Month: June 2012

Mario Balotelli

In the last half of the last season of the Roberto Mancini era at Inter Milan, I came across an article online extolling the virtues of a seventeen year old Italian striker named Mario Balotelli. He was already amassing an impressive scoring rate in Serie A, and I was intrigued. On the next Sunday, I watched the Inter game, and I would be remiss if I didn’t at this point confess I was expecting to see a raw-boned Christian Viera, or possible a young Alessandro Del Piero. Instead, I saw this man:

Balotelli was born in Sicily to Ghanaian immigrint parents, but at age three was turned over to a foster care family named Balotelli due to health complications requiring stability and care beyond his impoverished birth parents. His birth parents did not seek to reclaim him until after I first watched him play for Inter. In that game, his talent and ambition were on full display. He was electric each time he touched the ball, and was rewarded with a goal. I was immediately a fan. My enjoyment was ostensibly doubled the next season when my favorite coach Jose Mourinho went to Inter the following season, but this was short-lived.

Balotelli proved to be an exceptionally difficult character. Mourinho, a fan of tactical discipline and selfless work for the team, had little use for the tempermental teenager. They fought, Balotelli lost, and his development was stunted.

He secured a transfer to Manchester City, and while playing more regularly with flashes of unadulterated brilliance, his record of behavior is worth recounting for it’s humor alone. Since moving to England he has rung up six figures in traffic and parking citations. The highlight of this run was being pulled over with $5,000 in cash. When asked why he had so much money, he noted, “I’m rich”. He visited a women’s prison to “have a look around.” Threw darts at a youth team player. Randomly stopped at a school….to use the bathroom. Using an ipad on the bench of an international match. On the eve of a Manchester Derby, he started a fire in the bathroom of his own house with fireworks, woke up uninjured and scored a goal.

On the field, his goals were offset by cards, both red and yellow. His coach at Manchester City, Roberto Mancini of Inter fame, has said, “I don’t speak to him everyday because then I would need a psychologist. I speak to him every week because I don’t want him to lose his talent.” He has flat out called Balotelli “crazy”.

The roots of the tangled mind of this player, are likely tied to his early health difficulties, and what he undoubtedly perceived as the abandonment by his birth family. He grew up a precociously talented footballer, but a black Italian which should not be understated as racism in European football is several decades behind what those of us in the United States are familiar with. Balotelli, playing in his home country, has repeatedly been the subject of racist chants. Then there is the matter of his talent, to which Mancini is so protective. Balotelli is as skilled and talented as any player in the world. From this perspective, he is not far from Ronaldo or Messi. He, in his juvenile mind, has developed something of a sense of entitlement to the treatment they have earned by playing game after game, at an obscenely high level. The disconnect is that Ronaldo and Messi are training fanatics and blend there skills seemlessly with a workhorse mentality. Balotelli’s failure is in this specific application. If he figures this out, he will join the pantheon of the World’s Greatest Players.

Today, he scored two goals for Italy in a Euro 2012 semi-final win over favored Germany. He was SuperMario. He alone controls what he will be in the final, and beyond…..

UCF Team Camp: A Retrospective on The Weekend During Which We Learned Winning is More Fun Than Losing

My guys, us, we, or if you prefer the Winter Springs JV team entered the weekend 1-9 in competitive basketball games. We have been clobbered by superior teams, let winnable games turn to losses, and been beaten twice by the turncoat, Mr. Charm. With the exception of the clobberings and the hands of superior teams, most of our problems have been internal….turnovers, poor shooting, bad rebounding and a prevailing theme of inconsistent performance at the individual and team level.

Friday night, nothing changed. We opened against Master’s Academy, a varsity team of modest talent. The game started well. We were very active in our “2” defense, and seemed up for the challenge. It was 8-8 after the first four minutes when I made a five for five substitution. Matters eroded quickly. We trailed 17-8 at the quarter, and played the second on level terms trailing 32-22 at the half. I felt if we could make a small run in the opening exchanges of the third quarter we would be in the game for the long haul. We were pummeled and entered the 4th quarter down 24. I challenged our guys to throw the scoreboard out, and compete for the final eight minutes and we won the quarter, but lost by 18.

