Hoop Dweebs by Robert Peterson - Read Online
Hoop Dweebs
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Summary

Ryan Parker is the head coach of a small college basketball program located in downtown Milwaukee. He and his players, a roster made up solely of engineering nerds, are poised on the brink of having an amazing season. And they can sense it.

Unfortunately, standing in their way is Parker’s former assistant and long time nemesis, Chris Gilpatrick. “Gilly” is now the head coach of small power, UW-Pardeeville, and on a quest for a second straight national championship.

A colorful cast of characters surrounds Parker, including Dave Madden, his profane assistant coach who keeps Parker on track and focused, Joel Remington, the quiet point guard who lets his play do the talking, Tom Oakley, the gentle giant, who’s never full just less hungry, Craig Phillips, the ladies’ man, and Ronnie Norris, the coed who is the love interest in Parker’s life.

Journey with them as they navigate the twists and turns of a long season, made longer by the college’s inept Athletic Director, their numerous road trips, the intense classroom demands and the rival coaches and teams from their conference.

The question is, can a group of Hoop Dweebs, overcome these many obstacles and still compete for a national championship?

Published: Robert Peterson on
ISBN: 9780985525620
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Hoop Dweebs - Robert Peterson

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Peterson

INTRODUCTION

March, 1987

I stood at half-court, transfixed, as hundreds of MES students stormed the court while the remaining 6,000 plus fans jumped up and down in the rickety, time-worn stands. It felt as though the arena was located in Southern California in the midst of a 6.1 earthquake.

Oak repeatedly tossed Brian high in the air as if he was some two-year old. Rudy and Dobbin hugged Rem while the rest of our guys sprinted to the far end of the court to join in the madness. The burly, red-jacketed security staff had given up trying to keep the small but rowdy MES contingent from storming the court and began applauding like everyone else. The opposing players, who hadn't fallen to their knees in shock and disbelief, staggered around like children lost for days in the Redwood forest.

It was the last way I ever pictured myself responding to that moment – one I had dreamt about all of my adult life and most of my teenage years as well. Instead of celebrating and running around the gym, I took it all in, detached, as if I was some impartial and unaffected bystander. But I guess the events of the last few months had a greater effect on me than I realized.

I gazed around the arena drinking it all in like someone from AA who had just fallen off the wagon. Then my eyes came to rest on our opponent’s bench. I saw their assistant coach down on his knees in abject horror, their managers crying, while their trainers and college administrators stood there shaking their heads in disbelief. But the sight etched in my memory was their head coach sitting there with his head buried in a towel. It transported me back to another era when I was starting my coaching career. Have all of us really come this far?

But unless you follow small college basketball with something akin to religious zeal, I'm sure none of this makes any sense to you. History is written by the winners. With that in mind let me take you back to the beginning, to show you how all of this unfolded, all the good days and bad days and going half-basketball-mad days, culminating in this overcrowded, overheated and understated arena. James Naismith could not have foreseen anything like this when he invented this magnificent game.

Part One

PRESEASON AND NON-CONFERENCE

ONE

I sat at my paper-strewn desk staring at the myriad of things to cover during the coming days and weeks. I had multiple lists for everything. The last two pages in the stack contained our potential roster and the latest revised version of our revised-revised schedule. I could tell my assistant coach, Dave Madden, who had wedged his considerable frame into my large brown faux-leather chair – making the armrests groan outward – had become bored with the entire process. I couldn’t blame him. Ever since the final buzzer sounded, we had dissected last season more often than a ten-year-old medical school cadaver. But with the new season a day away, I felt compelled to make sure I had left nothing to chance in order to avoid last year’s disappointing finish.

I knew was on shaky ground. If I insisted Dave do this with me one more time, I thought for sure he would reach across the desk, grab my precious lists, adjourn to the bathroom and start using them for toilet paper.

My name is Ryan Parker. Despite coaching at various levels – from boys’ high school freshmen to men’s college, for the past 17 years, I have never lost my enthusiasm for this wonderful game. The love it has shown me, however, is quite another matter.

"We've come a long fucking way," Dave said reflecting back.

