TEAM TUESDAY – I am not sure of the age when kids are old enough to fully understand this mentality. And it may be one of those things that you either have or you don’t. No statement or words can do this feeling justice. It’s when you care so much about winning the game and getting your team to be the best it can be that all of this overrides your ego. The desire to get the best out of everyone on the floor becomes the force that drives your ego.
I keep trying to sell it to a 13-year-old undersized point guard. I keep telling him that his responsibility as a point guard is to care about everyone else first, second, third, and himself last.
The kid looks at me with eyes that sometimes show sadness as if he’s disappointing me as he figures this out, or else it’s plain confusion. Even his dad said, “So you want him to be more of a passer?” I said yes and no. The kid is a great passer so let him own that, yes. What I also want him to do is 1) express consistent support and compassion for his teammates; 2) know where his teammates need the ball to look good; 3) know what they do well, don’t do well and when they need a pat on the back; 4) always be thinking a play or pass ahead; and 5) always know what the team needs. And, last but not least, 6) if anything ever goes wrong, as a true point guard, he has to accept that it’s always his fault. (This is what Sue Bird said Geno Auriemma told her on her first day of practice at UConn. She said the good news is that she accepted it, and got so used to it that she loved this level of responsibility.)
I was not a true point guard. I was The Glue Player. If the point guard needed me, I got out my glue gun and went to work. I loved following strong, smart, tough point guards. Loved it. When I had a weak one, then my glue didn’t stick as much because I needed too damn much of it to go around. The point guard always made me look better, feel better, and think better. When did I know what it felt like to be on the floor with someone so good at their job? Maybe around grade 8. Maybe up until that point, CYO ball was all about aggression, and I had no clue what ebb, flow, control, and letting the game come to you meant. Maybe it was around grade 8 that I saw players step up their control. So how do you teach this feeling to a kid?
You teach it by calling them out as much when they do something right as you do when they do something totally selfish. So the boy I’m talking about here is a great kid who is probably the most dedicated kid in the program given his attendance record. He is as close as you’ll get to a gym rat in upper Manhattan. On Sunday, the kid is in a mix of kids – some scrappy, some okay, a few that are lost. So not ideal. Everything feels clunky out there, and he steadies the ship after some clear demonstrations of lack of patience. Then he hits a beautiful J off a reverse pivot along the baseline. And he jogs back on D. No – make that he walks back on defense. He was so happy about his J that he had to take a pause.
Problem was that it was game point. He walked back on D instead of going into automatic, “Who’s back?” mode. He knows he’s supposed to be back, and if he said it, someone else would have woken up as the other guy who’s supposed to be back protecting the rim. He should have known that his baseline shot put him way out of position to protect his team. He should have felt that the balance on transition D was off because he was thinking too much and too long about his two points.
This is totally normal kid behavior, by the way. But if the kid wants to go from the typical grade 7-8 boy who is looking to one-up his buddy, to the kid who is so skilled, smart and strong that he beats out all of his buddies, he’s going to have to show that he cares more about his team and winning than he does about his own ego. If he makes his teammates look great, then they will make him look great. They will not want to be there without him on the floor. Maybe this is all too much, too intense, too tall an order. But the kid is putting in so much time – do I not be honest? Do I back off what is the number one impediment to his success? It’s his ego. And the sad thing is that most of his friends at school have the same issue, so I worry that if he starts to get the sense of responsibility for everyone on his squad – from pick-games to championship games – his teammates won’t even get how hard he wants to make them all be better players. Will this mentality be a wasted effort? Should he also know how to just fend for himself?
I remember what it feels like to just go out there to get yours. It’s an awful feeling, but you have to do it sometimes at big tryouts with the pressure on. But even then – honest – you can still bring the team-first mentality and execute on it. You just have to make up your mind to be genuine about your concern for others.
An okay point guard is the car driver who gets into the car, looks ahead, presses the gas pedal and drives fast and cool and makes a few great moves now and then. He looks the part. The master of the craft is the guy that gets into the car and feels right away how the ride is going. He changes gears at just the right time and place as he processes all the moves and tendencies of those around him. The greatest are the maestros who can make their magic just with their outstanding body language, their communication skills, and by the flicker of a consistent, positive light in their eyes. Even when everything is falling apart, the best must continue to fight and persuade others that there is no other choice.
That’s what a point guard has to do to win the permanent reins of his team. I was always glad to give them up on the condition that the point guard put his team first, second and third. I played with plenty of point guards who could fill it up – so I’m not saying don’t pass. I am saying the best point guards always have their finger on the pulse of every player. They know when to give up the ball or set up the game winner. They also know that if the situation calls for them to shoot the rock, they will do so. And at the end of the game, the best players – point guards to centers – always know that a win can feel so good because it lightens the pain from those playbacks in one’s head of what went wrong. End of game, the kid has to know that in order to be a great point guard he has to listen to his intense, demanding coach, who is begging him to separate himself from all the other kids who will be trying out for his JV and varsity teams in a few years. Yes, that was a beautiful J you hit in the corner, but it doesn’t mean anything unless you double down on your talent, heart, effort, and selflessness by getting your butt back on defense, and locking up the game.