The Love Of The Game

There were more than 30 male basketball hopefuls in the second grade in 2008. That includes second graders from three different elementary schools in Maryville.  Zach Patton, Jalen Sundell, Jake Woods, and my son, Sam Steinmeyer are the four remaining that play high school basketball.  They are all seniors this season.


Jalen and Jake have been starters most of the season. Jalen missed a couple of games early with a broken pinkie.  He’s a tough guy and has played through a lot of pain.  Jake’s health has affected him his senior year.  He lost a lot of weight before he got everything under control. He’s played through a lot, too.


Zach started a game or two early in the year, but has had to come off the bench since the football players rejoined the team.  You can tell Zach loves the game. It’s tough being in his position.


Sometimes he plays a lot of minutes, sometimes not as much.  I have had the privilege to coach Zach in baseball.  I know he has a great attitude and his value to the team has really shown lately.


He has always been a good defensive player, but his drives and three-point field goals have shot him to double figures in games after Christmas.


I’ll talk about Sam later.  First I want to do what I usually do and tell stories about experiences my coaching days have given me.  These particular stories are really special to me.


Basketball is really easy when you are talented.  Those players probably have gotten a lot of time on the floor early in their careers and are irreplaceable parts for their high school or college teams.


They hear the cheer for them and if they are a good leader, they help keep the team close and keep good chemistry on the squad.


It’s not so easy if you aren’t as talented.  It not easy to spend more time on the bench than on the floor.  Just look at the 30 or so second graders that wanted to play basketball at Maryville.  Most of them dropped because the saw they just wouldn’t beat out the more talented players.


There’s nothing wrong with that.  As a coach, I’d rather a player quit than have a bad attitude on the bench.  I can’t tell you the number of players that have come into my office and told me their heart wasn’t in the game anymore.  The hidden meaning is they weren’t going to play a lot.  I had absolutely no problem with those players dropping basketball.


Twenty-six or so players gradually dropped from the original 30 in 2008.


The ones that stayed are special.  Lynn Waters was a freshmen point guard on one of my early teams at Doane College.


That freshmen year was tough on everyone.  We lost 21 games.  I had talent, but I had to get rid of some bad attitudes.  Lynn was one of them.


After the season, I told Lynn I didn’t want her on the team.  The next fall Lynn came into my office begging me to reconsider.  I gave in, but I put her with the worst players on a 25 member team.


Lynn not only weathered the storm, but played her last three years.  She never started a single game her last three years, but I never had to worry about her attitude. We won a lot of games those three years.  Lynn deserves more credit than she ever received.


Tanesha Fields was one of my first recruits at Northwest Missouri State.  We were just an average team her freshmen year.  Still, Tanesha had some great moments, scoring 30 points against the University of Missouri-Rolla.


I was able to recruit excellent talent and by Tanesha’s senior year, she found herself in a reserve role.  The senior from Overland Park could have pouted, but she stayed positive.  I gave her all the credit for motivating the team when we won the first conference tournament championship in 20 years.


With 34 seconds left in the game, I went to Tanesha on the bench.  Tanesha hadn’t gotten into the game, the only time all year that had happened.  I asked her if she wanted the last 34 seconds.  I told her I understand if she didn’t want to go in, but she deserved to make an appearance.


She didn’t hesitate and checked in so she could be playing when that final horn sounded.


Nikki Plank had more guts than talent.  I enjoyed coaching Nikki because she would do anything to win a possession. In one game, she tried to de-pant an opponent that was wearing her shorts too low for Nikki’s taste.


For three long years, she lingered on the bench waiting her chance.  Finally, her senior season, she was named a starter and a team captain.  That year lost four of our first five games.  A highly recruited freshman that wasn’t playing much came to Nikki as a captain to complain about her playing time.


I heard how Nikki handled the situation. She didn’t show any sympathy and read the freshman the riot act.  She basically told the freshman she had sat in her seat for three years.  She told the young player to just sit down, shut up and wait their chance.


We went on to win 21 games and a conference championship that season. Nikki’s leadership had a lot to do with the team success.


Lynn, Tanesha and Nikki all have one thing in common. They did spend a lot of time on the bench, but they all saw significant minutes on the floor, at least their senior season.  That brings me to probably my favorite player I have ever coached.  I have talked about her before.  

Amy Altman played for me at Wilber-Clatonia High School.  She came from a very athletic family.  Her brothers were great basketball players.  The problem was Amy just didn’t have any athletic ability.  She loved the game, but just didn’t have the talent to play.

Amy stuck with basketball.  She was on the floor with four other reserves her junior season when we won a state championship.  Even though her dad told her to quit basketball since she would never see the floor, Amy never missed a practice or game.


When she asked me if she should quit, I told her she was too valuable to the team to quit.  The bench is the toughest place to be.  It can cause more problems than anything for a basketball team.  It was her role to rule the bench.  Keep players in line as they waited to play.  Amy played her role positively and with a purpose.


I used Amy as an example as I talked to Sam about playing his senior season. Both of us knew he wouldn’t see much playing time, but I knew he could play a big role on the team.  I didn’t know if I could convince him of that or not.


This week was senior night.  Sam’s final season is coming to an end.  Since second grade, he probably only started a handful of games, thanks to Jeff Patton, One of his coaches in elementary school.  


He was told by one coach they didn’t want him anymore because they were recruiting kids with more talent. Another coach told him he didn’t play in one game because the game was above his head.  Yet, Sam continued to play.  Sam loves basketball.


There were still 10 players left when Sam played his first high school game his freshman year of high school. During his sophomore year, he was asked to play a few games on the freshmen squad. He didn’t complain because it meant some playing time.


I was afraid Matt Stoecklein, the high school head coach, would tell Sam he couldn’t play his senior season. Coach Stoecklein didn’t do that.  Sam would have a spot on the varsity bench.  


The only games I have missed of Sam’s is when I still coached at Northwest Missouri State University.  I haven’t missed a game since I retired in 2012.


This year, I watched as Sam stay positive on the bench, encouraging his teammates as they work for a second straight 20-win season.


Coach Stoecklein has been very fair to Sam.  I hope Sam has been a good teammate for coach to keep around. On senior night, with less than a minute to go, Sam hit a three-point field goal, only his second basket of the season.  Zach Patton worked hard to get Sam an open look for the shot.  The bench rewarded Sam with a celebration.  You could see Sam was proud.


He wasn’t as proud as me. It wasn’t the made basket that made me proud.  As a coach, I know how tough it is to play from the bench.  All those days of practice and very little playing time.  It’s not Coach Stoecklein’s fault. Sam just wasn’t given the athletic ability to be a good basketball player.  I’m proud because it never took away his love for the game.

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