Never lifting my eyes from my lists, I said, Yeah, just think, MES had a total of three wins in the entire history of the program before we took over.

"And two of those were by forfeit. Is it true Mary College beat MES by 23 and 18, but used a fucking janitor to help fill out their roster?" asked Dave, repeating what I’m sure he thought must be a urban-college myth.

That's what I've been told, I replied distractedly, trying to find further enlightenment on the pages I was perusing. I moved the roster to the top of the stack and read it in silence while Dave gazed at the extensive collection of basketball books on my shelf before wiping his index finger along the shelf like a drill instructor inspecting a boot camp locker. A grimy layer of dust stuck to his hand causing him to grimace in disgust. The college’s cleaning staff got over to the gym every full moon, but only if it fell on a weekday.

Actually, I was thinking about our years at St. Margaret's, Dave reminisced, as he looked for someplace to wipe his hand. We had some good times there didn't we?

Most of my recollections of St. Margaret's aren't quite as fond as yours. I reminded him.

Dave and I became best friends while coaching basketball and football at St. M's in Burlingtown eight years ago. Since then we’ve helped one another through some strange times. Speaking of strange, we're the odd couple. Dave’s 6’ 3, I’m 5‘ 6. He's 300 plus pounds. I'm half his weight. People gawk whenever the two of us are together. I tell Dave it’s because I’m so good looking. He says it’s because most people don’t see midgets outside of the circus. But as far as basketball philosophy, we're Siamese twins.

I’m somewhat envious of Dave’s ability to evaluate any situation and know what needs to be done. I’m not as envious of his ability to use the word fucking, with the emphasis on the ing, every time he speaks.

We have done pretty fucking good here, too, haven't we? Dave began again.

Yeah, not bad for a couple of guys who looked like they may never get another chance, I chimed in. If we can just get to the next level. I’d take any coaching job where the academics don’t weigh down the athletes so much. But a nice lower division one job would be sweet.

Hell, another fucking division three job would look good right now, Dave rejoined.

Turning around a very bad college program at Midwest Engineering and Science, a small university in downtown Milwaukee, hadn't always been easy or pleasant. The MES Pat’s – St. Patrick being the patron saint of engineers – was in a real mess before we arrived, winning just three games in its six years of intercollegiate basketball existence.

We steered MES to ten wins our first year, all of them conference victories and good for third place. It was an amazing year. I know ten may not seem like a lot, but our students wanted to throw us a ticker-tape parade down the middle of our library.

In our first conference game, we beat the defending champs by six, which also happened to be the number of MES students in attendance. As the final horn sounded, they stormed the court chanting, We’re Number One! We’re Number One!

We built on those ten wins to go 15-11 in our second season and a remarkable 13-3 in the conference, finishing second, a game behind St. Claire's, the perennial conference champions, as well as, the perennial conference arrogant ass-holes. I’ve never quite figured out what they have to be so arrogant about. Winning championships? Big deal! For them that’s easy. Winning at MES on the other hand is hard, like the world’s strongest man competition hard or men trying to figure out women hard.

During our futile efforts to beat St. C’s the last two years, our students took up the chant, That’s all right, that’s okay, you’ll be working for us some day. Everyone had a good laugh because no one put any real stock in it, unless of course one of our students ends up owning a McDonalds or a car wash.

Midwest Engineering and Science specializes in – well, I think the name pretty much sums it up. The courses are far beyond the Intro to Dating and Recovering from a Hangover classes found at liberal arts colleges of similar size. MES has 1,500 students – the majority of them male – roaming the campus often in a dazed or catatonic state. Our students wrestle with subjects ranging from calculus to quantum physics and every egghead subject in between. Courses such as English, history and social studies, coveted by liberal arts students, are detested by every student who has ever stepped foot onto the MES campus. They would rather have a psychotic roommate with an axe for a pet than take a general studies class. A class where they must solve complex chemistry or physics problems, however, makes them happier than a woman who has won a free platinum card for Tiffany’s.

