I have always been tall and husky. I was my current height, 6 foot 7 inches, in my freshman year of high school, and I was a basketball player and I was pretty good at that game. Back then a guy my size was automatically assigned the center position. And that’s where my coach put me – in the center of the action. Today most guards in the pros are taller than I am.
I was a good passer and had a half decent hook shot and turn around jumper, but I felt out of sorts as the team’s center. I really wanted to play the forward position. I dribbled rather well for a big guy and I could shoot well from a distance. In fact, I could hit from three-point range before there was a three-point rule. I knew I could score more and pass even better as a forward, but I said nothing.
Fortunately I had a coach who paid attention to his players. Each day before the official start of practice, I shot hoops and did some dribbling exercises. My coach was always there early as well and he saw over time that I was a high percentage shooter from the outside and that I could drive well to the basket when I had to.
When he told me he was moving to me to forward, I was averaging about 12 points a game, with 6 assists and about as many rebounds. As a forward, my average points per game doubled, assists rose to 10 a game, and I ended up being the second highest rebounder in the league. We were 2 and 2 when coach moved me. At the end of the year we were 12 and 3 and made the District Championship, winning it with a 20 footer at the buzzer. I was driving to the basket when I saw our point guard was all by his lonesome at the free throw line. I was half way to the hoop when I passed back to him. His shot rose into the air in slow motion and every player on the floor watched it float through the air and swish into the net as the buzzer buzzed.
Back then, it seemed like every coach discouraged the long game. They wanted lay ups and jump shots taken in the lane. That makes sense but a good coach keeps an eye out for what can work best for the team, even if what works best defies common practice, defies the norm.
Truth be told, our players were successful with layups and short shots even more so than we had been because now they had a point guard and a forward that could shoot from the outside. That drew the defense out further and further and opened up other players for the easier shots.
My coach chose what would work best for the team, even though his choice was not conventional at the time. Instead of keeping me in the center position he worked with me to refine my jump shot. He taught me how to follow through with my wrist and how to put the proper spin on the ball. He made me dribble more with my left hand because I wasn’t as good with my left as I was with my right. He worked with me to improve my talent.
My coach was the first leader in my life, after my father. What he taught me about the game of basketball contributed to who I am today and how I see what is going on around me. I am grateful for his lessons and his willingness to believe in something different from what he was expected to believe in.
The day my coach told me he was moving me to forward, I told him that’s what I had hoped for but didn’t want to ask.
“How come?” He bounced the ball twice and added. “You should always speak up about how you think you can contribute.”
That was the biggest lesson of all.