Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Second stint as middle school coach: A fun first year, and hopefully the start of something big

Well, my first season in my second go-round as a middle school basketball coach is in the books.

Our Community House Cavaliers finished 7-7, tied for 4th place in our 8-team conference. Given that 8 of our 11 players had little to no basketball experience coming into the season, I'm pretty darn proud of what those determined athletes were able to accomplish.

Having been part of championship teams, bad teams and every kind of team in between, I'm not gonna try to fool anybody: Being a champion is special. 

Still, at this level, winning and losing really is secondary. My job at Community House is to give my players a fun experience, to grow their love of basketball, to help them improve, to show them tangible evidence that hard work is rewarded, to guide them in overcoming adversity, and other similarly high-minded concepts.

Each of our 11 players started at least one game, and most started multiple times. Every girl played in every game. I honestly believe that all 11 got better as the season progressed.

I'll take all that, and a 7-7 record. (Not that I have a choice - ha!)
We had a team outing to watch my former school, Ardrey Kell HS, play a game.
Community House is the middle school that feeds into AK.
Our season highlight was a 1-point victory at Crestdale in December, as we roared back after falling behind by 15 points. I haven't been part of many post-game locker-room scenes more joyous than that one was. 

When we played the same team at home in January, we again fell way behind (this time by 14 points). Again we rallied, tying it with about a minute to go. But this time, Crestdale made plays down the stretch and we didn't, and we lost by 3. 

As we got deeper into the season, it became obvious that our opponents included:

  • 2 deep, talented, tall, well-coached teams (Alexander Graham and South Charlotte) we simply couldn't beat; we were 0-4 in those games.
  • 3 less-talented teams (Southwest, Carmel and Quail Hollow) we couldn't have lost to unless we played really, really poorly; we were 6-0 in those games.
  • 1 team that was a little better than us (JM Robinson); unfortunately, we went 0-2 against them.
  • 1 team that was our absolute equal (Crestdale); we split our two games with them.

We finished last week with a decisive, satisfying victory over Carmel. Two players were out: Meniya, who had been our leading scorer, missed several games with health issues; and Allie, an 8th-grader with little experience but a huge heart, had to leave school early that day because she wasn't feeling well.

In her text telling me she was sick, Allie expressed sadness at having to miss her final game. I relayed that to the girls during my pre-game talk with the team. I encouraged them to appreciate this last opportunity to play with their teammates, and to show it by giving maximum effort on the court.

We then went out and played one of our best quarters of the season, building a 16-4 lead thanks to 9 points from our point guard, Skyler; 4 points and great all-around play from our other 8th-grade standout, Jalayah; and tremendous energy, intensity and defense by the other 7 players.

Jalayah inbounds the ball to Skyler
It was especially nice to see our 7th-graders, who likely will form the nucleus of next year's team, demonstrate how much they have improved by playing well in this season's finale. Emma and Bryson each finished with a career-high 5 points; Emersyn and Avery helped set the tone with their aggressive defense and hustle; Janita battled bigger players to grab several rebounds.

It was a great way to finish the season.

The next night, Community House held its winter sports banquet. My team, the boys team and the cheerleading squad were honored, and the three coaches got to talk about our athletes.

I praised my girls for their work ethic, toughness and resiliency. I talked about some of the challenges we faced and how we dealt with them. I joked about us scoring twice into the wrong basket -- including on our very first play of the season. That's some great coaching there! I said something nice (and true) about each player. 

I also gave out 3 awards: Coach's Award for Aggressiveness to Avery; Heart of a Champion Award, for going above and beyond expectations, to Emma; and MVP to Skyler.

Skyler ended up being our leading scorer, with 110 points. She was followed by Meniya (101) and Jalayah (78). Those three -- the only players who had returned from the 2018-19 team -- accounted for 81.6% of our scoring. 

Add in the three other 8th-graders (Chloe, Alyssa and Allie), and it means we have to replace 87% of our scoring. 

Eighty-seven percent!!

I told the girls, especially the 7th-graders, that it was time for them to do some serious recruiting. They need to talk up how much fun they had being part of the Cavs; they need to convince athletic 7th-graders and 6th-graders to go out for the team next season. I specifically encouraged them to point out how much playing time -- and how many shots -- will be available.

My single biggest surprise this season actually happened before we got started: Even though Community House is one of the largest middle schools in North Carolina, with about 600 girls in 7th and 8th grades, fewer than 20 tried out for our team. (By comparison, more than 120 tried out for the boys team.)

It wasn't what I expected after leaving Ardrey Kell High, where I had been an assistant for two seasons following my first 4-year stint as a middle school coach.

