Saturday, April 01, 2006


On a rare occasion I write a short story. This one came to me from a dream I had last night, combined with some thoughts about a friend of mine. Never fear, I will be back to my cantankerous, argumentative self with the next blog!

I coach a city basketball league for Third and Fourth Graders. You know the ones. Where 160 boys sign up, and are divided into 16 teams, one practice a week (hoping at least 6 show up) and the games on Saturday at the local high school. We are not supposed to keep track of win/losses, but do anyway. Parents cheer, and can get out of hand and I get 10 boys assigned to me, just like the other coaches.

Two years ago, one of the boys assigned to me was Juan. We have a few large farms in the area, resulting in migrant workers and a Mexican segment as part of our little society. Just like the other 9, Juan handed me his permission slip, carefully filled out and signed. I have a hard time with names, so I am grabbing the slips and trying desperately to assign the names to the faces.

“Matthew, John, Rod, Tom, Juan….”

I remember Juan as a triple threat. To us. He could not shoot, could not dribble and could not pass. But many boys at this level have trouble with these basics, and in this regard he did not stand out. No, where Juan excelled was in fouls.

In our very first scrimmage in our very first practice, Juan was hit by another player when trying to pass the ball.

“He hit me!”
”Now, Rod. You can’t touch the other player. You can hit the ball, but if you touch the other player, it is a foul. The opponent either gets the ball, or can take free shots.”
“But I didn’t do it on purpose.”
“I know. Even if you do it by accident, it can be called a foul.”

Now, I recall the conversation going exactly in that fashion. Later events revealed that Juan heard, “As long as you claim it was an accident, you can strike the other player.” I had created a weapon. Double O-Juan.

Our first game was progressing as first games do. Awkward and messy. A far more experienced player on the opposing team easily dribbled around Juan. So Juan grabbed him! Effective in stopping the player, yes. But that is going to be called every time.

“Tweee! Foul on Number 4” (Those words were to become a mantra.)
“It was an accident!” (Another mantra.)

It was early in the season; Juan wasn’t experienced. I carefully explained again the problem in touching another player. I thought I solved the problem as any good coach could. I was wrong.

“Tweee! Foul on Number 4”
“It was an accident!”

Again, I explained the problem. Again I thought I had resolved the problem. Again I was wrong.

“Twee! Foul on Number 4”
“It was an accident!”

This was getting ridiculous.

At the next practice, I looked to see who brought Juan. Perhaps a father, or older brother could work with him, and reduce the one-armed chopper. Sigh. No such luck. He rode in on his bicycle.

Practice went as second practices do. Same as the first. I am not messing up the names as much, and I can start to separate the better players to those not as good. Everything great until the scrimmage.

“Juan, you CAN’T hit the other players!”
“It was an accident.”

Oh, boy. I could see a long, long season ahead of me.

Game two.

“Twee! Foul on Number 4”
“It was an accident!”

The back of my neck started to get red. Most times I get a wonderful group of parents. This time was no exception. But I could just imagine the conversations going on in the stands.

“Why do we have to keep losing the ball because of that Juan kid?”
“Can’t the coach teach him better?”
“Shouldn’t the coach do something?”

I didn’t hear those comments out-loud, but the thoughts were being psychically projected right into my brain. At every whistle for those fouls, I shrank one inch.

Diplomatically, I asked, “Juan, do you have anyone to work with at home on your basketball?
“Not really. My neighbor is only 4 and I beat him.” (I hoped that meant as in “better play” and not “foul him until he is black and blue.”)
“Do you want to come about half an hour early and we can work together?”
His eyes lit up. “Sure.”
It seems like every season I pick up one or two players that I spend extra time with.

Juan showed up a half-hour early for the practice. I will admit to being sorely tempted to show him what it is like to be fouled by a 45-year-old, 190 pound man, but kept my composure. I showed him skills as to taking the ball WITHOUT touching the other player, how to keep hands up, and simply cause confusion without touching. I showed him how to block without fouling.

He soaked it in like a sponge. Good, that is all he needed, a little one-on-one time. Practice went well. And then the scrimmage…..

“Juan. You CAN’T touch the other players”
“It was---“ and the entire team said, “an accident!”
“Juan, what about those things I showed you”
“I forgot.”
“Coach, what are you showing Juan?”
“I just wanted to show Juan some extra steps.”
“Can you show us?”

Thus my practices became extended by a half-hour. I still worked with Juan individually for most of that extra time. There had to be SOMETHING that would turn off that switch on fouls!

We entered into a familiar pattern. Juan and I practiced together, the team practiced, we played games.

“Tweee! Foul on Number 4.”

I went home and tore my hair out. I had never coached a kid with such a mental block! His dribbling had improved, his shots actually came close, and some passes were quite good. I remembered that I had never seen a mother, or a father, or friend appear at the game with him, and so, taking some long, deep breaths, would calm down. Maybe a hard home life would make up for this.

Halfway through the season, I had enough.

“Juan, if you get five fouls, I am pulling you for the rest of the game.” In our league we didn’t keep track of individual fouls (since no one expected a Juan) and there was no fouling out. There was now.

Of course, it was only a matter of time, that being in the third quarter.

“Tweee! Foul on Number 4”
“That was only four fouls!” (something new)

But we both knew it was five.

“Juan – go sit on the bench.”

