I got ejected from a third-grade travel basketball game.
You might not be able to get past that sentence without covering your ears at the sound of overzealous parents and coaches who steam up gyms across this country every weekend. You might ask me to reevaluate my life, then bemoan youth sports culture.
You can do that, but I would ask you to get the whole story — including the lessons learned afterward — before rendering judgment.
Yeah, I got ejected from a third-grade travel basketball game. And, much like the lessons learned from my first year of coaching, I’m a much better coach and person because of it.
BENDER: Lessons learned from my first year coaching youth basketball
So, what happened?
J.R. Ford and I coached the third-grade Pickerington boys travel basketball team. J.R. played college football at Michigan and is our head coach. He’s good, too.
Like any other head coach, he can get into it with the refs. On this occasion, it happened when the refs missed a ball that hit off the wall under the basket and bounced into the arms of an opposing player, who made a bucket. (I don’t know how the refs missed the ball hitting the wall, but it was the kind of blatant missed call that can set things off).
In this case, J.R. got a technical after an on-the-line-exchange and was asked to sit down for the rest of the game. I stood up at that point and directed the team, not knowing what would happen later.
After a loose ball went the other way, J.R. got on the refs again with fewer than two minutes left. He was given another technical. Then I was assessed a technical after being told assistant coaches can’t stand up. Why that was enforced at that moment — after I had been standing for two quarters — I do not know. A father of one of our players was given a technical and asked to leave. How that is enforced, I will never know.
You get the idea. It was a complete and total cluster-of-a-mess that nobody wanted to be a part of. We left the floor with time on the clock, and there was a bunch of unnecessary and ugly conversation with the refs on the floor afterward.
I looked at my mother, who was there to cheer on her grandson, Grant, and laughed:
“That’s a first,” I said sarcastically. “You must be so proud of your 40-year-old son.”
And then I got ejected from a third-grade travel basketball game.
I was anything but proud. It left me questioning coaching, youth sports and everything that can lead to toxic behavior in those gyms. So, here is what I learned after that assessment.
Defuse the situation
In situations like this, it’s best for a coach to do everything in their power to defuse a ticking time bomb. We had that when J.R. was asked to sit down, and I failed to get to the end of the game without incident.
The reason that happened was obvious: As soon as I stood up, I had it in my head that our team was going to beat their team for that last nine minutes-and-change. That was stupid mistake No. 1 (even if we did win from that point on).
It didn’t matter. Stupid mistake No. 2 was feeding into our sideline, which was upset by what was, objectively, an inconsistently officiated game. It was so out of character, because my high school coach literally did not allow his players to complain to officials. You couldn’t raise your hands — or even your eyebrows — after a bad call. That was his job, he said. I live by that, even watching my favorite teams.
I lost focus, plain and simple. Our side thought the jump-ball count favored the other side, and when we got one I looked back at our parents and said, “Hey, we got one. Cool!”
This wasn’t exactly Bob Knight throwing a chair, but it was the wrong joke at the wrong time. That was stupid mistake No. 3, and that led to the final fiasco. Cory Tucker, our other assistant coach, got the kids off the court while J.R. and I took turns arguing with the refs afterward.
I could have just shut up, let the game play out and got home. Instead, I contributed to keeping that fuse lit.
Accept the officiating
It’s third-grade basketball. Refs aren’t going to catch every travel, every sliding pivot foot or every slap on the wrist. The refs in this game weren’t good — but they weren’t the worst refs in the world, either. Sometimes it’s best to ignore the refs altogether, no matter how hard that can be.
I called two of my best friends — both have officiated a lot of youth basketball — after the game. I was still steaming from the game and brought the ball-off-the-wall-example expecting to get validation. Then one of them said something that still registers:
“As crazy as it sounds,” he said. “Things like that get missed if one ref isn’t in the right spot. I have had some that were pretty hard to believe.”
Think about it. That happens in the NFL every Sunday and every night in the NBA and college basketball. There, I would say watch your language. I’m not talking about profanity — I’m talking about how you deliver your message to the officials.
Which circles back to the refs we had: After my ill-fated jump-ball joke, the ref shot back at me: “Worry about coaching your kids.”
You know what? For all the bad calls that day, that was spot on.
Coach your kid — and your kids
My mother wasn’t embarrassed with my behavior — believe me, she would have told me if she was. My wife echoed those sentiments and said I didn’t do anything wrong. I called my best friend, who played college basketball because I had to deal with the consequences.
“All I did was stand up, dude,” I said. “Worst. Technical. Ever.”
Even a local principal, whose kid is on our team and coached high school basketball for a decade, said it wasn’t that big of a deal. After all that, I was still embarrassed. Mostly because of the 10 kids on our team who were short-changed that day. That was my fault, and the best thing to do is own that and apologize.
Grant took it easy on me. He sent me a text with a GIF and simply wrote, “Daddy got a T.” He’s smart enough to ask me if J.R. got a technical, just to fire up the team, “like the guy in Hoosiers.” That’s my kid, though. He’s already giving pregame hype speeches and quoting Jim Valvano. He’s different. Good different.
I still told him my behavior was unacceptable, and that it will not happen again. I apologized to as many parents at the following practice — some I wasn’t sure would even be there, given how ugly the situation was for the kids. Ever since I started coaching youth basketball, I’ve made it a point to treat all the kids as my own. You should be an example for all of them.
Some of them didn’t know what was going on. That doesn’t make it OK.
J.R. and I had work to do, and we did it.
Survive and advance
I coach baseball with two of the other dads. One said, “Sup, Coach Knight!” The other said, “You aren’t going to throw that chair over there, are you?”
We had a good laugh, I hugged both and we moved on. Grudges — even against officials — are dumb. Knight, who just returned to Assembly Hall for the first time in 20 years, can attest.
We had fun the rest of the year. There was even a moment in practice where I called a foul and one of the dads said, “C’mon coach!” I T’d up all the dads sitting on the bleachers. We laughed about it. More importantly, the kids laughed about it.
The point is that moment did not define the rest of our season. Our kids improved. They played hard. We lost more games than we won, but we took one of the better teams in our bracket down to the wire in the tournament on Saturday. Coaching youth basketball is so much fun when you are focused on what matters most, and that’s the kids.
In this case, it took getting ejected from a third-grade travel basketball game to reinforce that once and for all.
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