I walk into the gym at 5:29, having changed clothes in my car after a long day at work then the slog of a commute to the local Y. Not for the first time I second guess my decision to coach youth basketball—I’ve been skittish since Meet the Coach pizza night a few weeks ago.
Now, as I walk in, clutching a clipboard of all things, the freshly opened Walmart whistle around my neck, I take inventory of the group.
Fourteen of them. All between the ages of 5-7. Everyone with a basketball, launching it at the goal, balls ricocheting every direction. I realize the clipboard will come in handy for banging against my head.
“Hey guys,” I start. No one looks. I have grand plans for these guys. I have a speech, somewhere, in the recesses of my head, about hard work and discipline. Fundamentals and the results of drills and routines. But that will have to wait, because two kids are licking the floor.
I clear my throat. “Over here, Suns.”
The Suns, our team name. It seems fitting because this whole thing is about to crash and burn. Even my own kid isn’t paying attention. In fact, he may just be the worst of the lot because unlike the others, he knows my true colors. He knows I'm not, ahem, exactly Mr. Disciplinarian.
I reintroduce myself, trying not to stare because some of the kids are almost rabid. One monster is eating Skittles by the handful, a rainbow of color around the lips, a glittering, Apocalypse Now sort of craze in his eyes. Two twins—because of course I’d get twins—are tumbling around the court with cones on their heads. Cones my wife brought for dribbling drills. The only dribbling is the line of spit flowing from Skittle Kid’s mouth.
“Okay, um. Let’s run some layups. Or better yet, just run.”
I line them up. Or, I try to line them up but that would take four men on horseback and a couple of Australian Shepard’s. But eventually I get them to one side of the gym. All have a basketball and no intention of dribbling it. In fact, they look like foot soldiers about to charge a battlefield.
I get out my whistle, give it a little spurt, and they erupt.
They come in waves, screaming, laughing, shouting, tripping and pouting. I’m pulled one way because Will took my ball, then the other because, Is it time to shoot yet? Someone unties my shoe, I’m kicked in the leg then spun around. I yank my arms free from all the little reaching hands because I’ve only just finished the two-hour Appropriate Touching video and there are some clear violations taking place.
I blow the whistle again, then again, desperately, like a traffic cop in Times Square until for the most part they get lined up again, minus the kid licking the wall.
I check the clock. It’s 5:34.
There’s no way. I can’t survive this. Practices. Games. Team pictures. A quick glance at my wife, a second grade teacher, who either cannot or refuses to hide her smirking.
“Let’s take a water break.”
Only they don’t want water. These kids are out for blood.
We regroup. Mia, the only girl on our team makes a layup. I tell her that was great and try to coax her back to the line. “Who’s nex—"
She’s crying. Head down and sobbing. I rush over to her. I’m not used to little girls, but this one is devastated. I look over to her mother, who’s on the phone and making the most of her reprieve.
“Would you like, would you like another turn?”
In a blink Mia breaks free and skips to the front of the line, where she grabs the ball and winks—I swear she winks—then flits to the goal.
A teaching moment for Mia. She's learned the coach is a sucker.
Eventually I corral them. I teach proper form, the bounce pass. A basketball hits my head. We practice dribbling. We take another water break. We huddle up, and I look over the panting faces. This is my team, huddled and squirming, reeking of sugar and feet, looking to me to lead them through the season. And so I set my hand out and they set their little hands out.
“Suns on three. Ready?”
They all nod.