What made me want to write this is because my former players and I have been in contact the last few days and they’re headed off to college this fall. Time flies and they’re making me feel old!
While I was coaching basketball at West Valley College, in the Spring of 2015 I got an email from someone who I never met asking if I could coach his son’s NJB (National Junior Basketball) team that was a 5th and 6th grade team.
Reluctantly, I agreed to do it. I say reluctantly because the parent wanted to run the show and have his kid play all the time. I’m not going to give out the name of the father or the son, mainly because I don’t want anyone attacking them via social media. The kid was the worst player on the team.
Long story short, my heart wasn’t really in it that season, we went 2-5 and I practically never played the guys son. After the season, the father decided to make a change and find a different coach, which I was absolutely fine with.
Fast forward to October 2015, I get an email from my friend Mike that ran the Saratoga Chapter for NJB basketball. Mike told me that he had assigned me a team to coach, despite never talking to me about it. It was a 7th & 8th grade team.
I decided to do it. The fact that we played “my” former that was 5th/6th grade team, was now a 7th/8th grade team, and it added some extra motivation.
In the Winter Season, the rules were weird and not normal basketball. It was five quarters, eight minutes in length, and each player had to play a minimum of two full quarters of the five. And in the first four quarters you couldn’t substitute unless there was an injury or player fouled out. But in the 5th quarter, it was normal basketball where you can substitute.
My father was my assistant coach, and we had some talent on our team. But we also had a couple guys who were bad. One of the guys had never played basketball before in his life, but that kid was a super good kid.
Our first practice was in early November and our first game was in December. Our season opener, the kids played their hearts out and the opposing team hit a 3-pointer with 10 seconds left to beat us 33-32.
We went on to win the next game to even our record at 1-1. We then hit a fork in the road and lost the next three games to fall to 1-4 on the season. We could have decided that enough was enough and we’re just going to get through the season. But we didn’t do that, we dug in and got ourselves to the tournament (playoffs).
The credit primarily goes to the players, because they stuck with it and they kept trusting us on what we were telling them and what we were working on and most of the players put in the work. I might add, one kid never showed up to practice and his parents complained and tried to get me fired because I’d only play him the 2 quarter minimum playing time.
We went on to finish 6-2 over the final eight games to finish 7-6 and won the third place game.
The one guy I was able to hand pick on that team told me yesterday in a text while we were reminiscing the days: “That’s hard work and trusting each other. When we were on that 6-2 run, that’s when we (the players) really felt like we could accomplish even more things as a team if we stuck together and kept our core for the spring season.”
We then entered the Silicon Valley NJB Spring League where it’s normal basketball (4 quarters, free substitutions). After our winter season, we (coaching staff) made some roster changes on who we were keeping and who we weren’t inviting back. We did get some help from our best player in recruiting some players. We had a 2-week offseason before we started practicing.
I can’t really put in to words how close and special our spring season team was. The team was full of different personalities and they all got along great, wasn’t necessarily like that in the winter season.
We had really become “America’s NJB Program.” The team the entire country could root for. The “You gotta love those guys, don’t you?” squad in NJB Basketball.
We went undefeated in the regular season and we only had one game decided by single digits. And at the time, there had never been a Saratoga 7th/8th grade team go undefeated and win the championship in that Silicon Valley League. So the chapter leader kept telling me to finish the job.
Lost in the craze, however, was the players focus. Their win-or-nothing mindset.
Heading into the playoffs, I felt if we don’t win the championship, somehow we won’t be validated with what we had done through two seasons. I absolutely felt it was imperative that we won the championship.
We wanted to do something no Saratoga 7th/8th grade team had ever done in that league (undefeated with championship).
In the semi-finals, we played my friend’s team, who only had five players available for that game. We trailed for most of the game and with five and a half minutes remaining, we trailed by six points (which most of you know, at that level six points is a lot). The fact that the refs felt bad for the other team and were trying to help them didn’t help our cause. In the fourth quarter our rotation was shortened to six players. We ended up getting the win 36-30 to advance to the championship game the next day.
In the championship game, we played a pretty good team that we hadn’t played that season and we were fortunately able to scout after our semi-final game.
We had a 23-18 halftime lead in the championship game. But in reality, we were bailed out by our defense. We shot the ball poorly and had a few critical turnovers in the first half.
My halftime was short and sweet, I told them: “We can’t win if we don’t control the ball. You guys want to win? (They all said yes). Go get some shots up.”
We made six of our first seven shots in the second half and had a 29-point lead halfway through the fourth quarter. We ended up outscoring the opposing team 33-9 in the second half for the 56-27 championship game victory.