The Game as a Vehicle: The Miracle of St. Anthony’s (#4 in 52)

The score is 25-23 for the Visitors: 30 seconds left in the fourth quarter and emotions flying high in the gym. Coaching my son’s team and sitting on the Visitor’s bench, I watch as his check drives right and scores the tying basket with 12 seconds left in the game.  I call a timeout.  My son approaches the bench, downtrodden and sad.  I smile and tell him that it’s his turn to shine, he smiles (that beautiful, remind me that fatherhood is the ultimate profession and make me appreciate that life is indeed a gift smile) and the world has been put aright again.  I draw up a half court play and with 2.4 seconds left we shoot, we score and we win 27-25.

Now, according to Patti Wood, a body language expert who teaches at Florida State, there is something called isopraxism, an anthropological explanation of how we pull toward the same energy, that explains why when the person we’re with steps off the curb, we follow him or her into the crosswalk.  In team sports it explains how if one person, especially the leader, gets discouraged or feels defeated, the entire group is affected.  However, when positive, when feeling victorious, when focused on much more than the athletic arena, the feelings can be truly transformative.

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of experiencing this powerful sensation as I “supported” my son and coached his teammates in what may have been one of the greatest elementary school games I have ever been involved in. The result, however, is inconsequential to my sentiment.  What is driving my feeling is my hope that the boys on both teams are now beginning to understand that being part of a team can be a life changing experience.

Basketball, like all sports, is a vehicle in which we teach a few skills but also provide comfort and a safe place wherein we can help kids discover their own admirable purposes.  It’s an opportunity for us to help them build capabilities in group interpretation, negotiation of shared meaning and co-construction of problem resolutions.  It’s so much more than just the pursuit of the ‘W.’ It’s about recognizing the profound difference one can make within a group context.  It’s about developing the capacity to show compassion, empathy and understanding so that, one day, when these boys are healthy and emotionally literate men, they will, when called upon, be able to love and in return be loved.  The game may be simple but the lessons learned are layered and complex.

It is basketball and the lessons taught through the game that serve as the basis for this next installment in my 52 in 52 project.  This week I share #4 of 52: Adrian Woinarowski’s, The Miracle of St. Anthony’s.  This work of nonfiction follows a high school basketball team of inner city boys from Jersey City, New Jersey through their 2003-04 undefeated season.  In an area punctured with the horrors of urban blight, hope comes in the form of a tiny brick schoolhouse run by two Felician nuns and Coach Bob Hurley who, through coaching basketball, takes teenagers from the mean streets and teaches them life lessons that are in turn, life changing.

St. Anthony’s High is legendary in terms of what it has done for a community and the students it services.  What I found most enjoyable with this read was that the focus was on more then just the school and it’s quest for a perfect 30-0 season: it’s primary emphasis was chronicling the lives of a misfit group of kids who, unlike former St. Anthony alumni, seemed to be going nowhere and were failing to grasp Hurley’s philosophy.

It is a remarkable success story (over 100 of Coach Hurley’s players receiving Division 1 scholarships and all of them graduating from high school) made even more remarkable by the fact that the school does not have a home gymnasium.  They are a school that consistently wins state titles and are ranked among the nations top high school teams, yet they have had 25 different practice facilities and at one time played their home games in an old bingo hall. In fact, the bingo hall, White Eagle, was so old that Coach Hurley would need to walk around the gym prior to games and hammer down nails that were popping up.

Like Coach Hurley and many others who volunteer their time, I have spent countless hours in gyms and have continued to do so in the past three months coaching both my son and daughter’s basketball teams.  As a coach, I am always keenly aware of my impact as an educator.  Like teachers, coaches must be acutely cognizant of the fact that their words, their coaching style will have significance for their players/students well beyond the immediacy of the basketball court.  My hope is that by the end of their time with me as their coach, my boys will, like Hurley’s boys, continue to hear my voice and the lessons imparted long after the noise of squeaking sneakers dissipates in their respective memories.

One Comment
  1. Gino- being called “coach” by kids is a great honour and I wholeheartedly agree with your thesis – the lasting impression kids take away from sport are dependent on how the coach made them feel, both with words and actions, at practices, team events and games. Over time, the big pre-game speech or crucial time-out talk will not resonate as deeply as the daily interactions the coach had with ALL of the members of the team.

    I too have coached many teams at school and in the community for over 20 years and I often reflect on my effectiveness, both as a coach and a role model. Teams I was involved with experienced the full range of results – exciting championships and disappointing defeats. In amateur and school sports, in the end, the game results are not as important as the personal development of every member of the team.

    While I am very proud of the loyalty, respect, dedication, commitment, love and care that I held for every young person I ever coached, I have some regrets. I regret not playing some kids much in my early days as a high school coach. I regret showing anger or frustration and challenging officials on their calls. I regret being too focused on winning at times and for not keeping everything in perspective, especially with “rep A level” players who were still only kids. I regret not being more effective in helping difficult parents embrace the team-first philosophy and to see beyond their own child.

    As a coach, I would encourage you to maintain your passion for coaching and to helping every member of your team work hard and have fun. As a principal, I would encourage you to ask thoughtful questions when you see kids at your school sitting on the bench for the entire game or when a coach shows signs of missing the point. It seems to me that school sports should be held to a higher standard than community sport, but I am not sure that is the case.

    Good luck coach.

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