Written by Bob Houghtaling.
Many years ago Joe Militello, the principal of Cole Junior High School, asked me if I would be interested in coaching the school’s basketball team. Seeing that I was but a few months into my new job as the Town of East Greenwich’s Drug Counselor, ingratiating myself to principals, police chiefs, town managers, etc., was par for the course.
For sure, I loved basketball. My resume included playing CYO, junior high and high school ball. It also included a few stints in local recreation leagues and lots of pick-up games. As a coach, other than a few games at the helm of church league squad, I was going into this new endeavor open for anything.
On the first day of tryouts a few things immediately became apparent. The first being, my kids did not have a lot of basketball skills. Secondly, just about everyone, however, did play a sport. Third, I was lucky enough to have one kid who was a great ball handler and savvy floor leader. Finally, a fourth factor, thank heaven for Greg Johnson (who wound up being my assistant coach).
Jumping to the end of the story, it is important to note that a bunch of kids with rag tag uniforms made it all the way to the state championship game (we lost to Ferri Middle School from Johnston). A couple of basketball players and an array of cross-country runners, soccer stars, softball players and tough kids developed into a formidable unit. We also had a lot of fun along the way.
Sometimes there is an advantage to "not knowing." I was blessed with "not knowing" what to expect from a bunch of junior high girls. I was also blessed with "not knowing" how junior high girl’s games were supposed to be played. These blessings allowed me to create a team out of disparate parts – one that established its own style of play.
Because of our team’s composition, it was imperative that we conduct a style conducive to the skills of the kids. Most were competitive. Most were in good shape from soccer, field hockey and cross-country. Finally, all of our kids wanted to have fun. My challenge was to use those attributes and help form a cohesive unit. To do so it was important to make sure everyone on the team had a role. It was also important to teach new skills in a way that kept their attention (fun again).
Our practices were unusual. Not only did we do a great deal of running – we did specific types of running. Obstacle courses, rolling the ball down the court having the kids catch up to it and then shooting a lay-up and other fast-break drills were conducted routinely. We also sprinted up hills and scrimmaged constantly. All of this was intended to create our own unique style of play.
While I was lucky enough to have Stephanie Balkcom as a point guard, using the talents of the other team members to balance things off was essential. Lots of time was spent on lay-ups. Lots of time was spent on playing man-to-man defense and running a full-court press. We also did all kinds of of situational drills (2 on 1’s and 3 on 2’s). In short, maximizing our strengths, minimizing weaknesses and forcing our opponents to play on someone else’s terms.
Believe me, I am no basketball coach. I am a counselor who knows a little bit about people. Greg Johnson, Stephanie Balkcom and a bunch of fun loving, hardworking kids made this work. With this said, coaching Cole Junior High’s basketball team was fun. It taught me a great deal about kids. It also helped me to create an approach towards problems and challenges.
I often think back to the two years of coaching basketball (the second year we made it to the semi-finals). Many of the girls went on to play high school ball. A few even played at college. A number played other sports. All were wonderful human beings.
To be honest I learned much more from the team members than they learned from me. They helped me to learn more about kids. They reinforced the notion that fun is an important part of learning. They also taught me that kids will work really hard for a worthwhile purpose. In fact, every once in a while I will see one of them around town. While my first instinct is usually, "Boy, are you getting older Bob," it is quickly followed by the recognition that the kids grew up to be excellent citizens.
When we lost the state championship game to Ferri I felt responsible for the defeat. After the game I told the team that they should be proud of their accomplishments as well as how they conducted themselves all year long. One team member raised her hand and said, “Cheer up, Mr. Houghtaling. Can we go to McDonald's on the way home?” We stopped at McDonald's and had a great time (and that wound up being the most important thing).
David often beats Goliath (Read Malcom Gladwell’s latest. He also mentions a school basketball team that played much like Cole’s). In fact "Davids" often create paradigm shifts. Most girls’ teams in the early 1980s played passive zone defenses. We upped the pace. We also created opportunities that matched our team’s skill set. We created situations. Perhaps this is a lesson others might benefit from. Whenever you think that you are not meeting success – sometimes it is essential to change the conditions. Just ask the kids.
For years a banner honoring the teams exploits hung on the wall of the old Cole gym. I tried grabbing it before it went the way of history (along with the ancient structure). Unfortunately I was beaten to the punch by a former member of the squad. While I would have relished the banner, having it go to someone who played softens the blow. It was nice knowing that it meant so much to both of us. Buildings come and go – but lessons and memories continue on.