrop jumper that will make you cry.”

He pretended to shoot a shot and made the swish noise as Donte pushed him a little. It was then they realized I was walking behind them.

“Oh, hey coach,” Donte said.

I held my tongue for the moment. “Y’all ready to get to work?”

“Oh, yes sir,” Rich replied.

“Good,” I smiled.

We reached the floor. That’s where I exploded.

“A few of your teammates think the rest of you don’t have the skill to beat Tech on Friday. They think we should just forfeit the game and look to the next game.”

“That’s not what I said,” Donte cried.

“I was right there,” I retorted quickly. “I have ears and they do work.”

“Let me refresh your memory,” I continued. “20 point smack down, coach is crazy, we don’t have the skill to compete.”

I looked at him and Rich both. “Sound familiar?”

They were both quiet for the moment.

“It’s not about skill anyway. It’s about being fundamentally sound and doing all the small things right that win you games. It’s about who makes fewer mistakes. Look at the three losses we have this year. In the key moments you guys made small mistakes that lost games.”

“We missed shots at the end,” Donte offered.

I paused and was actually taken aback that he was talking over me. It pissed me off more than I was already. It took me a second before I refocused and continued.

“You’re right, we did miss shots. We missed them because we took bad shots in the final minutes. Shots that weren’t there and we shouldn’t have taken them. That’s a mistake, that’s part of not being fundamentally sound. Instead of resetting and working the play again, you just threw up a bad shot.”

“Me?” he questioned.

“Yes you!” I yelled now. “You are the point guard, the leader of the offense. It begins with you and resets with you at the top if nothing is there. Do you think that happens by mistake? No, it’s by design. You have to be smart enough to reset it if it’s not there.”

He started to talk but I talked over him.

“After you threw up a bad shot you fouled your man on defense and gave them two free shots. Maybe it’s your skill that’s lacking.”

“What?” he asked stunned.

“What else could it be?” I asked more sarcastically then anything. “A three pointer is worth three points for both sides, correct? A layup counts as two points for both teams. Free throws are a point each. Each team gets just about the same amount of possessions in a game, give or take one or two. We have been averaging sixty four possessions per game, that’s sixty four chances to score. It comes down to execution and making those sixty four count.”

“Can you make a layup?” I asked our big man.

“With my eyes closed, sir,” he said.

“What about you?” I asked another.

“Yes, sir,” he replied.

“Can you hit a three ball?” I asked Rich.

“You know I can, sir,” he smiled.

“We have the skill to win on Friday,” I said firmly. “What we don’t have is the belief and the willingness to execute and do the small things to get us the win. But we can fix that and rather easily if we just put forth some effort and have the want to.”

I looked around at the men again. “That starts with you,” I said and pointed at Donte. “If you don’t believe and want to do it, the team doesn’t believe and want to do it.”

“Donte, leave the floor and head to my office,” I ordered.

“With pleasure,” he quipped. “Don’t know why I’m getting singled out and my ass chewed for.”

I waited until he walked off the floor before I turned to the team again.

“I believe in you guys. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have quit my job, left my cushy gig coaching girls, or made my wife and two new babies move all the way across the country to come here.”

I took a pause and let my words sink in.

“Do you guys believe and want to? If not, drop your stuff and hit the door so I can find somebody who does. If y’all believe then let’s work together and make it happen. I can’t do it for you and I can’t force you to do it but if you guys want it, I want to help you get it.”

“We believe, coach,” Rich said. “We just needed to reset the play is all.”

There was a collection of yeses and we believe and we want it coach as I stood and waited for them.

“Jason,” I said.

“Yes sir?”

“You’re up.”

“I’m ready, coach.”

“Start working on what we talked about in the meeting. Coach John will help you for now. I’ve got to meet with Donte. I’ll be back.”

I left the ball with my freshman recruit and headed in to see Donte.

“You are suspended kaçak iddaa indefinitely,” I said as I opened the door. “Shit like that is unacceptable and I’m not going to tolerate it, period.”