He sat at the farthest end, as far away from me as possible. Angry, defiant and upset. After all, it was only an “accident.” I sat on my end, feeling 10% guilty for Juan, 10% guilty for the parents of my team, 10% guilty for the parents of the other team, and 70% justified that I have to teach these kids correct basketball.

After the game, I tried to go over the Juan to explain, but he had left. At the next practice, he showed up, cheerful as ever, as if nothing had happened. He scrimmaged, and actually, honestly and truly did not foul a single soul! I thought, “Hey. I found the switch.”

For the next game, I again told Juan that after five fouls, he would be out. With a grim and serious expression he nodded his agreement. Things were looking up!

“Tweee! Foul on Number 4”
“Tweee! Foul on Number 4”
“Tweee! Foul on Number 4”

It was Juan at his worst! I think he got three fouls in three minutes! I called Juan over:

“Juan. If you foul out, I am suspending you from the next game.”

I saw his face drop. This was going too far! But I had to do something to get through to this kid! Maybe something drastic. He played the rest of the game good as gold. Foul number 4 came at the beginning of the fourth quarter.

“Please, God,” I thought “Just one more quarter. That is all I ask. One quarter.” But it was not to be. Within the last two minutes, Juan went in for the steal (gulp!) and actually got the ball! I could see it was a clean steal!

“Tweee! Foul on Number 4”
“It was… was……” he couldn’t finish.

The referees knew Juan. The parents knew Juan. Everybody expected the foul, and it was easy for the referee to make this call, even though it was incorrect.

Juan came over with tears in his eyes.

“I’m suspended for the next game” he shrieked.
“No, Juan. You are not. That was a bad call on the ref’s part. I will let you play.”

Through the tears, he looked at me and smiled. We bonded for that brief moment. He had vindication.

Juan didn’t show up at the next practice. He had never missed one before, and the events of the last week were too much for it to be a coincidence. Maybe something was wrong. He didn’t show up at the next game. Something was definitely wrong. After he missed the next practice, I asked the other boys where Juan lived. No one knew. I asked where he went to school? One boy said, “I think he goes to my school. Washington Elementary.”

The next week I visited Washington Elementary after school was out.

“I am looking for Juan Gonzalez,” I told the principal. (I had gotten the last name off the permission slip.) She looked at me with a half-puzzled, half bemused look on her face.

“What Grade is he in?”
“The Third.”
“Why don’t you talk to the Third-grade teacher?” she said, giving me directions.

I met Mrs. Hostler.

“I am looking for Juan Gonzalez.”

She looked at me with the same half-puzzled, half-bemused look.

“What is it?”
“Many of the Mexican students feel that Caucasians treat them all alike. As a partial joke, and partial reaction, they refer to themselves as one name, being ‘Juan Gonzalez’ Perhaps if you describe him…?”

“He had a crooked front tooth and—“
“Michael,” she said with a smile. (Great! I even had his name wrong this whole time!) “What about him? Do you know where he is?”
“Uh….I was hoping you would tell me!”
“No,” she sighed, “It is not uncommon. Either better work rumored elsewhere. Or a relative invites the family. I have had a few Mexican students just not come in. No explanation, no note, nothing. Michael hasn’t been here for over two weeks.”
“Do you have an address? Somewhere to find him?”
“We aren’t supposed to give that out. I only met his mother once, and to be honest, I don’t think you would find them at that address. I am sorry.”

While Mrs. Hostler may have had this experience a few times, this was a first for me. I felt as if my heart had dropped into my shoes. After all that work I had put into that kid!

“You might like this,” she said brightening, “It was a picture he drew. Now that I see you, I am sure he would want you to have it.”

She went over to that wall that is in every classroom in the world, in which the students’ artwork is displayed. She pulled off a child’s drawing and handed it to me.

I couldn’t help it, the tears gushed out. It was the familiar child drawing, with two stick figures, one obviously a child, the other an adult. They were bouncing a ball between them. The adult had on a backwards baseball cap (just like I always wore) and a big “C” on the shirt (just like my coach’s shirt I wore). At the top of the sheet were the pre-printed words, obviously describing the assignment—“My Best Friend.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know he meant that much to you.” How do I explain that he didn’t mean that much to me? That he was just a kid that needed a little more coaching. It was the fact of how much I had meant to him. How hard his young life was, as compared to my easy upbringing. How much more could I have done for him?

As if she could read my thoughts, the teacher said, “Don’t feel badly. You gave Michael some very happy moments for the time that the two of you could be together. He clearly liked you very much, and that should be enough.”

With an awkward “thank you” I left. I matted that drawing, and placed it on the wall in my study. As I type this, I must have glanced at it 1000 times.

Juan (I still think of him as “Juan”) taught me a valuable lesson. For the time that I interact with other people, I do not have to play the assigned role given me. If they want a friend, I can be a friend. If they want a father, a big brother, a grandfather, or just an ear, I can be any of those. And while I cannot be there for them 2 years ago, nor 2 years hence, I can be that thing they need right now. While I may think they need a coach, they may really need a friend.

I still coach the same. I still get the same joys and frustrations. But now I take a little time to make sure that my players don’t need just a coach, but may also need something else.

And Michael? If you are out there and read this, I want you to know that your best friend from third grade has a basketball hoop up, and you can come over and play anytime. I’ll even let you foul.


  1. It is amazing the effect us adults have on kids. Show them some kindness and have some patience and that's pretty much all they ask for.
    Great story and hang on to that stick figure drawing. It may become dearer to you than any Rembrandt or Picasso.