Our second game of the night was against an AAU team called the Florida Comets. They were bigger, more athletic and featured a player with a beard who by any objective measure appeared three years older than Mr. Charm. This was not the game we needed to heal our wounds. The Comet’s jumped on us from the beginning, and we struggled to play competitively at all. The final score remains obscured in my morbid frustration. The team was down, and I was struggling for answers to correct our problems. I was also gravely concerned that I would not be coaching our 8am Saturday morning game. Due to a soccer commitment, the team was in the hands of Little Wolverine, our new freshman coach.

Little Wolverine engineered a win, an ugly, miss-ten-yes-ten-free-throws-down-the-stretch-but-still-hold-on win. 40-37 over Pine Ridge. We were pressed most of the game in a scrappy, turnover festival, but led the whole way. Up double figures in the 4th, we really did miss 10 free throws down the stretch, but still pulled it out.

I rejoined the team at 1pm for our game against Master’s Academy 2, their JV team. I could tell immediately our team was loose, and more confident. We played well. Turnovers were down, we ran the floor, created havoc on defense and pulled away to a 20 point win.

At 445, we played Celebration. We started horribly. Our team had seen Celebration get pounded by a superior team on Friday night, and probably didn’t respect them as they should. Celebration had a lanky player, that while not particularly athletic, could shoot lights out. They led early 8-2 and 12-4. Our second unit, who struggled so badly against Master’s Friday night, gave us a great lift when they came in. They created turnovers and changed the tempo of the game in our favor. We led by half-time, and did not let off the gas in the second. We won 68-51.

At the start of the day, I had hoped to win 3 of the 4 games and head into the tourney Sunday at 3-3. By this standard, we played St. Joe’s late Saturday with house money. Late games like this are always perilous, as both teams are tired, generally one of two things happen. One team jumps on top and the other lacks the energy or give a damn to comeback, or the game plods along in an altered slow motion reality until someone win’s. We jumped on St. Joe’s. I was very proud of our guys for the effort the day. We got better with each game, and finished with a flourish.

We drew Riverview in the first round of the tourney Sunday. I saw them play Saturday night, and they were a solid team. Strange events ensued earlier today. One player left home without his jersey and would be late. Four other players would arrive late as well, and by late I do not mean simply a few minutes after I told them to be there late, but rather two guys got there a few minutes into the game, two more arrived at the end of the first quarter, and the final one made it for the last quarter and a half. Not ideal. We went down 9-0 when one of the players who arrived on time drew a intentional foul for a takedown of an opposing player scrambling for a loose ball. All that said, I am extremely proud of how my guys performed from that point on. Dallas Kaviani hit some shots to keep us alive early, and as our team reached full strength we played as well as we have all summer. We competed, defended, and executed. Down most of the game, we got a lead in the fourth quarter going up 5 at one point. Riverview made some shots and the lead swung back and forth in the final minutes. After Elijah Grooms hit a pair of free throws we led by 1 with 11 seconds to go. Riverview advanced the ball to midcourt and called timeout. I set up a special defense. We appeared 1-3-1. if the ball was entered into the front court we would trap immediately, if entered into the back court we would match up man when it crossed midcourt. The ball was entered into the front court and we trapped. Riverview passed out of the trap and drove baseline in a scramble. The dribbler lost the ball off his foot. I was out of timeouts so we got into our 4 across press break to get the ball in with 5 seconds left. We got it in, but were tied up for a jump ball. Possession arrow Riverview. They inbounded under the attacking basket. Through the ball over the top deep, and their guy hit a three from the top at the buzzer. 60-58 we lose.