The average MES student scores 28 on his or her ACTs where at most colleges the average is 21. There's no great secret as to how our students achieve this – they spend much more time with a computer than with a basketball. This makes for great engineers but not so great basketball players. Don’t get me wrong. A coach has to be a psychologist, a counselor, a mentor and an occasional sounding board. These guys are so mature I often feel like I should go to them for counseling. Their maturity makes my job easier, but the yang is it also makes certain aspects tougher.

I tell people the best thing about coaching at MES is the players have their priorities straight. Invariably, they ask me what the worst thing about coaching here is. I tell them, The players have their priorities straight.

Over the course of a season I receive numerous calls from players explaining how they have to miss practice because a project is due or they’re studying for an exam. Most coaches keep track of player games lost to injury. We keep track of player games lost to studying for pop quizzes. We had three last year alone.

Athletically we are at a distinct disadvantage compared to our opponents. First and foremost, we are the one true non-scholarship college in the conference. Most of our players are walk-ons or people we recruited once they arrived on campus. Second, in addition to taking courses far less difficult, the other colleges are able to practice at least three hours each day, spend countless hours in the weight room and still get a decent night’s rest. Thus, the athletes who are better than ours in the first place get faster, stronger and sharper on the court. The only thing getting faster, stronger and sharper at MES is our athletes’ grey matter from solving every complex equation and formula thrown at them. The result is the other teams’ players run like the wind. Ours move like a gentle breeze.

MES labs last until 4:30 in the afternoon. Practices start at 5:00. And since the whole student body shares our one dilapidated undersized gym, practices end at 6:55 so the MES intramural program can have the gym at 7:00. We have half the time, in half the space, to compete with the other eight teams in our conference, which, as you might have guessed, drives me half nuts.

Dave brought me back to the moment. So when are you going to give me the fucking revised-revised-revised schedule so I know what days I have to call in sick at Dominican or is our hall-of-fame athletic director Manny still working on it? Dave teaches math at one of the local Catholic High Schools and on those days we have a long road trip he calls in sick so he can make the van ride to the game.

Manny finished it yesterday.

A second after I handed him the schedule his eyes went wide and his jaw hit the floor. Our first game is against UW-Pardeeville?

Yeah, but it gets even better.

How can it get any better than playing the defending national Division III fucking champions? Dave grumbled.

We play them Saturday of our finals week.

You are fucking kidding me, right?

I wish I were.

And…we have to go to fucking Pardeeville to play them. After a brief pause Dave continued, Well, I may call in sick for that one.

You don't have to, I reminded him, It's a Saturday.

"I meant call in sick here. What was Manny thinking when he scheduled this thing? Shit! What was he thinking when he scheduled any of these fucking games. Every team on here is a powerhouse and we have what? Four fucking home games all year. We'll be lucky to win any games before we get to conference play."

Yeah, well, I tried to get the first one moved, but Gilly wouldn't agree to it. Gilly! I have a gag reflex every time I say his name.

You talked to that fucking ass-hole? Dave asked in total disbelief.

Chris Gilpatrick. The Golden Boy. The Miracle Worker. The Penis-Cranium. As you might have guessed, Gilly and I have a bitter history. Eight years ago, I was the head coach at St. Margaret’s High School. We added Gilly to our staff as a favor to his father, the school board president. Gilly is charming and charismatic when he needs something, but you'd better know a good surgeon to stitch up the gaping wounds in your back if he wants something you possess. And at that time I possessed the head-coaching job at St. M's. Every chance he got, Gilly tried to undermine my credibility with influential people at the school as well as some of the players – not to mention their parents – who weren't getting much playing time. By the end of the season the two of us had stopped speaking. If something needed to be communicated Dave acted as the go-between.

The conflict came to a head in the quarterfinals of the Independent Schools' State Tournament. Playing Racine Holy Prayer High School we fell behind by twelve and for the next 24 minutes fought and fought and fought and took a one-point lead with eight seconds to go. The whole time, Gilpatrick sat mumbling and swearing at me under his breath.

