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The View from the Bench

By Mary-Lane Kamberg

I love basketball. And I’ve spent years watching the game. First as a Kansas Jayhawks fan, then as a basketball mom, then a basketball grandmother, and finally cheering as my daughter Johanna coached a high school team. So, when my grandson Ronin wanted to play fifth grade, summer league basketball, I signed him up as a free agent with our local league. That meant any coach could pick him up for a team.

No one did.

The league coordinator emailed parents of all the leftover kids. “We have seven free agents,” she said. “Enough for a team. If we can find a coach.”

I waited for replies from the other boys’ parents. No one volunteered. I’d do it if I knew how,I thought. I had experience as a swimming coach. Maybe I could use those skills.

Ronin really wanted to play, and I thought, how hard can it be?

I emailed the league coordinator.  “I’ve never coached basketball, but I’ll sit on the bench. And I’ll try to find someone to help.”

I hoped that someone would be Johanna. She’d played varsity ball and had years of coaching experience. She shook her head. “My summer is way too busy.”

I asked my husband. A flat no.

I racked my brain trying to think of someone. If I ended up being the only coach, I would have to count on the players to run and shoot on their own and hope for the best. At least they’d be on a court handling the ball. Nothing was at stake, except possibly my embarrassment. I was willing to risk it for Ronin.

Then I thought of Johanna’s former high school coach, Steve. He’d retired several years before. But asking him was like asking Albert Einstein to judge an elementary school science fair. Steve had been National High School Girls Basketball Coach of the Year and was inducted into the Kansas Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

I was reluctant, but Ronin needed a coach. I texted Steve. “Will you please coach my grandson’s summer team? Just six games. No practices.”

After a while, he replied. “I’ll be your assistant.”

That made me head-coach-in-name-only. I was thrilled.

I texted Johanna the news.

“I’m mortified that you did that!” she said.

I drove by Ronin’s house, where he was shooting baskets in the driveway. “I’m your new head basketball coach!” I said.

His eyes widened. “I know more about basketball than you!”

“I know.” I told him about Steve. “You’ll love him!”

I soon learned that head coaches must make sacrifices. I added the team schedule to my calendar. The first game fell on the same day my sister and I had tickets to a Kansas City Royals game. I texted her. “I can’t go. I’m Ronin’s head basketball coach and we have a game that day.”

“Ha, ha. Good one,” she texted back.

Our family plays lots of practical jokes, and I had to send her the link to my team’s page on the league website before she believed me.           

As I dressed for the first game, I couldn’t remember what coaches typically wore. I chose a blue shirt that matched our team color. I hoped that wasn’t weird. All the way to the gym, my stomach fluttered. I arrived early and paced while I waited for Steven and the team. Steve walked in wearing a blue shirt. Got it! I thought.

Steve ran warmup. I shook hands with the opposing coach and turned in my player list. I looked at the bench. Where should I sit? Head coaches usually sit in the first chair, with the assistant in the second. Despite my official title, Steve belonged in the first one. I sat in the second. He stood the entire game.

Steve spelled out my job. “Watch the clock and send in subs at five-minute intervals. We have three “Big” and four “perimeter (Little)” players. Keep two Bigs and three Littles on the court at all times. Bigs rotate for Bigs. Littles for Littles.”

I nodded.

During timeouts, Steve sketched out plays on an erasable clipboard. I stood in the circle with the boys and nodded as if I understood. I cheered for our boys during the game and chatted with the ones sitting out.

“Good defense on that last play.”

“Nice three-pointer.”

“You do a good job of guarding with your feet.”

I did my best to watch Ronin as he ran down the court for long passes and shot the ball. But I also watched the clock religiously. Everything went according to plan.


Our best Big committed too many fouls, so Steve temporarily pulled him out to save him for later in the game. Steve looked at me. “I’ll tell you when he can come back in.”

I had to improvise. I kept forgetting who were Bigs and who were Littles. Sometimes I had too many Bigs on the floor. At others, too many Littles. My breathing turned quick and shallow as I tried to hold it all together. Between watching the game clock and deciding who to sub in, I missed the rest of the game. We were ahead at the buzzer. I caught my breath.

After the game, I slapped hands with the other team’s players like a pro. I’d always liked the sportsmanship of teams congratulating each other, but I had no idea how sweaty little boys’ hands could be. It was kind of icky. But I did it.

As the weeks progressed, we won some games and lost some. And I gained enormous appreciation not only for Steve, but also for every coach of every sport my children and their children ever played. At the end of the season, I was proud of myself for standing up and trying something new. I enjoyed my stint as Ronin’s coach, but I realized I don’t know much about coaching basketball.

I still love the game. But from now on, I’ll be cheering from the stands.

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