I would loved to have won, and played again, but this was the type of game that we needed. Tight, competitive and decided by a postive play. The measure of our summer will not be the record, or team camp championships, but in what we learned about competing, not beating ourselves, and fighting for and with each other, not against each other. I believe we left UCF, a better team than when we arrived. I am excited to work with this group.

The Sound of Silence

Karl Malone, hall of famer, truck driver and wearer of one of the Association’s best draft night ensembles, recently said he would prefer Scotty Pippin to Michael Jordan as a teammate. Ordinarily, I would prefer the sound of silence over anything that Malone has to say, but in this instance it drew a response that the Bulls should release footage of practice from the Jordan-Pippin, or as Malone would have it, Pippin-Jordan Bulls. The Bulls practiced behind a screen at the Berto Center sequestered from the public. The Bulls were a traveling circus, but Phil Jackson constructed a sanctuary around the most sacred aspect of their dynasty….their preparation.

Stories have trickled out since of Jordan and Pippin going against each other, and Jordan’s ongoing battle against softness, and his own competitive demons, but in that time, the team was protected from the noise and judgments behind the screen. It served them well.

One of my frustrations as a JV coach at Winter Springs, is that we have only one gym, and limited practice time. At summer practice, we will have 15-25 guys representing all three levels of the program at once. The disparity of talent precludes working together for long periods of time resulting in multiple drills going on at once. The noise and activity is distracting to our younger, immature players. There is the obvious lesson in concentration to be learned, but this comes at the expense of valuable teaching time.

Teaching is a vital part of improvement, and it is best done in a tranquil environment. Teaching the game involves instruction on the detailed components of technique and tactics, and must be open for discussion to insure comprehension.

A few weeks ago, I had a dreadful run of losses at a Friday open gym. The entire time, we had music playing loudly. My team lacked structure on both ends, made poor decisions and grew disjointed and frustrated. This is rare when I am on the floor, but it happened because I was deprived of my greatest asset…..communication. I could not hold my team together because they couldn’t hear me speak.

Last night, Mr. Charm work-out one of my players one on one. We talked after, and he expressed how he spent half the session individually going over how to play a spot in our zone defense. I know their will be immediate improvement from this player, not simply because Mr. Charm is an excellent coach, but the teaching was the only sound in the silence.

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Honest Abe and Fighting

On April 24, 1862, Honest Abe, ugly as the day is long, said of Ulyesses S. Grant, “I can’t spare this man: he fights.” In these seven words alone including a contraction Abe earned his monicker honestly. For in times of conflict and competition, those that fight can’t be spared. You will not win consistently or meaningfully without them.

There is a moment, many moments, in a game, tournament or a season when matters are going south. Lack of preparation, unanticipated adversity, or bad luck take hold of a situation, and it is easier in that moment to give in and accept that it is not your moment, day or even time. Concentration gives way to distraction, body language turns sullen, communication in any productive form goes silent, energy fades to fatigue. It is here that fighters are defined. Their numbers may be small, but they aren’t hard to find.

They are not prone to self-pity, or self-reflection, and often appear immune to fatigue. They are a rebellious sort, that live in the moment and channel reserves of energy that can defy logic. That is because the very nature of the fighter is to defy logic, to say no, not today, not tonight, maybe not ever. The fighter is the last bulwark on the way to victory, and his final act is to pull his heart from his chest lay it down before his opponent, and with action not words say this isn’t over til that before you stops beating.

3 v 3 Apopka-style

I am dehydrated and sunburned. I have been soaking in the melanoma-inducing rays of the sun since 9am, and it’s almost 6pm, but alas I am at my kitchen table drinking a pepsi and reflecting on the day. It has been long, and fairly successful, if a 4-2 record and pissing away a two goal second half lead in the final to be runner up meets your definition of success.