Just as I was feeling pretty good about pulling it out, we entered the basketball version of The Twilight Zone. Holy Prayer took a hurried shot and missed. As the players jockeyed for position on the rebound, one of the referees blew his whistle, signaling our center Tom Voss for a foul, despite the HP player riding him like he was Roy Rogers and he thought Tom was Trigger.

In those situations Al McGuire advocated calling timeout to ice the shooter. I don’t put a lot of stock in this, feeling the enormity of the situation will dawn on the would-be hero/goat without the additional 60 seconds to think about it. Someday I’m going to do a doctoral thesis comparing free throw shooting percentages at the end of games with and without icing the shooter. But until then who am I to buck Al McGuire. I used my final time out to ice the kid.

Gathering my team around me I said, I think there’s a good chance this kid is going to short arm the first free throw so be ready to rebound. There's only three seconds left on the clock. I had to shout to be heard above the din of the standing room only crowd. After you get the rebound make sure to hang on to it and don't let them strip you.

Call me Nostradamus. The kid missed. Tom grabbed the ball, wrapping both arms around it. All right! Up one and the ball. An HP player came up from behind and wrapped his arms around Tom. I expected the whistle. What I didn’t expect was the call – jump ball. The ref motioned to everyone in the packed house the kid had nothing but ball even though the Holy Prayer player’s jersey number was etched into Tom’s back. Without even looking, Dave reached over and threw his arm across my chest to keep me from leaping out of my seat and getting a technical. Which I admit wouldn’t have been the best of times to give them two freebies.

Dave said, You’re welcome. I made a mental note to thank him later. The possession arrow favored Holy Prayer. They called their final time out.

They have one second to get this shot off, I yelled to be heard. The decibel level matched a Spinal Tap concert at the all-out, eleven setting. They’ll be going to Mongan. Johnny, you and Billy double him. Don’t let him get the ball, but if he does, make him catch it going away from the basket. Don’t foul, but make sure you get a hand in the face of whoever catches the ball. Got it?

Nods from everyone except the little penis-cranium Gilly. Okay, we only had to survive one measly second – or as Dave would say, one fucking second. God, I never thought one measly-fucking-second could take so long or have such an impact on my life.

Mongan slipped between Johnny and Billy and caught the ball at mid-court with his back to the basket. He flung the ball over his head in a desperation heave, never even turning to look at the basket. Despite the crowd in a complete frenzy, I felt like I was watching a movie in super slo-mo with the sound turned off. As soon as the ball left his hand it felt like someone reached into my chest and crushed my heart like an over ripe tomato. I saw the ball spinning perfectly in the air as if he had shot a free throw. I was watching it frame by frame by frame. OH SHIT! The damn thing hit nothing but net. We lost by one.

I sat on our bench stunned, with my face buried deep in a towel. Gilly began ranting. "You incompetent jerk. You’re a damn idiot. I told my dad you didn't know what you were doing. Hell, I told the whole stinking town. Now maybe they'll listen. If I were coaching this team we'd be state champs. What a complete moron."

During Gilly’s tirade, Dave kept him away from me. Devastated, I sat there with my face buried in the towel. Then Gilpatrick wrenched himself free of Dave, grabbed me by the shoulder and screamed, You know, if you wouldn't spend so much time running back to Milwaukee to see those brats of yours and concentrated on basketball instead, we wouldn't be in this position.

I am told I stood up and knocked him out. I don't remember hitting him, which is unfortunate. I do have a two-inch scar on my right hand, between my index and middle finger, where it split open after I knocked out his two front teeth. But to this day I don't remember doing it – which pisses me off more than the loss.

Needless to say, I had coached my last game at St. Margaret's. I spent the next five years going from school to school, working as an assistant at various high schools and colleges before getting the head job at MES.

Besides two new teeth, Gilly got what he wanted – the head-coaching position at St. Margaret's. I chuckled from afar as they struggled for the next seven years failing to have a winning season and never getting past the first round of the state tournament. But last year, thanks to his father's connections, he drew an appointment as assistant coach at UW-Pardeeville. Gilly was working with a legend. Pardeeville’s head coach, Drew Bennett, won the National Championship the year before and lost his top assistant to a head-coaching job in Illinois.

