(Second in an occasional series about the trials and tribulations of coaching junior varsity basketball at George Mason High School in Falls Church.)
In baseball, they talk about winning ugly. At George Mason, the junior varsity basketball players would have settled for that; they rarely won at all.
Last week they did. They moved from the shadow of their reputation by beating Manassas Park, 28-22. And while the game was not a basketball purist's delight, it sure made 13 players and a coach forget a lot of bad days.
"When I looked up at the clock and realized we were going to win, I got so excited, all I could do was jump up and down and run all over the court," said sophomore center Randolph Scully in remembering the last couple of minutes of Mason's first junior varsity victory at home in almost two years.
It will be long remembered by all of us, especially those final long, drawn out minutes that seemed to last forever.
Never had time moved more slowly. It was as if the scoreboard clock were running on geologic time. By the time one minute remained, my stomach needed Maalox. As I melted into my chair, the players on the bench seemed to be wired with electricity.
Eight marionettes filled the chairs where, only moments before, my team had been sitting. As if controlled by above, each kid would leap from his seat, slap his hands together, scream something unintelligible and then slump back into his chair, only to have his head snap up to check the clock one more time. This was repeated up and down the bench in a spontaneous production of the wave as if performed by eight fish out of water.
We were ahead by seven points with 27 seconds remaining when I called our last timeout. I'm not sure if I was trying to calm the players or myself, but I'm positive nobody heard a word I said. Amidst handshakes, whistles and overall chaos, I tried to tell the guys it was over -- just relax and let the time run out. All the work, pain, sweat, screaming and running was about to yield its first dividend.
As play resumed for the final ticks of the clock, I brushed aside a few tears and sat back to enjoy. When the final horn sounded, a collective calm seemed to overwhelm the entire team. Each face projected a look of disbelief and sheer relief. The monkey was off our backs.
We met in the weight room for our regular postgame talk. When I opened the door and saw the kids dancing around, hugging each other and letting loose emotions held back for so long, I knew I wasn't ready to talk to them. In a voice barely audible, they were told to wait, "I'll be right back."
As I ran down to the coaches' office to get myself together, I tried to put things into perspective. It's only a basketball game -- one win. Don't go overboard, I told myself. But I couldn't help but think of how hard the guys had worked day in and day out, only to face bigger and better teams. I thought of all the comments they hear at school on days following bad losses. And I thought of the eight kids who played last year, and, despite a thoroughly depressing season, returned this year, hoping to make things better.
This time, as I entered the room, I was ready. A stirring speech full of inspirational cliches and anecdotes was next. But when I looked up to begin talking, my mind went blank.
"I'm proud of you guys," I finally said. In a school overrun with losing attitudes, you've become winners. Right now, it's only one night, but we'll take tonight and build on it. You guys deserve good things. You've worked hard and never quit. Go crazy, have a great time tonight. I'll see you tomorrow."
Not exactly Knute Rockne but, heck, I'm not used to giving victory speeches.
The next day, it was back to work. The kids realized that despite some good performances, particularly by Daryl Broyhill, Joe Romer, Chris Lanier and Scully, we had many areas that needed improvement. Our foul shooting was pathetic and our field goal percentage not much better. But they seemed eager to work. They have had a taste of something good and wanted more, much more. A new spirit of optimism and hope had gripped them.
But, for the time being, we'll take winning ugly. It sure beats winning rarely, and right now, we're sitting pretty.