Many years ago, I briefly considered a coaching career. I figured I had some of the requisite skills: I am a good complainer and I have a keen eye for other people’s flaws, foibles and failings.
I did not act on this impulse, though. Good thing, too. A few years later, I was pressed into service as my son’s youth basketball coach. We lost every game.
Tuesday night offered redemption.
Each year, the Arizona State women’s basketball team invites a celebrity to join the coaching staff for a game. Since ASU couldn’t scare up a celebrity this year, they invited me. Beginning with the team "shoot-around" (a light, informal practice session) at 1:30 p.m., followed by the pregame meal at 2:30, warm-ups at 5:30 and the game against the University of New Mexico at 6:30, I followed the team through its complete game-day regimen.
I am pleased to report that Arizona State won handily and that I was able to resist the temptation to throw a chair across the court a la Bobby Knight, even though that sort of opportunity comes along only once.
To say that my role as a coach was largely ceremonial would be an understatement. It was, in fact, completely ceremonial. Just before tip-off, I asked which referee I would be in charge of hounding, which was met with a look that said, "Hey, don’t even go there."
So mainly, I just cheered for the home team, gestured wildly after questionable calls and gave ASU’s players highfives as they returned to the bench during substitutions.
After almost 25 years as a sports writer, I was already familiar with many of the experiences I was exposed to during my one night as a coach.
But if there was one thing that I was not prepared for it is what I believe to be a fundamental difference between male and female athletes. I spent the vast majority of my sports-writing career around the former.
Female athletes are more cordial, more genuine, more like normal people than male athletes.
I noted this throughout the entire day. At the end of the afternoon shoot-around, the players approached me, smiled and introduced themselves. I really can’t remember a male athlete introducing himself. Male athletes just assume you know who they are.
At the pregame meal — which is an orgy of those energy-producing carbs, by the way — the players I sat with were engaging, inquisitive. They wanted to know about me. Barry Bonds never asked me where I was from, although he did once tell me where I could go.
The ASU players talked about everyday stuff, too. Want to know a big issue among ASU women basketball players? Where to find pants and jeans that fit. Understandable. Six of the players are 6-foot tall or taller.
When the team took the floor for its pregame shooting drills, the players yelled out encouragements incessantly. They sounded like happy chirping birds, which I found to be in stark contrast to male players, who are pretty much mutes in their pregame intensity.
When the game started, ASU quickly asserted its dominance, taking a double-digit lead early and hanging on to it virtually throughout the game. I offer that as a disclaimer for this observation: The team was universally upbeat throughout the entire game. Because Charli Turner Thorne — ASU’s real coach — substitutes liberally, players were forever coming off the court. Each time, they went down the bench, high-fiving everyone. It didn’t matter if the player coming off the court had just hit a big shot or hand dribbled the ball off her head, the greetings were the same: "Good job!"
Under Turner Thorne’s guidance, the ASU basketball team is fast approaching elite status. I suspect that this year’s team will enjoy great success, too.
If ASU makes it to the Women’s Final Four, the school gets a nice payoff.
Wonder what my prorated coaching pay will be?