A little background, Bryson played, not me. This should produce little surprise. 3 v. 3 is an open game on a small field. No goalie. Goals can only be scored from the attacking half of the field. The game. like most sports, generally favors technical superiority and quick decision-making. During the most recent transfer window, Bryson moved to FC America. 3 v 3 in Apopka was an opportunity to play with his new mates, who were divided into three teams. Camp was set up center pitch beneath a row of tents. Food and drink were plentiful.

All three teams opened with games at 10:30 am. We played U-14, and age group up. Our first opponent was on average 5 inches taller, 20 lbs heavier and collectively a bit faster. We were technicall superior and invoked the mercy rule at 12-0 early in the second half. Our other two teams posted 12-1 and 7-1 victories, and the mood in camp was giddy.

That changed after our second round game. We played another taller, heavier and faster team, but our technical disparity was not the same. We trailed 4-0 at half, and looked as lively as Princess Diana. Mikey Lynch picked things up for us in the second half scoring two goals and picking up a yellow card that almost turned red. For a few minutes, a full comeback seemed possible, but we conceded two counter attack goals and got back to camp 6-2 losers. Our Lions team lost 5-3 as well, and despite the firing of the grill and my personal four hot dog orgy, our mood was notably somber.

We got back in the business of ass-kicking in the final group game with another 12-0 mercy rule. Our other teams won comfortably as well. The Sharpshooters entered the play-offs 3-0. The Sharks (Bryson’s team) and the Lions 2-1.

The draw favored the Sharpshooters, who rematched with a team they had already beaten. We drew a fresh team, and the Lions drew the team that already beaten them. The Sharpshooters rolled. We won 4-0. It was a decent display two early goals, but we did a poor job of managing the game from that point playing a little too direct, and things were not decided until a pair of late goals. Right after our game, I saw the last minutes of the Lion’s game. On my arrival, they conceded an equalizer, and then three other goals. I moved back to camp quickly and quietly to avoid being identified as a bad luck charm.

We drew the Sharpshooters in the semi-final. During the break I downed a fifth hot dog and was struck in the head by a tent post kicked up by a gust of wind. I did not lose consciousness and maintained a Glascow Coma Scale of 15 through the whole episode. I am not sure our team was not effected by a mild closed head injury as they started the game with a GCS in the range of 7 falling behind 4-1. Enter Mikey Lynch again. He picked up his intensity scored three straight goals during a six unanswered goal spree that put us in front 7-4. The game finished 7-5, and we were off to the final.

This game was a rematch of our loss, but played on much different terms. We jumped to an early 1-0 lead, and added a second early in the second half. Victory was ours……..until we gave up a disputed goal when it was ruled we played a ball in the defensive box (not allowed). We followed with two soft turnovers, lost the lead and ultimately the game 4-2. We did not lose to a bad team by any means, but it is extremely difficult to accept defeat when you have the lead late in a game.

In what will likely be the foundation of another post…..special teams win games they are supposed to win, and give themselves a chance to win toss up games. Special teams also don’t lose leads late in a game. There is a mentality and focus that comes to bear in these times that squeezes the life from a trailing opponent conceding visions of desperation and not hope let alone belief that they might actually comeback.

Pick Up at Willow Creek

Last night, I made my inaugural appearance at Willow Creek for Sunday night pick up. Pick up basketball is a lot like sex. There isn’t much you would rather be doing, but there is significance to the details of the experience that will impact how you feel about it when it’s done. Comfort and intuitive chemistry enhance the experience, while robotic movements and selfishness diminish it. I am if nothing else a fluid, intuitive player.

At Willow Creek, they run two side court games timed at eight minutes. Whoever leads at the horn wins, if it’s tied sudden death follows. With what appeared to be my singular exception, the players were under 30 with the majority in the 17-24 year old demographic. I was picked up by my former player Daemon Ashley, his two older brothers Jermaine and Tristan and a tatted white guy with some size.

Without discussion or coaching, we found ourselves as a team. Daemon was our scoring alpha dog, the tatted white guy rebounded and gave us a post presence, Tristan was our garbage man defending, rebounding, getting loose balls and extra baskets, Jermaine filled the gaps and I facillitated the offense. It was a beautiful thing.

