Playing basketball in college is the hardest thing I've ever done.
In fact, college basketball was so hard I almost stopped doing it. One afternoon during my freshman season at the University of Colorado, I walked into a meeting with my head coach and told her I couldn't keep playing: It was too much, too demanding, and I wasn't up to the challenge. I wasn't who I thought I was. Even worse in my mind, I wasn't who she thought I was.
Ceal Barry listened. Then, without hesitation, she said, "Give me two weeks."
"Two weeks?" I asked.
"Yes, give me two weeks to change how I coach you," she said. "If after two weeks you still want to quit, I'll accept it."
On Saturday, Ceal Barry will be inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. During her 22 seasons at Colorado, she posted a 427-242 record and went to 12 NCAA tournaments, with six appearances in the Sweet 16 and three in the Elite Eight. She'll be joined in Knoxville, Tennessee, in this induction, by six others: Dr. Rose Maria Battaglia, Chris Dailey, Mickie DeMoss, Chamique Holdsclaw, Katie Smith and Tina Thompson. All these women hold a special place in the history of women's basketball.
Barry holds a special place in my heart.
Like many student-athletes, I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I signed up to play college sports. Numerous factors contributed to my decision to go to Colorado: The program was perennially nationally ranked, the location was beautiful and Coach Barry had been an assistant coach on the 1996 Olympic team. (She'd won an Olympic gold medal!) She had a reputation for discipline and hard work, qualities High School Me believed she possessed. Plus, Coach Barry always got the most out of her players. (Side note: I can't help myself: I still call her Coach Barry when speaking about her -- or, for that matter, when speaking to her, when we meet for coffee.)
Fast forward to my freshman year: There I stood, an overwhelmed rookie, desperate to remove myself from the roster. I'd been having nightly phone calls with my parents, thousands of miles away in New York, and they kept reminding me how much hard work I'd put into the game. They wondered aloud what I expected to do upon returning home. (My answer: I don't know! I don't care!)
It's easy to believe coaching is about what happens between the lines. And a large part of it is. When Coach Barry stood across from me and asked for two more weeks, I had no doubt about her basketball IQ and what kind of player she could help me become. I can still remember walking onto the court before practice and begging the assistant coaches to see the practice plan that was always tucked into their shorts. They usually obliged, and I would marvel at how meticulously every minute was planned, then how precisely we would execute what had been devised for us.
Under Coach Barry, players were appropriately teamed up based on style and personality, and she noticed even the slightest errors in angle, instantly blowing the whistle and imploring us to take the sharpest routes, the most efficient drop steps. Her teams were known for old fashioned man-to-man defense -- famously taught by Wisconsin's Dick Bennett -- as well as crisp passing and footwork. To this day, when I find myself in a gym and notice someone using the wrong pivot foot when curling around for a jump shoot, I feel a surge of pride, and a touch of footwork moral superiority. After all, I studied the game under Coach Barry.
But until I stood in front of her in that office, in a good deal of confusion and pain, I had not yet learned what kind of leader she was.
Give me two more weeks, she said.
I obliged, but not necessarily with optimism. I figured that two weeks would pass, then I would quit; I would fly home, lick my wounds and begin piecing my life back together. But Coach Barry took those next two weeks seriously. In that office, she seemed to have already stumbled on the solution: She had been coaching me wrong. She had misinterpreted what motivated me. As a kid from New York, all sarcasm and irony, she had thought I enjoyed tough love, thrived on being made an example.
As she walked out of that office, she seemed convinced she'd seen straight into my heart and could spin things around. Turns out she did, and she could. I was oblivious to why I was so unhappy. I really couldn't pinpoint what was making me miserable. "I think maybe I don't really love basketball," is what I was telling anyone I trusted.
Coach Barry saw something much simpler. I needed love. And the very next day in practice, she started dropping love bombs on me. Not anything ridiculous or overwrought, which would embarrass me and make my teammates wonder what was going on. No -- just enough. I can still remember, the practice after trying to leave, running a fast-break defensive drill, and when it ended, Coach Barry blowing the whistle, then praising me -- in front of everyone -- for what I did right. The next drill, I tried to do even more things right. Over the course of the next two weeks, she built me up just enough, gave me just enough fuel, that I felt I could keep going.
It is not an exaggeration to say that I owe Coach Barry a debt of gratitude. If I had left the team, gone home to upstate New York to start over, my life would probably look considerably different.
The very best coaches are the ones who, when they are finally done, have not just improved the skills of the kids who come through their program, but have changed the trajectory of their lives.
I was playing for Coach Barry when she won her 400th game. We put her on our shoulders and carried her off the court, pleased that we were lucky enough to be her players on that evening.
That moment was the culmination of a thousand smaller interactions -- in fact, 22 years' worth. Twenty-two years of kids standing in offices, many unsure of who they were and what they wanted, and why they were there. Twenty-two years of staying present in these moments, of listening and understanding and realizing every kid needs something different.
Congratulations, Coach Barry. Thank you.