“Why are you out to get me? Why you single me out?” he snapped back.

“How am I out to get you?” I asked. “Because I’m holding you accountable for your actions? That’s called life Donte, plain and simple. Next summer, when you are out of here, you’re going to have to get a job and have a boss. You won’t be the college kid, star athlete any more. You’ll just be, Donte, the dude who needs a paycheck. I’m trying to prepare you for that.”

He snickered a little.

“Seriously, Donte,” I continued. “You graduate in the spring. What are you going to do with your life once you are out of here? Reality needs to sink in now so it’s not such a shock come spring. You won’t be here, you won’t have basketball, and you won’t have a cushy ride. You will be in the real world with real responsibilities. What are you going to do?”

He had this look now and shrugged a little. It was a different shrug, one that said shit I never thought of it like that.

“My responsibility is not only to coach you on the court but to do it off the court. I have to prepare you for life once you get out of here. I know your story, Donte. You came from a shit neighborhood where nobody gives a shit about you. You’ve made it this far, be an inspiration to some other kid so they can get out too.”

“I’m here to help you. I want you to succeed. I’m not against you. It may not seem like it now but I’m not against you. You have to meet me half way though.”

He looked at me now. “Why do you care about me? I’m outa here in a couple of months and you won’t have to worry about me anymore.”

“You are my responsibility now. Like I just said, I took this job not only to coach you on the court but also off it. I guarantee you if I picked up my phone right now and called coach K, he would answer and talk with me about anything right now. That’s his job as my old coach. You are now my player so that is now my job.”

“You really mean that?” he asked.

“I really mean it.”

He nodded now. “Sorry coach, it’s just…ain’t nobody ever had my back like that before.”

“If you need something or something is on your mind, all you have to do is call me. I’ll do my best to help you out. I coached a girl named Mandy in my first year of coaching. She still calls me every now and then to talk about life.”

“You’re a smart basketball player with an IQ that is off the charts for the game. We just need to figure out a way to transition it from the court to life.”

“I’m not good at anything else but ball though,” he said. “Makes me mad, you know? Like I was meant for more but I didn’t get the chance to show it.”

I pointed at him now. “That’s the story of my life. I know exactly how you feel.”

“I heard the story,” he replied. “More than once too.”

“Yeah,” I smiled. “Most people have, but were you listening? I spent seven or eight years of my life pissed off at basketball and, quite frankly, at life in general. Then I found a good woman and my calling in life and here I am. That’s no different from you other than you haven’t found your calling.”

“Or a woman,” he chuckled.

“Hey,” I teased him. “Some dudes like dudes, I don’t judge.”

“Man shit,” he laughed now.

“The point I’m trying to make is you have to stop being so pissed off about everything. It just didn’t work out for you. You didn’t play here for a year or two then move on to another school. And even if you did, you’d still be in the same situation you’re in right now. You’re about to graduate and have no real direction.”

“You have to look at what you do have and what you got out of this,” I continued. “You got a free education, you met some pretty cool people along the way and you have this experience that most people will never have. I got two years of playing and three on a team full of people that I have a common bond with.”

“You don’t realize it now but some day you will look back on this and think about how awesome it was to be a part of something greater than just yourself.”

“Momma tells me that too,” he smiled.

“I know she does,” I smiled back. “I’ve talked to her several times. And you know something, she’s right.”

We both sat there for a second and thought before I spoke.

“By the way, I never singled you out. I said some of your teammates. You offered your name all on your own.”

He sighed. “I guess I did, didn’t I?”

I changed gears now that I had him more receptive to listening to what I had to say.

“I can’t have you doing what you are doing out there. Even if it was just you and Rich talking. At some point it gets out and maybe Jason hears it and he tells the next guy and the next thing you know I’ve got the whole team wondering what’s going on and asking questions.”