Early in our first game, I realized the guy I was guarding was too quick in the open court for me to contain. I switched with Daemon who’s length bothered the quicker player. I quickly forced two turnovers from the guy I was guarding who was a thead down barrel at the basket-type. On another earlier possession, I found myself in the deep corner. The ball was swung to the tatted white guy, who was open for a three, but he swung the ball one more pass to me, and I hit the three. We were not selfish, we would win. We did six straight times before losing.

In our third or fourth game, we played a real athletic, aggressive team and went down 7-3. We were invested in who we had become, and didn’t give up. Collectively we got a few stops, hit a pair of two’s to force extra time. In sudden death, we forced a bad shot, got a rebound and threw it ahead for an open lay up. With nothing at stake beyond the glory of our momentary accomplishments, we celebrated the win, savored the moment of what we had just done.

In some recess of the mind, we will remember this run of games. The next time we see each other in a gym, we will want to play together hoping it will again be as good as it was. I left the gym elated by the purity of the game in it’s most basic format.

Rollins Team Camp

This weekend I took the team to Rollins Team Camp. It is my favorite summer team camp because in many ways Rollins is all that I enjoy about the Orlando basketball community. Here’s a description of the weekend.

A few minutes after 1pm, I jump in my car and race out to Rollins gym to meet my team. Parking is a freaking nightmare. Restricted areas and construction areas out number parking space 3 to 1. After about ten minutes, I find a space behind the gym that I am fairly confident will not result in a citation or tow. The team is milling around the lobby with Little Wolverine. I quickly divide our two younger teams, and see Kyle McClanahan in the gym. We embrace, exchange pleasantries and vow to keep in touch. This should be easier as Kyle will play next season at Rollins.

I took nine players in my JV group: Dallas Kaviani, Elijah Grooms, RJ Bradley, Jake Wolber, Kensley Hilaire, Jesus Santiago, Daulton Znosko, Jacob Tague and Antoine Amaloof. Our first game is against Lake Highland JV. We start slow, but I feel as though we are in control of the game. Our second unit gives us a great burst of energy and we move to a 19-13 lead. I bring the starters back and we turn the ball over 5 straight times. By the time we get our next shot up at the basket, we are down. We never lead again. We scrapped and hustled and threatened to get back in the game, due largely to self-inflicted wounds and a thorough inability to guard the Pillsbury Dough Boy who scored 14 improbable points on 5/5 shooting. With two minutes left we were down four with the ball, but turned it over in the back court to go down six. We lost by eight. On the whole, I felt we did more damage to ourselves with turnovers, poor finishing and bad defense.

I went to the hospitality room. The Rollins hospitality room is unrivaled. Over the course of the weekend, I consumed ( a rough estimate) 137 chips, 4 krispy kreme doughnuts, 2 einstein bagels, 2 bread sticks, a sliver of lasagna, a sub, fried chicken, a slice of pizza, 10 cokes, a chocolate chip cookie, a chocolate milk, and a beer hand delivered from the Dominican Republic.

I had my first exchange with Tom Klusman (pictured above). This is notable because Tom makes you feel like you are the most important person on the face of the earth. Upon recognition, his face brightens, his arms embrace and an unmitigated tide of the highest praise emits. Having just lost, I found this excellent for my flagging self-esteem.

At 4pm, I sat on the varsity bench for a game against Ocoee. We started well, and led 15-7, but slowly lost the lead. I think we had a five point second half in defeat, but I was too preoccupied watching one particular Ocoee player. He was about 6′ 1″, strong as a bull and very quick. I could not help, but wonder why we NEVER have such a player at Winter Springs. He was not a great basketball player, but simply tougher, stronger and more explosive than anyone we have. By sheer athleticism, he could turn bad plays into good. It is not fair.

