Note: Gene has informed us that this blog will be his last to submit to Nodaway Broadcasting. We’d like to thank Gene for his thoughts and dedication to a weekly piece for the last two years.
I don’t remember the finality when your senior year ends in a defeat. As a football player, my high school team only won three games. Back then, there were no senior nights, no emotional meetings on the field after that last game. It was just over.
The same with basketball. The team my senior year was just below .500. I couldn’t even give you one memory from my last home game, and I remember most games.
Maybe it was because I played in a consolidated school that had just combined student bodies three years earlier. Maybe it was because most of my teammates and I had only played one or two years together. When that last home game was over, it was just on to districts.
I do remember that last game, the loss in the district tournament. When the game was over, I wanted to be carried out of the auditorium in by gym bag. It was that embarrassing.
This is hard to relate to, but it started bad when I forgot my basketball shoes at home. Districts were played at our biggest rival’s school and they weren’t going to go out of their way to help me.
This is 1968 and shoe choices were slim. I think Adidas had come out with a shoe to challenge the Converse All-Stars, but I don’t think the advancement had hit rural Nebraska. All I know is the shoe they found for me to wear was one and one-half sizes too big, but I couldn’t afford to be picky. I had already missed part of warm-ups.
Things didn’t get any better. We were playing state ranked Hebron High School. Their best player was going to play basketball at the University of Kansas the next year. I can’t remember his name, but I remember the player.
We came out in our normal 2-1-2 zone, now known as a 2-3 zone. All 5-11 of me was in the middle and had to shadow Hebron’s 6-4 post player. It wasn’t a fair match. Amazingly, the game did stay reasonably close for a while.
Hebron wasn’t much of a defensive team and as a wing player, I had shots all night. The problem was nothing was going in for me. I wasn’t a great shooter in the first place. Maybe that’s why I was so wide open.
I will never forget the stats from that night. I was a red-hot 2 – 15 from the field. One time I intelligently turned down a couple of good looks, but the coach told me during a time-out to keep shooting. As it turned out, no one was shooting very well that night.
I had just played my final game of my meager high school career in oversized Converse canvas All-Stars and missed 13 shots. In case you are wondering, that’s 13%. The pain from my final game wasn’t the finality, but the embarrassment certainly was painful.
Coaching was much different. Coaching is a lot of work. Coaching touches off a lot of emotion with the players, parents and fans. A season is like a long, long journey. It’s like you are on a horse and have a pack of mules loaded with rewards. Then, if you are not that last team standing, it’s like you are suddenly thrown through space back to the starting line. All the pack mules, loaded with rewards, are gone.
I spent two years early in my career on the Milford High School boys basketball bench. Bob Bargen was the coach. He was a great coach and Milford had really good talent. That’s where I really first felt the pain of losing before you got to your final goal.
Twice, Milford lost close game in District Championship games. Both times we were favored, held early leads, then watched it slip away. After Tri-County beat us in overtime in the second year, I did something I would do my entire career. I would drown my sorrows. Not in booze like you might suspect, but in ice cream. It didn’t help much, but it gave me a good excuse to overindulge in cold treat.
Only once in my 33-year coaching career did one of my teams find itself the only one standing at the end. I was 33 years old and scared to death I’d never have a team get back to that very spot. It never happened again, so I ate a lot of ice cream.
Four times, my college teams played in a Final Four game. Four times the games were close, but the out-come didn’t go our way. Those were the worst. I’d sit in my hotel room and try to numb my pain the brain freeze ice cream provides if you eat it fast.
Last year, I got a little emotional when my son, Sam, and his Spoofhound team lost a tight game to a talented Hogan Prep team. Even though Sam wasn’t a regular, he felt a part of the team and he was really heart-sick for his high school basketball days to end.
It might not have been as much pain as I felt during the Milford days. Back then, we were heavy favorites. Hogan Prep was loaded with college-talented athletes and looked to make a state tournament appearance. I still went home and raided the freezer.
I really felt bad for Maryville last night. In the quarterfinals, they were the heavy favorites. St. Michael came into the game with 12 losses and Maryville jumped on them for a 17-point lead at halftime.
As a coach, I know what big half-time leads do to a team. As a coach, you don’t want to even go to the locker room. You know there is no way to keep up that type of momentum. I’ve even gone as far as keeping my teams on the floor.
It doesn’t usually make any difference. The team with the lead will relax. Then you have to hope your opponent doesn’t gain steam. It’s like your stuck in quick-sand. The more you struggle, the more you sink. I’ve had teams lose 23-point, half-time leads. One of those losses came in post-season and we had a 30 – 2 record.
I really feel for the Spoofhound hoopsters. I just hope their freezer was stocked with ice cream. It was the only thing that helped me.