Undefeated No More

(This blog is courtesy of The Sacramento Union.)

The basketball team I coach today (freshman boys at a local high school) lost for the first time all season long. We were 23-0. We’re now 23-1.

Yes, it’s freshman basketball. Yes, 23-1 is still pretty good. But for some reason, I have this feeling I’m going to lose a lot of sleep over this.

My assistant coach Bill said it best after the game. “These boys don’t understand right now how big this is. Years down the road they’ll look back on this and wish they’d won.”

It’s true. The team I coached last season, also a freshman squad, went 26-1. The only game that team lost was its seventh of the season. After a 6-0 start, the team got cocky, took an opponent lightly and lost its next game. After that, the boys steamrolled the rest of the season.

All year long they talked about how they wish they had that game back. Even this year, as they play on JV, they’ve made comments about how last year’s loss still haunts them.

Regardless of the level of play, whether freshman or varsity, the pursuit of a perfect season is a magical thing. The thought of it keeps players hungry all year long, and when it’s gone, can suck the life out of the entire team.

I saw that again tonight. In a tied game with 15 seconds left, our opposition hit a big shot to go up two (after coming back from a second half 12-point deficit against us). We got the ball back and got off a hook shot two feet outside the key as the buzzer sounded. It rattled in and came out. We lost.

Like a scene from a sports movie, but where the bad guy wins, my boys were devastated. One of my players kicked over a chair in frustration, another cried in the locker room. In reality, it was just a loss in a freshman basketball game, but try telling that to the guys who eat, sleep and dream basketball. For four months now, these guys have been practicing nearly every day and playing games to get better. Until today, they were better than everyone they played. It was a crushing realization to know we were beatable.

Now I’m left with a loss on what I was dreaming would be an undefeated season for my coaching resume, and a whole lot of questions I don’t know how to answer. I’ll constantly second guess moves I made that may have hurt our chances, and I’ll always yearn for what’s seeming to become the most elusive thing in life: perfection.

I’ll get over it by next week, and my boys should be fine by the time we tip off our next game on Friday. But deep down, all of us will be haunted by what could have been. And in the end, as I reflect on it, that’s not such a bad thing. The next time these boys have a dream they want to accomplish, they’ll remember what it was like to come up just short, and they’ll do everything in their power to make sure they come out on top. When sports can do that for growing boys, my job as a coach is worthwhile.

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