It is important not to overestimate the power or influence a coach has over his players or the game of basketball. A prime example of this came when the Melbourne Tigers played Georgetown University during a tour of the United States.
Georgetown had never lost a pre-season exhibition game on its home court. Yet the Tigers, after recovering from a large deficit, were within two points with possession and just four seconds left to play. We called a time-out to decide whether we would try for a two-point shot to send the game into overtime or a three-point shot to steal the victory. Knowing we did not have much chance of beating one of the top-ranked US college teams in overtime, it was not a difficult decision to go for a three-pointer.
We decided to run a play we practiced virtually every day with Andrew Gaze and Paul Stanley our first and second options to take the shot. It is difficult to describe the emotions as we were on the fringe of a historic result, but the noise of the fans was deafening and it became clear that players’ ability under stress to respond to instructions can be impaired. Despite the fact we drilled out-of-bounds plays regularly, the only player in the correct position when the ball was ready to be put in play was the player out-of-bounds. Fortunately, Georgetown coach John Thompson called a time-out just before the ball was handed to our player on the sideline midway between the centre and baseline. As the players assembled for more instructions they apologised for their mistakes and, in a calmer way, prepared to assume their correct positions.
John Thompson did what most college coaches do in similar situations. He observed the set we were aiming for and prepared to counter it during his time-out. However we had already made our corrected adjustment. After a screen and a cut, the ball was to go to Andrew Gaze. If he was not free Paul Stanley was to flare to the wing for a pass and a perimeter shot. It was almost farcical as, instead of flaring to the wing, Paul Stanley cut toward Andrew Gaze, his defender crashed into Andrew Gaze’s defender, allowing him to get free for the three-pointer. The ball hit nothing but net to produce a most unlikely one-point victory for the Tigers.
Many of the fans may have believed we had a well-prepared and skilful team with the composure to cope in a hostile environment under pressure. We were a well-drilled team with talented players, but even at the elite level the best players find it difficult to receive instructions when under stress. Coaches need to understand this as well.
The role of the coach in modern basketball, as it is with all sports, has changed significantly from the time when one person was in charge of all aspects of the game.
While this might still be the case at the junior level for some clubs, it is now common to have a coaching staff that includes assistant coaches, specialist coaches, advisors, mentors and access to sports scientists in medical, physiotherapy, psychology, strength and conditioning, diet and personalised training. These services are not necessarily confined to the top professional level, but are common through the developmental levels of the sport, albeit that many of the services may be provided in an honorary capacity.
The coach is the person who instructs members of an organisation in the techniques and methods of participation. He has to be an expert in the sport, master strategist, a public relations man, salesman, recruiter, counsellor, father figure and motivator. What is the coach actually trying to achieve? He is trying to achieve enjoyment, knowledge, improved performance, success, education and self-actualisation.
Every coach will place different priorities on these aims and philosophies will vary, but the bottom line for a coach is he must be prepared to teach the game and do his best for his players.