“There’s No ‘I’ in Team”
It’s an old coach’s cliché, of course: “There’s no ‘I’ in t.e.a.m.” Recognizing that the group is more important than the individual is at the heart of team sports. Historically, this “team thing” had been the domain of boys/men but that landscape began shifting seismically in the late 1960s/early 1970s --- years of radical social change, spearheaded by African-American civil rights and followed by women’s rights, gay rights, the environmental movement, as well as shifts in the art world (music, cinema, etc.). In 1973 I was a 24 year-old freshly-minted Master of Arts in Teaching educator starting my first full-time job in the Blind Brook/Rye school district. My initial assignment was to teach 7th grade Humanities to about 100 adolescents each day. I was also hired to be the Middle School basketball coach, something I was very excited about. And that’s where this story begins.
But let’s set some context for that 1973-74 school year. The top-40 hit songs during that year were Tony Orlando & Dawn’s “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree,” Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock,” and Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” to name a few. (Of course there was an exploding LP/album market that featured Stevie Wonder, Eagles, Steely Dan, the Allman Brothers, etc.). On the big screen people were watching “The Exorcist,” “The Sting,” “American Graffiti,” “Magnum Force,” and “Serpico.” The little screen’s top 4 programs were “All in the Family,” “The Waltons,” “Sanford and Son,” and “M*A*S*H” (Monday Night Football was #19). Other significant cultural events included Billie Jean King defeating Bobby Riggs in 3 straight sets in the Astrodome in September. “Happy Days” debuted in January 1974 and Stephen King published his first novel, Carrie,” in April of ‘74. Hank Aaron tied and then broke Babe Ruth’s home run record that same month.
Politically, of course, the Watergate Scandal was roiling. On October 30, 1973, we had the “Saturday Night Massacre,” when Nixon ordered his Attorney General (Eliot Richardson) to fire the Special Prosecutor (Archibald Cox), essentially stopping the Watergate investigation. Richardson and his Deputy A.G. William Ruckelshaus, both refused and resigned. Solicitor General Robert Bork fired Cox but, after a huge public outcry, hired Leon Jaworski to replace Cox within two days. By November 17th Nixon was announcing “I am not a crook” and in early January of 1974 the President refused to surrender 500 documents and audiotapes to the Senate Watergate Committee. By the end of the month one of the Watergate burglars, G.Gordon Liddy, was found guilty and on the same day (January 30th) Nixon, in his State of the Union address, announced “One year of Watergate is enough.” By March, seven White House officials were indicted and charged with “conspiracy to obstruct justice.” In May of 1974 the House of Representatives opened formal hearings in the impeachment process. Quite a school year, indeed. As we know, Nixon ultimately resigned on August 4, 1974 rather than face impeachment (which would have made him unable to receive a pardon!).
For those of us who have lived over the 46 years since the fall of 1973 we find ourselves witnessing our third impeachment. Apparently we are in some kind of “once every generation” impeachment cycle. But let’s get back to the original thesis here: “There’s no ‘I’ in team.” Coaching the Middle School basketball team in 1973-74 was my first experience as a coach. My models for being a coach were the numerous men I had played baseball, basketball, football, and lacrosse for during my own athletic career --- from Little League through high school and college. I was learning on the job and it was like trying to change the tire on a moving vehicle. But my players, our team, were an incredible group of kids --- eager to learn and play and we had a pretty good season. The next year I became the first Varsity basketball coach at BBHS (with NO seniors on the team because our school was adding a grade per year and we were only a 7-11 that year). We were 0-16 and, aside from learning humility, I was still getting my feet wet as a coach. Luckily for me, we had hired a new Phys.Ed. teacher, Jim Spano, who took over the Middle School team --- and then the Junior Varsity, inheriting the group I had originally coached (and taught in both their 7th and 8th grade Humanities classes). They were clearly a special group.
I’ve written about how unique Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School was during the years I was there (1973-1984) and I’ve also written about this particular team before. By their senior year (1978-79), with support from an equally special group in the Class of 1980, we had a great season and ultimately lost the County Championship by 3 points to the eventual New York State Championship team (it should be noted that these guys had already won the NY State Soccer championship!). What continues to be unique is that, since 2010, a core group from that team (with some other former athletes from those years), has met every December to have dinner together and “catch-up.” Last night it really struck me that 46 years have passed since we began our journey together in Rye Brook. 46 years. That’s almost a half-century! I’m 70 years old. Sitting there last night I looked around and saw a group of accomplished, intelligent, unique men --- now in their late 50s. They are exemplary fathers, husbands, citizens in every way. Watching the interaction between these men, my former players, was most notable for that “No ‘I’ in team” dynamic. Some still see each other regularly. Others only connect during this annual event but the warmth, the unselfish interest in each other is clear.
I was far from a great coach. Luckily, all these players were also my students in Humanities, American History and other classes --- where I spent more time with them than I did in the gym. But, as any athlete knows, there’s a special bond built between athletes who work together day after day on a field or a court, when the fans aren’t watching, when you’re learning how to be your best, when nerves fray and “fatigue makes cowards of us all” (Vince Lombardi). Learning to rely on the other guy, to trust your teammate, to work for the team above all else is unique. When you have great results, championships or even a chance to win the Big Game, it makes it all the more special. If you haven’t had that experience you may not exactly “get” what I’m writing about here. But if you were at any of the dinners during these last 10 Decembers, it wouldn’t take long at all for you to recognize what “There’s no ‘I’ in team” is all about. I feel lucky to be part of this group, to be able to see them now, all these years later, and still feel the energy we shared in those sideline huddles, clawing and scratching to try to win a game.
There is no “I” in T.E.A.M.