They discovered Coach Bennett's pancreatic cancer three weeks after hiring Gilly. Despite the prognosis he had six months to live, Bennett insisted on starting the season. After the New Year, Bennett passed away and Gilly took over the reins as the interim head coach. The players made a pact to win another championship in honor of Coach Bennett. His team played balls to the wall, flattening every team in their path en route to another national title. You could have put any NBA team on the floor and Pardeeville’s kids would have crushed them.

Guess who went along for the ride? You’re going to have to start paying closer attention, if you didn’t answer Gilly. He won a national title and received Coach of the Year honors. In half a season, he accomplished what I had worked for my whole life. Nothing has ever been more exasperating. But I’m over it now as I’m sure you can tell.

Let's get back to the business at hand, I said to Dave, drawing his attention away from my bookshelf.

And what would that fucking be?

Let's go over the roster one more time, I suggested.

Has it changed from an hour ago?

Can we please go over the depth chart one more time? I asked. Who do you like to back up Stevie at point guard?

Stevie.

And if he needs a rest?

Make him understand he doesn’t get a fucking rest…ever. Rem is the only other guy who has any sort of a handle and we need him away from the ball so he can score.

We tried Pops, one of two African American players on our squad, as a backup for Stevie last year, but being a chemical engineer he imploded any time there was a little pressure applied.

Okay, so who do you like backing up Rem at two?

Rem. We were starting to sound like Abbott and Costello.

Okay let me put it to you this way? If Stevie has to come out for some god-knows-what reason and we slide Rem to point, who takes his place?

Don’t say Pops. I love his fucking defense and the fact he’s had to have skin grafts from going after so many loose balls, but he shoots about as well as the Clantons at the OK Corral.

What I loved about Thomas Pops Jones, a fifth year senior, was once he realized he could handle the academics at MES, he also chose to play basketball. On top of being our defensive specialist, he was also responsible for recruiting a number of the key people on our team, including: Stevie D, Rem, Sarge, Dobbin and Ice Man. As one of the non-traditional students on the team – he started college a few years after graduating from high school – he was looked upon as the wise old man of the program. Thus, the nickname, Pops.

But, as always, Dave had hit the nail on the head. God, we desperately needed another shooter, especially with the new NCAA three-point rule taking effect. Just as I started to feel we were shorthanded, Dave found the silver lining, You know what is nice though? You have to admit we have the best post tandem in the league with Oak and Dobbin. Plus, we have all five starters and our top three fucking reserves back from the team that lost the conference championship last year on a fucking travesty?

Dave was referring to us losing the championship at St. C’s when Joel Rem Remington, standing ten feet away from the play – in fact, any farther away and he would have been selling popcorn at the concession stand – got called for his fifth foul with three minutes to go and us up by the latter number. With two seconds left in the game, Pops – Rem’s replacement – lost the ball and subsequently the game as they hit a desperation half-court shot. And they say lightning never strikes the same place twice. But then again, maybe they’re right; after all, Dave and I were in a different gym.

You’re not fucking reliving that again, are you? Dave said seeing me lost in my latest recurring nightmare. To get me back on track he added, Okay, so fucking hit me with it. What did the captains come up with? Dave was talking about my meeting with Oak, Rem and Pops, our tri-captains. Every year I meet with the captains to set the team goals. Most times I have to prod them into setting the goals a wee bit higher than they would like. The first year their goal was to win four games – which would have been a school record. I got them to move it up and aim for .500 in conference play while winning a couple of non-conference games as well.

I didn’t have to set the goal higher this year, I started. But I kind of wish I hadn’t given them the, ‘shoot for the moon and if you miss, you’ll be among the stars’, speech.

You’ve got my attention professor. What did they decide?

They want to win 25 games this year, win the conference, of course, while going undefeated in the process and make it to the dance.

You mean like the St Patty’s Day All School dance, I hope?

Ah, not quite. They want to be the first team in the conference to go to the NCAA Division III tournament. Whoever won our conference tournament that year would qualify because our conference had been granted an automatic bid for the first time in its history.

