I played on my first Little League team (“Windsor Fuel”) at age 11 (happily, my parents waited until I asked to play and did not push me to start playing at age 9). We went 18-2 and won 2 out of 3 playoff games to become the Bay Shore-Brightwaters Champions of 1960. It was an auspicious start to my athletic career and a harbinger of things to come. It happened that the Bay Shore High School classes of 1966, 1967, and 1968 had a distinctly high number of good/great athletes and the football and basketball teams I played on in high school were spectacularly successful (over 4 years we were 26-4 in football with a League Championship and in basketball we were 58-14 with three League Championships and a trip to the Sectional Finals). As a competitive athlete there’s nothing better than playing on successful teams. Serving as Captain of the basketball team and quarterbacking the undefeated football team were a big part of my identity as I headed off for college.
As a “walk-on” player in both football and lacrosse I became a starter on those teams (as a defensive safety and a midfielder) and also played in the highly competitive “A-League” intramural basketball league (where Yale demigods Calvin Hill and Brian Dowling both participated). All this “history” is being provided to establish that, despite being “undersized” (barely 5’10” & tipping the scales at about 158 pounds at the time), I loved the challenge of playing sports and, finding myself in the “right place, right time” again and again, enjoyed enormous team success. Upon leaving college I continued to play pick-up basketball and touch football and never lost my intense competitiveness.
And that’s where this story really begins. As a teaching intern in Greenwich, Connecticut in the fall of 1972 I talked to the GHS Athletic Director about being an unpaid assistant coach for the school’s basketball team. Because I’d be leaving in January (to finish my courses for a Master’s Degree in Teaching at Colgate in upstate New York) the job never materialized but as I began looking for a full time teaching job that Spring (1973) I definitely wanted to coach basketball as part of wherever I might go. As fate would have it, I got a job in Rye Brook, New York, where a brand new Junior-Senior High School was opening, with grades 7,8,9,10 in 1973-74 and a plan to add a grade each year until it was a 7-12 school starting in 1975-76.
At that time the Ridge Street School was a K-8 institution and had a Jr. High basketball team (and coach) but in 1973-74 it would field a Junior Varsity High School team, with the then-current Jr. High Coach assuming the duties of JV Coach --- allowing me to step in (at age 24) as the Jr. High School basketball coach. The players I would coach that year would ultimately be members of the graduating classes of 1978 and 1979 from Blind Brook High School.
At age 24 I had more nerve than brains, particularly regarding basketball coaching, and believed, somehow, I was “well prepared” to coach because I was a good player who had lots of experience on successful teams. To my detriment, I decided that my role model and “guru” would be Bob Knight, the very successful coach at the University of Indiana, known for histrionics and (borderline crazy) sideline behavior. Bad idea.
Luckily for me, the kids I worked with were not only good athletes but also intelligent (and pretty thick-skinned). It helped that I was their classroom teacher in Social Studies, so they actually knew I wasn’t always a raving lunatic (as I often was on the basketball court). The “tragic flaw” I suffered (if I may be so grandiose) was not recognizing that what worked so well in my classroom (a student-centered, “democratic” approach) was nowhere to be found in my authoritarian/megalomaniacal gymnasium.
Armed with some fundamentals gleaned from my own high school coaches (as well as their brand of unsympathetic “male” toughness) I ventured into coaching basketball. As anyone will tell you, players make the team and a coach can enhance it --- and that was certainly the case my first year. We were relatively successful because my players were good athletes who applied themselves to the task at hand. I knew I had to improve --- but was confident I could do so.
By 1974-1975 Blind Brook Jr.-Sr. High School now had grades 7 through 11 and was going to have to field Varsity teams. Our principal, a big fan of mine, pressured the Athletic Director to appoint me as the Varsity basketball coach, leap-frogging over the JV coach (who had previously coached the Jr. High team for many years). That coach would now be a step below me --- not a great situation (athletically or politically). Nonetheless, at 25 years of age with one year of coaching under my belt and no experience other than being a Varsity player from 1965-1967 I was now a Varsity basketball coach. In 1974-75 Blind Brook also had the disadvantage of: a) no seniors on our squad; and b) no one over about 6’2” tall. Nonetheless, we competed. We ended the season 0-16 and never even came close to winning a game. At season’s end the JV coach resigned and I was included in the interviews for who might replace him.
By 1975-1976 we now had seniors on the team and, more importantly, our ninth graders (my junior high team) were beginning to play JV ball under the guidance of Jim Spano – a great player who was an even better coach (lucky me!). Our “long-term plan” was to have a very successful team by the time these freshmen were seniors. Long story short: second varsity season we were 2-14 (after losing 26 consecutive games over two years we won two in a row!), but then we won 5 and then 8, and we were ready for our “boys,” now seniors, to hit the big time.
To put in perspective how good a group of athletes we had, during the fall season this group won the New York State soccer championship! Impressive. The 1978-79 season, 40 years ago, that group of players (the classes of 1979 & 1980), a 6th seed in the Tournament, took us to the Sectional Finals, where we lost a 3 point game to the eventual State champions. Despite the disappointing finish, it was the most fun, the most satisfying, and the most exceptional group of people I ever had the pleasure to coach.
This past Monday night, 40 years later, players from the classes of ’78,’ 79, and ’80 met for dinner in what has become an annual event (since the mid-2000-aughts or so). My “kids” are now in their mid to late 50’s and I’ll be 70 in May. I can’t describe how much this team still enjoys each other’s company and how much they demonstrate their respect and affection for their coaches. I liken it to my family (my cousins, whom I almost never see) and I pick up conversations as if no time has passed when we see each other (usually at funerals these days). This team --- and they were the perfect embodiment of that notion, that “team” that every coach wants to work with --- revels in each other’s presence and, every December, catches up, rehashes, teases, and loves being together. From my perspective it’s the greatest holiday present people can share --- the connection and long-standing bond with people you love and respect.
The “Team” members are well-established adults now, of course, and quite successful ones at that. It’s gratifying, as an educator, to see how well they’ve done. More than that, though, as with family, it’s just a pure joy to get to spend time with people you spent countless hours with years ago who still exhibit the energy, the intelligence, and the basic human kindness that was just the tip of each iceberg in 1978-79.
I’m already looking forward to next December and hoping that I’ll have opportunities to spend time with some (or all) of them during 2019, even before December!
I hope everyone who might read this has a great Holiday season and a great New Year.