A Letter From a Basketball Coach

A Letter From a Basketball Coach

Sport can illuminate many of life’s truths and be a defining framework for young people to learn how to become productive and collaborative members of society.

In keeping with this sentiment and celebrating this wonderful first weekend of March Madness, I share a letter from a youth basketball coach to his eighth-grade team.

This week’s word, our last full week of this season, is “basketballism.” Not “Buddhism,” “nationalism,” “communism,” or “pacifism,” but rather “basketballism.” What does it mean? Basketballism is a philosophy of life that is based on the principles and attributes of the sport of basketball. Sure, it sounds a bit hokey at first. But guess what? An academic has actually written a book on the topic, and it is called How Basketball Can Save the World. The author, David Hollander, espouses “basketballism” as a way to approach life.

Stay with me here. It’s not quite as farfetched as you might think. Let’s start with an example.

Basketball requires unique cooperation–with each other and with the space on the court. Hollander calls this “human alchemy.” Alchemy, the precursor to chemistry, was the pursuit of the transformation of matter. Making gold from lead. This is what great basketball teams achieve – the whole is an entirely different (and better) entity than the sum of its individuals. This approach to cooperation and collaboration as a mindset for life can be invaluable, especially for our youth.

Now, you might say, “Coach, I agree, but basketball isn’t the only sport that requires this “human alchemy.” And you’d be right, to a degree. All team sports require cooperation, synergy, and sacrifice of self for the team. But basketball is an outlier from other sports in several important ways, some involving cooperation and others distinct. Let’s specify.

  • The sport is fluid, ever-moving, and requires constant adaptation. Just like living life.
  • Decisions about space, and a player’s interaction with it, are constant and relentless. See a quote from WNBA star Sue Bird below about this.
  • At its best, the play is positionless. Players are on offense and defense on the outside and the inside. A big guy can initiate the offense. A little guy can post up. This may apply as well to group undertakings and individual contributions in other aspects of life and foster a growth mindset rather than a fixed one.
  • It is portable and equitable. It is beloved in rural areas and urban areas. It connects people of very different backgrounds and perspectives and gives them a common language and purpose. I have played basketball around the globe and made friends from the sport on several continents.
  • It is flexible. It can be played 1v1, 3v3, or 5v5, or it can be a sanctuary for a boy or girl (or really anyone, regardless of age) with a ball in a gym or on a blacktop.
  • It is equitable and teaches the principles of fairness and equity. Basketball became a woman’s sport very soon after it was introduced by James Naismith to the boys at the YMCA in Springfield, Mass. He wrote the first official rules in 1898.
  • It requires elite fitness and diverse skill. Players must be skilled with their hands, feet, and lungs.

Why I am bringing this up now? Well, as we wind down this season, I took a moment to ask myself–how would I like these boys to remember eighth-grade basketball and, in particular, their coach? And I wish they would remember me as a coach who really loved basketball and their experience with this team as one that made them appreciate the sport, perhaps even love it, more than if they had not played eighth-grade basketball. And, if they take some of the principles of basketballism with them into their future, that would be icing on the cake, or as basketballlist might say, “score the basket and one!”

You have to give everybody space to be their best; to operate. The more you play, the more you just have a feel. I understand the types of passes a teammate can make—how hard or how fast—and where I need to be in order to receive it.

I understand if Breanna Stewart has the ball, I need to give her space, let her operate, do what she does best. If somebody else has the ball, maybe I need to go get it, because they’re not a ball-handler, or we’re being pressed, and I need to close down that space.

If you’re too crowded, you know you’re going to hurt your teammate. It’s fascinating when I think of myself on the court in that way. Backpedaling my way out, sprinting over here or coming over there. There’s definitely a spatial negotiation constantly happening and it’s always for the betterment of the team.– Sue Bird, four-time WNBA champion, five-time Olympic gold medalist

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