I began my coaching career at Trinity Prep. My first impression on walking the campus was that no one seemed to be particularly athletic or even muscular. My former neighbor, Drew Nemec, had just taken over the football team, and the most telling aspect of his progress was the appearance of muscular, quasi-athletic people walking the campus over the next five years. These were by no means recruited athletes, but kids that had been motivated to lift, and improve themselves as players. Based on the “men’s physique” competitor’s on the basketball team, this motivation is still in place. We played their varsity and were manhandled. we trailed at the end of the first quarter 32-3 having scored on a buzzer beater. We played better in the second half, but never threatened to get back in the game.

Before leaving for the night, I asked about the tournament schedule for the next day, and was shown a bracket that featured my 0-2 JV team facing Lake Highland Prep and FBGM Coaches Player of the Year Joel Berry at 9:45 am. I protested and was assured this would not be the case when I arrived the next day.

LIES. The bracket remained unchanged. I protested again to no avail, and retreated to the hospitality room to down 4 krispy kremes and a chocolate milk. We tipped off,……and my guys played about as well as they could. We ran our plays, got good looks, made a few shots, played coherent defense and played hard. Berry and the other starters only played about 8-10 minutes and we lost 65-34. I felt as though we turned a corner though. The team listened, played together and the result was tangible.

During the break, one of my player’s text me to say he could not play anymore today because his mom was making him go to a competition. A few text messages later, it was determined this competition was actually a bikini contest in which his mother was an actual competitor. I encouraged him to have fun, take pics and “check in” on facebook “at mom’s bikini contest”.

I coached our younger group to their only victory of the weekend. A butt ugly 31-28 sudden death win at the dimly lit Baptist church next to a graveyard. All true, after a 28 all stalemate in regulation, and a scoreless one minute overtime, and executive decision was made to play sudden death next basket wins. Barry Beasley rattled home a three from the top of the key and victory was ours. I gave a stirring speach about how everyone tried hard, but in truth displayed little of the quality necessary to be actual high school basketball players, and that months of long work and an uncertain future remained ahead of them. I’ ll text you about our next practice, enjoy the rest of the weekend and stay safe from the dangerous streets of Winter Springs.

I drove back to Rollins for the second clash of the fbgm coaches. Mr. Charm won the first game last weekend. I was immensely disappointed. We led through out the first half, but crapped away the lead early in the second half and didn’t recover. I felt it was a game we literally gave away. Hagerty controlled most of this game. We, and by we I am actually speaking only of Elijah Grooms, fought hard to keep the game tight. We went down ten in the second half but fought back to take a 42-39 lead. Elijah had 34 of our 42 points in a fantastic display of his unique talents. Hagerty got a three point play to tie and force overtime. They hit a pair of free throws to go up two, and we had a look at a three, and an offensive rebound to win or tie, but time expired. It was a good game by both teams. I was proud of my guys. While Elijah scored a bunch, we all competed with heart and episodes of execution. I told the team I was proud of them.

Pride is a fickle thing. We played our final game against Circle Christian’s varsity team. They are a very small school with limited player resources, who beat us unexpectedly last week at Lake Howell. We played a typically-this-is-our-last-game-of-the-weekend-i’m-tired-hungry-and-my-body-is-feeling-like-it’s-older-than-my-coach’s lazy ass, uninspired half, but led 14-7. Your eighteen running clock minutes from actually winning and finishing the weekend with a measure of pride, albeit somewhat small. We crapped the bed, loose motion style. Circle morphed into OKC in the second half scoring 35 points and winning. It was a horrible way to end the weekend.

We have been inconsistent and poor this summer. We are not however without hope. Individual player’s have shown growth, and collectively we have shown moment’s of genuine promise. We are, however, our own worst enemy. Our wounds predominately self-inflicted with turnovers, missed lay ups, offensive rebounds, missed free throws and periods of lethargic defense. Five of the six battles that win, or in our case lose the war. They are all within our power to correct. It is time to do so.