The first time I ever saw Coach Taylor, he was sitting on a set of old wooden gym bleachers, his elbows propped on his knees and his hands clenching the air in front of him. His eyes were slightly narrowed under the buzzing fluorescent lights. When they settled on me, a nervous freshman at the time, I quickly looked away.
I turned and stepped up to the foul line to shoot my free throws. My hands were shaking. I inhaled, bounced the basketball twice and somehow made the shots. I risked a glance back at him. His eyes were focused elsewhere, but the fear I felt under his scrutiny still pulsed faintly through my wrists.
When he told me I made the junior varsity team, he looked me in the eyes and said, "You're going to have to work very hard."
I nodded, struck suddenly by what I was getting myself into. During the tryout, other players had whispered back and forth. "I heard that he's really mean," they said. "If I make JV, I'm quitting." "He's insane."
Worse, I was entering into only my second season of basketball. But then my mind turned to the hours of training I devoted to making the team, the miles I ran, the pain I put my body through. I had worked hard already. And so I found myself telling him, "I will."
Practices were an exercise in shutting up and working hard. Every day we ran to warm-up and then stretched in a circle at mid-court. Taylor paced among us as he described the drills we were going to run that day--lay-up drills, three-on-three scrimmages, set play run-throughs. Sometimes, we didn't shoot the basketball at all during practice and instead spent the two hours shuffling our feet on defense or boxing out and jostling for rebounds. He was that kind of coach, the intensely demanding type from the My Losing Season school of thought. He taught us to play man-to-man, run a constant full-court press and thrive on the fast break. He told us that if we could shoot three-pointers, we would have made the varsity team. None of us could shoot three-pointers, he said, so we would win games by playing defense.
"I can find somebody to score points," he said to no one in particular. "But I need somebody who will work hard on defense." I was a 5'6'' center. Not surprisingly, I was not very useful on offense. I decided to become strong enough to play great defense.
My muscles twitched as I tried to push the bench press back up into my teammate's hands. I finally succeeded after a few strained seconds. Taylor walked over and simply said: "Try this." He took five pounds off of each side of the bar. My relief faded fast as he made me press until my arms collapsed. He hefted the bar off of my chest and I gratefully gasped for air. "You're going to be strong," he said.
Every day was the same. He made me lift heavier dumbbells than my teammates, rarely subbed me out of drills, left the gym lights on for me when I stayed to shoot baskets after practice. When he drove past me as I jogged home from practice, he simply nodded. Breaking his silence became the challenge that spurred me on. The season came and went, and he stayed quiet, watching as I poured my efforts into earning my spot on the team and his respect.
She got game
He finally broke his silence during my sophomore season. Our team was winning by a point, with maybe 10 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. To win, we needed to keep possession of the ball.
"Get the ball to Audrey!" I heard him yell from the sideline.
I panicked for a moment. I wasn't the best dribbler on the team--I was a forward, not a point guard. I couldn't possibly be who he wanted to have the ball in the final crucial seconds.
"Be strong!" he called out.
I shook my thoughts aside. Suddenly, the ball was in my hands and four very large, very angry-looking members of the other team were charging toward me. Somehow, I held my ground during the ensuing crunch of bodies, with my elbows out and the ball clenched firmly in my fingertips.
The buzzer sounded.
"Good game," he said, as I hobbled off the court.
With those words, Taylor gave me a new role on the team and also a new litany of responsibilities. I no longer worried about my miserable shooting statistics. Instead, I had to be mentally focused enough to hold the team together on the court. I had to have the discipline to box out after every shot, to dive on the floor for every loose ball, to slide my feet on defense while my quads threatened to quit. In trusting me during the final seconds of one game, he showed his respect for me as a player--and challenged me to keep it.
Above the rim
A few weeks later, I arrived early at practice and asked Taylor what I should do to improve. He looked at me for a moment, seemingly deciding how blunt he should be. He said, "Honestly, we've got to get you shooting more."
After that, I showed up early every day. I stayed at school late to work on my shot and ventured out to my driveway once I got home. Over and over, I tossed the ball to myself, took a quick dribble and put up a jump shot, or faced away from the basket, pivoted and stormed across the key with a dribble, finishing with a lay-up. The movements slowly ingrained themselves into my muscle memory.
Game day arrived and I ran out onto the court, remembering what Taylor had told our team in the locker room, "Just do what you've practiced."
Sure enough, I found myself at the top of the key with the ball a few minutes in. I paused for a moment--should I?--and then found myself under the basket, the ball slipping through the hoop. I met a teammate's proffered high-five and saw Taylor smiling from the sideline. After the game, he said, "That was the best move you've ever done."
It was about this time that I started talking to Taylor outside of practice, stopping by to say hello after art class. He asked about my classes or whether I knew the answer to a random trivia question (if you're wonder ing, the third-most popular ice cream flavor in the US is coffee). He asked me what I was painting that day. I said that I painted faces, the faces of everyone I know. He nodded and said he could only draw stick figures. He said these words every day. It was a routine. I leaned against his classroom's doorway; he sat in his chair, feet propped on the desk. We talked until the bell rang, making me late for Spanish almost every day.
I painted him once in art class, added the canvas to the growing pile of friend, movie star and John Lennon portraits leaning against my easel. In the painting, he sat hunched on old wooden gymnasium bleachers, his face turned to watch a basketball game. He laughed when he saw the painting and accused me of exaggerating the bald patch at the crown of his head.
My teammates were wary of talking to him, scared off by his cantankerous coaching style, but I enjoyed arguing politics, religion and grammar with him. He taught trigonometry to apathetic seniors, danced to N*Sync and hated semicolons. One Saturday morning, he sat our team down to watch Hoosiers, insisting it was the best basketball movie ever made. When we won the league title my junior year, he brought a Nerf basketball set to practice and we cut down the net with safety scissors. Catching a glimpse of this side of my coach--who so often was reduced to raging and fuming on the sideline--was encouraging. Understanding him better as a person made it easier to stomach his criticism and to maintain the discipline he demanded from me.
I didn't try out for the varsity team my senior year. Faced with a new job, college applications and the prospect of playing for a different coach after three years, I decided to give up basketball altogether. Still, I stopped by his classroom to say hello almost daily. Released from the worries of player-coach interactions, which involved a lot of yelling, talking with him grew easier. Over time, he became less of a monster and more of a mentor.
One day, he offered to write me a college recommendation. For what, I asked. I had never taken his classes. "You know," he said. "You worked hard for me all these years."
His words followed me to college. For me, shooting three pointers and understanding calculus are equally far-fetched goals. However, I could push myself in different directions. Armed with the discipline Taylor taught me, I decided to shape myself into a writer.
The months passed quickly, filled with writing classes, Arabic study and brief stints of rowing crew and swing dancing. Still, thoughts of basketball crept back into my head sometimes. Running in Providence, I remembered the endless jogs through my Ohio hometown. Scrimmaging against friends at the OMAC, my shot slowly edged back into form. My hands clumsily attempted the crossovers and spins that I had practiced years before. My skills were long gone; all that remained of basketball was mental. Only Taylor's demand endured--that I work harder and harder to get by.
I came home from college this past winter to find the trees in front of my high school chopped down to make way for construction. My mom had stashed all of my paintings in the basement. When I walked into the basketball gym to watch my younger sister play varsity, Taylor sat in his usual spot, this time on brand-new plastic bleachers. As I approached, he said, "You're back."
"Not for too long," I said, sitting down. I had a lot to tell him about.
AUDREY VON MALUSKI B'10's practices aren't designed for your enjoyment.