I've since been told that the CH girls program has been down for a few years -- and that we're trying to change the culture to make it a more fun and rewarding experience.

Hopefully, this season will have been a major step in that direction.


Oh, and of course, I can't wrap up a post of The Baldest Truth without putting up a pic of Jack and Logan, my terrific (and terrifically cute) grand-twins.

Happy, 6 Month Birthday, LoJack!

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Mike's Oscar Picks: Everybody else takes a whack, so why not me?

I haven't seen Little Women, and I won't get a chance to see it today before the Oscars telecast. So as I look at the nominees for Best Picture, 8 out of 9 will have to do.

I also haven't seen several of the films featuring actresses/actors who were nominated for individual awards, though I do look forward to watching them as they become available on Amazon, Hulu, HBO, Showtime and the like.

So having delivered that disclaimer, here are my Oscar picks ...

Best Actress

It sounds like Renee Zellweger is a shoo-in for her portrayal of Judy Garland in Judy, and I definitely want to see that film. 

The only nominated actress whose movie I saw was Scarlett Johansson's Marriage Story. She was good, but I can hardly say it was a groundbreaking performance. 

I was disappointed that Ana de Armas, the young actress who shined in the underrated Knives Out, didn't get nominated.

Best Actor

I saw three of the five films in which an actor was nominated: Joker (Joaquin Phoenix), Marriage Story (Adam Driver), and Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood (Leonardo DiCaprio). 

Each was outstanding, but Phoenix, always a powerful force whenever he's on screen, was never better. He is expected to win, and I'm not surprised.

Adam Sandler was surprisingly good in Uncut Gems and George McKay great in 1917. Also, Roman Griffin Davis dominated nearly every scene as the 10-year-old protagonist in Jojo Rabbit. Each was snubbed, but I obviously realize that everybody can't get nominated.

Best Supporting Actress

I saw two of the five films with actresses in this category: Marriage Story (Laura Dern) and Jojo Rabbit (Scarlett Johansson).

The belief is that Dern will win here and I have no problem with that. It was a perfect role for her, and she clearly enjoyed doing it. Johansson also was very good.

I thought Julia Fox, making her acting debut as Sandler's love interest in Uncut Gems, might get nominated but she didn't.

Best Supporting Actor

My would-be favorite for this category wasn't nominated: Daniel Craig as the brilliant but quirky detective in Knives Out. Nobody will ever convince me that he wasn't significantly better than the two guys nominated from The Irishman: the OK Al Pacino and the underwhelming Joe Pesci.

I really liked Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood (and he also was very good in, though not nominated for, Ford v Ferrari), so I'll be rooting for him. Based on what I've read, he has a decent shot at the trophy.

Best Picture

As I said, I didn't see Little Women. Two films I did see that I very much liked but weren't nominated: Knives Out and Uncut Gems

I preferred the latter two to The Irishman. I think I could have edited an hour out of it, I wasn't blown away by either the story or the acting, and if it had been directed by anybody other than Scorcese it probably wouldn't have been nominated. It was Goodfellas Lite - all of the blood, none of the fun.

The other Netflix nominee, Marriage Story, felt like a good made-for-TV movie. Like Ford v Ferrari, I liked it but it didn't seem Oscar-worthy. 

Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood was a good Quentin Tarantino flick ... but not a great one in my estimation. It ranks well behind Pulp Fiction, Inglorious Basterds, Kill Bill, Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown and Django Unchained.

Joaquin Phoenix was so good in Joker that he personally elevated the film, and at the time I saw it I thought it was the best 2019 movie I had seen. It since has been surpassed by a few others in my mind, but I wouldn't be disappointed if it does get picked.

The South Korean black comedy Parasite is a wonderful and sneaky-deep film that is hilarious in parts, grisly in others, and socially relevant throughout. Several of the actors could have been nominated (but weren't). I didn't see it until yesterday - the day before the Oscars - but I can see why it has gotten so much buzz.

Jojo Rabbit was my personal favorite of 2019 - the one I enjoyed most during my time in the theater. I don't think it has a prayer of winning, but it was an absolute delight from beginning to end. If you haven't seen it, do.

Although I expected World War I drama 1917 to be very good because it had gotten so much positive press before I finally got around to seeing it, it actually surpassed my expectations. One thing I went in thinking was, "Who needs another war movie?" As it turns out, I did! 1917 was not just another war movie. There actually was much less blood and guts than in most of them, the plot and premise were great, it was beautifully filmed, and the performances were superb throughout. Bravo to Sam Mendes for creating a borderline masterpiece. 

So while I might give Jojo Rabbit the "Mikey," 1917 was my fave of all the films that actually have a chance to win.