“It’s a big change for everyone here this year. You guys had a shit pot last season kaçak bahis with the black cloud following the team around and not knowing what was going to come next. I know that must have sucked because I’ve been in a similar situation myself. Now you’ve got new coaches, a new system, and new players coming in who are competing for your job in a system you aren’t comfortable in yet.”

“Look at me for a moment. I took a huge risk coming here and taking this job. Most college coaches start out as assistants. My wife and I both quit our jobs to come here. I left a community that loved me and everything that I had accomplished for the school and was slated to still accomplish with them this year. I made my wife and my two new babies move away from family and come all the way across the country to be here. If I fail at this job, I probably don’t get a second chance at this.”

“Look at the freshman we have this year too. Last season they were at home with mom and dad playing high school ball worrying about stupid stuff like girls and car parts or something. Now they are here thinking about home and worrying about grades and keeping their shit together so they don’t let mom and dad down. Everyone has undergone a huge change this season.”

“I need guys like you to step up and be leaders and lead the team. Help me out by being a good example so we can continue to move in the right direction. The season started off bad but we changed directions and are headed down a good path. Don’t throw us off course and repeat the shit from last year. Nobody wants that. If you follow my lead and lead the team on the court, they will follow you and it will make it easier for everyone.”

“Do you get what I’m saying?”

“Yeah,” he nodded. “I get it.”

“So, it’s going to suck but I am suspending you for one game for conduct detrimental to the team,” I said firmly. “How the rest of the season goes is up to you. You do your one game and come back and we move on from here. I’m not going to hold it over your head or be on your ass about it as long as your attitude improves and your grades keep steady.”

“Got it?”

“Yes sir, coach,” he said.

“We good?” I asked.

“Yeah, coach,” he smiled. “We good. You the first man that’s gotten after me and I respect that. I done wrong and I have to own up to what I did.”

“All right,” I said as I stood to shake his hand. “I’ll see you back here on Saturday.”

“Yes, sir.”

The story doesn’t go like you would expect though. We ended up losing the game against Tech by two points in the closing seconds but it was the best we had played against them in over a decade so it was something to build on from there.

Donte’s story doesn’t end there either. After his suspension he came back with a much better attitude and was a model player and the leader of the team. He helped us to a 21 win, 7 loss regular season, the best we had done in six years. We won the conference tournament and got into the D2 tournament. We made it to the round of eight before we checked out.

Donte graduated and went out into the world. He took me up on my offer to always be there for him and I heard from him about every three to four months for a couple of years. Then it was every six months for a couple more. He was always doing ok and trying new things but he was never settled and never certain he was doing the right thing.

It was seven years ago or so that I got a call from him. He was down in the dumps and couldn’t figure out his next move. His latest job had run its course and he was out of options again. It just so happened that I needed another assistant coach so I offered him the job. He jumped at the chance and has been with me ever since.

Back then I had moved on from Commerce to a small division one school still in Texas. I had had great success in Commerce and was one win away, two years in a row, from a championship. I got the call to move up to a D1 school and I couldn’t turn that down. I had to start over again and rebuild from the ground up but I had done it twice already so it was nothing I couldn’t handle.

It took three years to get over the hump and finally win an at large bid into the big dance. We got to the round of sixteen that year. The next year we got to the round of eight. The calls started coming in after that wanting me to make another move and come to a name school and coach. I seriously considered it twice but it just didn’t feel right so I stayed where I was for the time being. My assistant coaches however, didn’t feel the same and if they were offered head coaching jobs, they usually took them. I waited until the right one came along before I finally made the move again.

Donte is a great coach. It took him a season to get into the groove but once he did we worked great together. He drew on his life experience and his playing IQ to project things that I sometimes could not. The fact that he followed me to a new team meant a great deal to me to. But I would say that the one incident was the turning point in his life and our relationship.


“What’s this say right here?” Donte asked.

It pulled me from my thoughts and back to the room with him in it. I looked at the paper and even I couldn’t read what I had written.

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