Thursday, 10 January 2013 19:17

Never Say "I Can't!"

By Damian Fantauzzi | Sports

I can remember being a kid playing basketball in my yard or in someone's driveway with my friends. There were no positions designated for anyone such as guard, forward or center - we just played basketball and the defense determined where we would be: either facing the basket or with your back to the basket. It didn't matter how tall you were, what mattered was playing the game. Basically, that's how I learned to play the game of basketball, along with my desire to practice on my own. I learned to be an all-around player without being placed into a designated position because that's the way basketball is meant to be played, from any spot on the floor. The only way to develop basketball skills is by playing the majority of the time facing the basket. A good preparation for learning those all-around skills is by playing one-on-one, two-on-two or three-on-three, which was something I did in an uncountable number of games, starting in my early teenage years.


Many years ago and even now, people say to a kid, "You should play basketball, because you're tall!" So, right away a potential player would be put into a position because of his or her size, examples being that taller kids play inside and shorter kids play outside. My opinion of that philosophy is: Says who? When the game was developed, it was pretty basic, and there was little room for innovation for the players to create or experiment with the way they played the game. To see a guy like Magic Johnson, at 6' 9", play at the top of the offense, as a point guard, was unfathomable in the 50s, 60s and before the caveman picked up a basketball.


Look at the ability of college and professional basketball players of this modern era. Guys like Magic are more prevalent than ever before. At 6' 9", Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder and at 6' 9" LeBron James of the Miami Heat, these giants can handle the ball like a 5' 10" point guard. They're amazing athletes with super human basketball abilities. They came from the cities of Washington and Chicago, respectively, where the street game was about skill - not position or size - even though it didn't hurt them as all-around players by limiting their position down low because they were so tall.


Kobe Bryant of the Lakers and Michael Jordan, the retired superstar from the Chicago Bulls, are both 6' 6" and are known for their uncanny ball handling skills and outside shooting. Back in the 1960s, both MJ and Kobe would have played out of the post position as centers in their high schools. I can go on and on about players like these guys, but this column isn't about the kings of professional basketball. This is about the kids who are unjustly placed into stereotypical positions in sports because of their physical stature and therefore, are categorized as a position-type athlete. To me, this is totally unfair, especially in the youth programs, when an eight-year-old is told this is the spot you will play because you're taller than your teammates. This is a disservice to a young athlete that could possibly limit his or her early development and experience as a potential all-around player.


Another unintentional disservice to the development of aspiring youth players, is labeling them as “benchwarmers” because they haven't quite caught up to their skill level. They might be late bloomers. I've experienced this as a coach; when other coaches have said that this kid or that kid can't do this or that and never will be able perform a particular ability. I've had players who carried the stigma of "can't or never will" around with them, until we were able to work one-on-one. One example was a student-athlete from Saratoga Springs, (whose name and the team he played for will go unnamed) who was labeled as a non-shooter at 6' 5" tall, and was therefore supposed only contribute by rebounding. He asked me to help him with his outside shot and even though I wasn't his coach. Of course, I never say no. He and I worked on the skill of shooting a jump shot after practice. During his last year of high school basketball he averaged 21 points a game. That's right, 21! Not to mention the year before that, his average was 18 points less per game! Never say I can't! I do have similar stories but I won’t digress from my original point.


The emphasis here is that maybe there needs to be a program where the younger athletes can experience opportunities to play more than one position, no matter what the sport. With basketball, it may be more important, especially at the youth level, for the athletes to experience how that game is meant to be played from any spot on the floor. In addition to that philosophy, the younger basketball players should learn how to play man-to-man defense, with no zones. When I took over the girls basketball program at Saratoga Springs during 1999, I was told by a coach that the girls can't play man-to-man defense. I disagreed and my answer to him was that they have to and it can be taught, they're players first and girls after! Well, the girls shook off that label and learned to play man-to-man defense. Within three years we were able to shock Shenendehowa and defeat them for the very first time in the program’s history. During the quarterfinals of the AA Sectionals we defeated Shenendehowa, the number-one seed, by 18 points, after dropping two regular season games to the Plainswomen – and we played man-to-man the whole game!


The labeling of athletes is an adult mistake and is especially unfair to younger players. Maybe by simply taking such an emphasis of winning out of the main focus and get the youngsters playing and learning how sports are played and with no limitations to what they can do, might benefit them later in their athletic lives. What gives me the right to suggest this? One is obvious, I coached for 40 years, but more than anything else, I was labeled in my youth as mediocre athlete, but I was a late bloomer and I came into my own with hard work and dedication to my game. It all eventually paid huge dividends - a full basketball scholarship!

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