Diary of an SLC Slam Dunker
In 1975, when i was a junior, the physical education department of Sarah Lawrence fired the men’s basketball coach and introduced a new sport, t’ai chi. While basketball had only a fringe following on campus, t’ai chi, a Zen-influenced series of slow, stylized movements, became very popular.
Although I had knowingly chosen to attend a former women’s college whose students looked down on team sport, I was irked that we had lost our basketball coach. Though our team, the Green Machine, was no hoop powerhouse, it was a legitimate member of the NCAA’s Division III. And there we were with no coach and no prospect of getting one.
Imagine the headlines if the same thing had happened at Indiana University: BOBBY KNIGHT AXED AS ZEN WAVE HITS CAMPUS. ENRAGED COACH TOSSES CHAIR, BAD KARMA, KIDS SAY.
As consolation, a bunch of the previous year’s team members would sneak into the school’s woefully undersized gym a few times a week and—between the ballet classes—play three-on-three. We were an eclectic group: The point guard, a philosophy major, was once tossed from a game for calling the ref a sophist; our reserve forward insisted on practicing barefoot; and our high scorer, a transfer from California, missed the big game with Vassar because he went to the ballet with his girlfriend.
We were not very gifted, but all of us could shoot, pass and dribble—and in my sophomore year we won at least three games in the opening minutes, while our opponents were still laughing. Ignored by our school, ridiculed by our opponents, like a French Foreign Legion troop we drew strength from our isolation. But foot soldiers can’t march without a leader.
I had just about reconciled myself to a lost season when I had a chat with the co-chairs of Sarah Lawrence’s physical education department, Patty Smyth and Marguerite Shaw, two kindly ladies in their 60s who had brought cookies and beer to all our games.
Smyth, a slim, energetic, white-haired woman, had been a crack fencer in her day, and Shaw could bowl with the best at the lanes in Yonkers. Together they controlled the phys-ed department’s purse strings. Neither one knew much about basketball. So it was to my surprise that they told me how much they enjoyed the games and asked if another student and I would like to become player-coaches of the Sarah Lawrence team for the year.
I had never considered myself coaching material. I was 19, wore Indian beads and long hair, knew no boosters in the used car business and was an unpolished after-dinner speaker. But Sarah Lawrence had an avant-garde reputation to uphold. “Great,” I said, undaunted by the challenge. It’s a deal.”
These were the conditions of my employment: We could practice twice a week (all other gym time was reserved for dance, yoga or t’ai chi) and I would be responsible for the balls, bags, and medicine kit. Word of my appointment spread slowly. (To my disappointment there was no announcement in the sports section of The New York Times.)
I started scouring the campus for talent, besieging any male over 5'6'' with my recruiting pitch. One of the few takers was a soccer player who appeared to be convinced it was a violation to touch the ball with his hands. As a rookie coach I committed my share of blunders during the course of the season. The mistakes had little to do with court strategy. For example, there was the time I led the team down the path of indolence and false confidence. We were playing the State University of New York at Purchase, a school with a gleaming new athletic building and a fledgling basketball program. By halftime, the Green Machine had raced to a 25-point lead. I should have delivered a forceful, locker-pounding halftime speech about going out and playing as if the score were tied, but the allure of the luxurious surrounding proved too great. Many on the team vowed not to play in the second half unless we sampled the amenities, and so I conducted what must have been the only halftime session ever in the sauna. Back on the court, glassy-eyed, smiling and rubber-limbed, we staggered like winos through the second half and lost in the final minutes.
Opposing coaches with their portable blackboards and polyester suits dismissed us as cannon fodder. And though every team on the road must contend with some form of fan abuse, not many men’s teams have to put up with wolf whistles. Wits on rival lay up lines elbowed each other, guffawing, “Where’s Sarah Lawrence? I hear she’s their leading scorer.”
Perhaps because we took such regular beatings on the court, we rejoiced mightily in small victories. Our most dreaded games were against Manhattanville, a rising power in the Division III ranks, with a coach who left his regulars on the floor until the box scores of our games looked like misprints. The Manhattanville players were a well-drilled, humorless bunch who seemed to take offence that we had even dared to show up for games. Midway through the first half of one game we hung close with a patient, slowdown defense. As Manhattanville’s frustration mounted, its players glowered at every other time Sarah Lawrence made a basket. After a foul call the captain berated his teammates. “We’re only coming up seven on these clowns,” he shouted, an angry vein bulging in his neck.
These were magic words of motivation. For the rest of the half the Green Machine played like the Celtics. Bill, our center, grabbed every rebound in sight. We dropped the sagging zone and pressed frantically on defense. For the first time all year we converted on a fast break. Then an alley-oop. Plays I had diagrammed in my dorm room actually worked. The basket inhaled our shots like a powerful magnet. Jumpers, twisting layups—a parade of unanswered points put us into the lead. The crowd grew mute, and the only sounds I remember were the squeaks of rubber soles and the ball pounding the floor and then caressing the net on yet another perfect shot. I think the Manhattanville coach was too stunned to call a timeout. None of us could comprehend what was happening until Alan, our best defensive player, stepped to the foul line. He looked up at the scoreboard and said nonchalantly, “C’mon guys, we’re only up seven on these clowns.”
We held the lead at halftime. The final score was irrelevant. (I’ll never tell.) In the game inside the game we triumphed, a brief stretch where we defied our abilities and confounded our stranger opponents. What more could a coach ask for?
Uri Berliner lives in Washington D.C. with his wife, Mary-Elizabeth, and his 8-year-old son Benjamin. He is business editor for National Public Radio. He is also in charge of NPR’s sports coverage. He’s not playing or coaching hoops these days, but loves the game as much as ever.