Dave started to chuckle, Okay, quit fucking with me. What did they really decide?

That’s it. That’s what they set as their goals.

Dave stared right through me to see if I was indeed screwing with him. What kind of fucking drugs are these guys on? We’ll be lucky to win 15 games much less go through the conference season undefeated. Hell, winning the conference alone would be a major fucking step forward. And didn’t anyone show them the calendar? The conference tournament is scheduled for finals week. We’ve never won a game during fucking finals week. Hell we’re under .500 in the week before finals.

Yeah, well this is no time to be realistic. After it becomes obvious we won’t make those goals we’ll tell them to adjust them for the remainder of the season. At least they’re thinking in the right direction. That’s something. Right?

Yeah, you’ve taught them well professor Higgins.

Why thank you, Miss Doolittle. You’re way too kind.

TWO

The first day of practice I'm as excited as a kid getting a puppy for Christmas. And why not? We're still undefeated, expectations are high and nobody’s significant other is pissed off yet about all the time spent on hoops. But like the puppy, little thought is given to all the dirty work lying ahead.

I had the players sit in the bleachers and noticed a number of guys pulling splinters out of their asses as I was about to embark on what always proved to be my longest speech of the season. I hold one of the new basketballs, freshly removed from its carton, as I talk. The leather scent and the tacky, pebble-grained, cowhide is my comfort blanket. I roll it around in my hands to help me relax me while I set about explaining what we are all about to delve into for the next five months. My Rockne-esque speech each year begins with me explaining our two rules. My simple but enlightened philosophy follows – the more rules there are, the more there are that get broken. And when they get broken, some poor fool has to enforce them. And that would be me looking like the bottom card on a newly opened deck.

The Rules are quite basic. First, the players must be on time. Even I find that ironic because I'm late to everything – with the exception of practices and games. My cavalier attitude about that drove my ex-wife – and anyone else I ever went out with – crazy. But basketball practices and games don't wait for anyone, including me, so I expect everyone to be on time. Being a somewhat reasonable individual, I do accept legitimate excuses but they must be made prior to practice. A tardy player better be carried in on a stretcher.

My second rule is more subjective – everyone must play as hard as they can. You have to understand; good coaches can tell if a guy is dogging it. And if someone dogs it, the coach must find a way to motivate the reprobate.

Suicides – running from one line to another up and down the floor – and gorilla slides – getting in a defensive crouch and sliding sideways with heads up and knuckles touching the ground with every slide step – are the two main motivational tools we use.

In one of our early practices I also run the players to near exhaustion, which culminates with one or more of the first year guys throwing up. That was for nothing, I bellow. Think what I’ll do if you piss me off. Being bright individuals, they always get the point. It's a long season however, so on occasion they need to be reminded. The question, Is any one feeling bulimic? often gets them right back on track.

In the middle of that season’s, This is a benevolent dictatorship speech, (I welcome input as long as they understand I have the sole vote), an older chap in tattered jeans, a ratty old, faded-blue denim shirt and scuffed up tennis shoes wandered into the gym. I looked at Jim Schaefer, our manager and nodded at our trespasser, which was my signal for him to go talk to the old guy and get him the hell out of here. The intruder was not having any part of Schaef’s message. I stopped and turned my attention to him.

Can I help you?

Yes, I was wondering if I could still try out for the team?

I'm sorry, I said – I figured him for one of the disoriented street people who wander around the downtown area. You have to be a student here to be eligible.

I am, he replied.

I hurried through a mental checklist of things he might not be.

A full time student.

I am, he replied.

Carrying at least twelve credits?

Yup.

Over 2.0 GPA?

3.3.

Shit, now what? So I motioned for the rest of the guys to take a couple of laps while I sat down to talk some sense into the poor, delusional soul. The thought he could play a young man's game had the team gesturing and laughing as the old timer and I sat on the bleachers talking.

What's your name?

Brian Michaels.

Excuse me for asking, but how old are you?

I'm 30. Is there an age limit? The laugh lines around his dark blue eyes and creases etched into his forehead along with a little gray mingled throughout his dark brown hair gave him the appearance