My most memorable game as a coach did not come from a win but rather from a loss. I had been hired earlier that year to coach the JV Basketball team for a small Christian school in North Carolina. The school’s varsity team had repeatedly finished first or second for several years in a row thanks in large part to a varsity coach who had been hired soon after his conversion because of his record for winning. In fact, the varsity team’s record was one of the major recruitment tools that the school used to grow their high school program. Their JV team, however, was not doing as well, and they hired me to teach their young players the fundamentals of the game and prepare them to compete on the varsity level.
We started the year with six very young and very inexperienced players, but as the season went on, they really began to develop as a team. Two of my players were in the sixth grade, and one of the older players had asthma, so as you can imagine, we weren’t exactly the most talented team in the state. But they all worked hard (well, at least as hard as you can expect Jr. High boys to work), and I was proud of the team that they were becoming.
My goal for the season was to teach my players that winning is more than just having the highest score at the end of the game. I wanted them to realize that how they played the game was more important than whether or not they defeated their opponents. I stressed over and over again how important it was for them to use the games as opportunities to be a testimony of the goodness of God.
When the day came for what would prove to be the most memorable night of my coaching career, I found out that one of my six players had caught a virus and would not be able to play. That left me with two sixth graders, two players in Jr. High, and one freshman with asthma to go against a team with ten players and a starting lineup of freshmen and sophomores. Needless to say, we didn’t stand a chance.
I sat the guys down in the locker room before the game and explained to them, as I always did, that we weren’t playing for the scoreboard. Our goal was to demonstrate to the crowd that there was something different about our team. We wanted them to leave the game praising God for our attitude and demeanor on the court rather than cheering because we won. I explained to them that this game would be a real test of that goal and that they would have to play the entire game without any substitutions against a team that they couldn’t possibly beat, but I knew that they could make it through and win the hearts of the crowd even if they didn’t win on the scoreboard.
When we came out of the locker room, the varsity coach pulled me aside and said that he could let one of his sophomores suit up for the JV team to give us a better chance of winning. I told him that we would be fine and that I didn’t want to add a new player at the last minute who didn’t know any of our plays. He said that he was going to have his player suit up for me anyway, and I just shrugged my shoulders and said okay.
Of course, my players were ecstatic to see a six foot sophomore jogging over to join them on the bench, and you can imagine how crestfallen they were when I told them that the new addition would only play if our asthmatic player developed breathing problems and needed a break. There were several “But, Coach…” moments, and I reminded them of our discussion in the locker room and of our determination to do our best for the glory of God no matter what the circumstances may be. They didn’t care for that too much, but there wasn’t much they could do about it either.
The game began, and it was apparent from the very first play that my team was outmatched. I don’t remember what the score was at the end, but it was a massacre. My guys played hard and did their best, and while they made multiple requests for me to change my mind about playing the sophomore, none of them gave up. Of course, I used every single one of my timeouts just to give my guys plenty of breaks, and with each one, I made sure that my player with asthma was doing okay before sending the team back onto the court. They played the entire game with just the five of them against a far better team, and I couldn’t have been more proud.
But that’s not what made this the most memorable game of my career. What made it really memorable was the next game three days later on a Monday night. I brought my guys out of the locker room to begin their warmups, and the varsity coach started telling them to do the warmups that he had his team do before each game. I explained to him that my guys weren’t familiar with that routine, and he said that he wanted them to do it that way anyway. I figured that it wouldn’t hurt to humor him and told the players to go ahead and do what he said.
Two minutes before the game was scheduled to start, I called the players over to the bench, as I did at the beginning of every game, but the varsity coach said, “No, I want them to keep warming up.” At this point, I began to suspect that something was wrong, but I didn’t want to confront him in public and hurt the testimony of the school. With one minute left before the game started, the varsity coach called the players in; and without saying a thing to me, he proceeded to coach my team through the entire game.
Once again, I decided not to make a scene and simply stood in silence at the end of the bench. At half time, I approached the school principle and asked if he had any idea what was going on. He said that the varsity coach’s actions had caught him by surprise as much as me, but he thanked me for not embarrassing the school by challenging the coach in public. I returned to my silent vigil where I watched my team struggle to perform for a coach who cared only about winning.
The next day, I scheduled a meeting to discuss the situation with the principle. I was told in no uncertain terms that the varsity coach had won too many championships and had recruited too many students into the high school program to be reprimanded and that I should just excuse his behavior because he was a young Christian. I was informed that the growth of the high school because of the varsity team’s performance was the only thing keeping the school financially stable. And I was advised to just do whatever I had to do to keep the varsity coach happy. I thanked the principle for his time, and promised to have a private discussion with the varsity coach before practice.
The varsity coach arrived just before practice, and I asked if we could talk in private for a moment. He refused and said that we could just talk on the court. I asked him what his plans were for the JV team, and he said that he would be taking over as the head coach and that I could be his assistant if I wanted. I asked if there was any other possible solution, and upon his refusal, I resigned from my position as the JV coach.
That was the end of my time as a coach for that particular school, but it’s not the end of the story. The next year, I was hired as the head coach of the top JV team in the state, at least, they were the best among the Christian schools. I was given free rein to coach however I wanted, and we ended the season with only a single loss. Throughout my tenure at that school, I continued to stress that how we play is far more important than the scoreboard, and I saw several players improve enough to move to the varsity team midseason.
I am firmly convinced that I would never have been given the opportunity to coach the top team in the state if I had lost my temper and publicly challenged the varsity coach at the previous school. Such a challenge would undoubtedly have turned into a shouting match with one of us storming off the court in front of the entire crowd. The Christian school community is very close knit, and there is no way that I would have been given such a prestigious position if I had embarrassed a previous school in such a way.
There are times in life when God allows us to be mistreated. In fact, this was neither the first nor the last time that I have been wronged by other Christians. But as I have always stressed to my players, winning isn’t just about the scoreboard. If we get so focused on winning little conflicts with those around us that we sacrifice our testimony for the Lord, we won’t really have won anything. Sometimes, we have to suffer a loss in the flesh in order to gain a victory in the spirit.
So the next time someone mistreats you in life, and you’re tempted to fly off the handle and really give them a piece of your mind… don’t. Take a moment to reflect on the response that Christ gave to those who mistreated Him, and remember the promise of His word that “Great peace have they which love thy law: and nothing shall offend them.” (Ps. 119:165)
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Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
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"Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser: teach a just man, and he will increase in learning." (Proverbs 9:9)