My Coach is retiring this year. I knew it would happen sometime, but really it had started to seem like maybe… Anyhow, the older we get the more clear it becomes that nothing lasts forever in a singular familiar way. Sometimes when I think about Coach – which is almost every day in some capacity – I laugh thinking to myself how old we thought he was when we were in school. And he was barely older than I am now. In fact, if I am precise, when the time comes to mark the anniversary of the actual moment I first met him I think I will be exactly the same age he was on that fall day back in 1984.
I introduced my Coach to one of the teams I coached in the early 2000s. They were thrilled for the chance to meet the man upon whom pretty much my entire philosophy of excruciating hard work, consistency, practice, and the unwavering belief that (in the majority of circumstances in high school basketball) discipline and effort could get ‘er done. These girls were one of the first groups I had led, without assistance, as my own team. They changed me in a lot of ways and I like to think I made a difference for them; and meeting my coach was something I was able to do to show them a little bit of what was ‘behind the curtain’ in my life, one I tend to share very little of with my clientele.
So we drove down to Sacramento where the Petaluma Lady Trojans (a disappointing, yet enduring adjustment of my school’s mascot for the women’s sports programs… often “T-Girls” as well, yet I digress) were playing in the Northern California CIF Championship. For the uninitiated, this is a huge accomplishment in a state like California with more than 1,450 high school teams – our section, the NCS has 171 competing schools at different classifications. (The Southern Section boasts 567!) When we arrived at Arco Arena in Sacramento and found the Petaluma contingency, I felt like a prodigal daughter returning home – in my heart feeling so lacking relative to what I had once intended to accomplish by the ripe old age of 30, and shy about “just” being a high school teacher and varsity basketball coach in front of the man who had seen me through years of awkward adolescent declarations of what lay ahead for me. The moment passed in a millisecond as my coach embraced me, my girls, the moment in the way he always had.
I was one of his girls and he was going to let people know exactly what that meant; he suffered no fools, failures, or lackeys. If you were one of Coach’s girls you were something special, and he was going to make sure you, and those around you saw that. On my darkest days I often find myself turning to some small memory of something Coach said to me over the years.
What an immeasurable, tremendously generous gift.
I know my girls from every school at which I had the chance to coach, Balboa SF, Procter Hug, Incline, Sparks – and I reckon some of the boys too – would all tell you that there was never a season, probably not even a month, that passed where I did not reference something Coach had said, taught, shown, shared, changed.
I used to tell the girls that became my own, as they pushed through ridiculous conditioning drills in an intentionally overheated gym, that they would remember this time differently from the rest of the time they spent in high school. That they would never be sorry to have worked as hard as they could for something. That they would learn to appreciate some of the best parts of the game after it was over. That if they added up the hours, by the end of their high school career, they would have spent more waking hours with me than anyone else outside of their family (in some cases more than the family…) and that would have a certain kind of meaning to them. These are all lessons from Coach.
If I were to distill the myriad memories down to the ones that stand out the most… these come to mind:
- An awkward (super awkward) 5’9″ gangly freshman girl, in what PHS called “Athletic PE” (a class in the last period of the day, ostensibly so kids on sports teams would miss less class on travel days), I took the class because everyone knew it was where the cute boys were. And throughout the class I was mercilessly teased by some of those boys who I did not even know. So I was just sort of there. Being quietly awkward and confused. One day we were out on the field and doing some sort of thing where Coach (the teacher along with Coach Martinez, another wonderfully influential man from my high school career) was having us do long jumps and triple jumps and measuring the results. It wasn’t a try out or anything, just some sort of assessment, I guess. Or maybe it is how he discovered his diamonds in the rough. Anyhow, there I was in this long line waiting. And then I went. It was the first time I had ever hop-skipped-and jumped in my life. I just ran down there and jumped over thirty feet. I was not really clear what it meant. Then a sophomore who I kind of knew said, “Johnson said he knew your jump was gonna be a good one.” I looked at her and then down the runway at him. Had he known? Did he see something in me that was special amidst all these cool kids? Yes. Yes he did. And he never let me forget – even during the worst of times – that this was the case.
- Another time I was sitting on the bleachers getting my ankles taped and moaning about high school boys. None of them liked me, it was so awful, I hated it, everything was pointless. Coach shook his head and said, “Levin, if I were in high school I’d be on you like white on rice. You’ll be fine. Get out there and start warming up.” I had never heard that expression before, and I looked at him and wondered, ‘Did he say things to make us feel better, or did he see something in me that he thought was special?’ It may have been both, but one thing I know for sure – Coach never gave out false praise, and in fact, in a sea of reminders of how I could do better, be stronger, go faster, when he did tell me I had it right, I knew, that was it. I had done it. It was one of the first times I looked around my small rural high school and realized that these boys were lame, for no other reason than they were teenaged boys.
- After a night practice in my freshman year, I was sitting out on the fence waiting for my dad to come pick me up. My team had practiced before the varsity and I had been waiting long enough that Coach had come out of the gym at the end of his practice. He said hi, and went into the office. I kept sitting there waiting. A little while later he came out, and asked what I was doing. Waiting for my ride, I said. He looked at his watch. He’ll be here, I said, desperately hoping that Coach would just go home so I could end this embarrassment and figure out how to get home. How about I give you a ride, he said. No, it’s fine, I have a ride, I said. Clearly aware that I had been waiting for more than two hours, Coach said, Well, you probably have some homework to do, so why don’t I just drop you off anyhow? Knowing that my dad had forgotten to come and get me, I got in Coach’s car saying nothing. He made polite conversation the whole way he drove me way out to the far west side of town. I was so embarrassed, and kept thinking how I would just quit the basketball team because I never wanted to have to think about this again. Coach dropped me off and said, See you tomorrow, and left. He never, ever mentioned it again.
- Coach always had a thing about women drivers. He said one time that every accident on the road was caused by a female. I remember thinking I totally had him in this argument and I said, What if a guy is driving and hits a deer and causes and accident? Without missing a beat he said, Well,it was obviously a female deer. This sort of reasoning, clearly chauvinism presented as pragmatism, was another teaching tool. The world would not always be on your side, and Coach knew it. And whether or not his attitudes about women drivers were real or a ruse, the take away was that there would always be assumptions. what are you going to do about, that is what Coach would want to know.
There are so many more stories like that. Coach challenging me at every opportunity. Coach being infuriatingly right, all the damn time. Coach singing “Lean on me” (Club Nouveau version obvs) as a signal to smash whoever was sitting between him and you. Coach being horrified at us trying to “peg” our bell-bottom tear-away pants. Coach mitigating the effect of a snarky insult I doled out having to do with hairspray or some nonsense. Coach looking at me completely mystified when I told him I was late because my socks were not dry – and me explaining that we did not have a dryer… and my mom buying a dryer the next week. Coach outlining a plan in a timeout with a game on the line and seconds on the clock – ‘Ok, after King makes these free throws…’ instilling confidence with barely a sentence. Coach and those ridiculous soft serve cones in Chico.
Coach being real with me when no one else would. He would say, “Levin, you are so smart. Why are so so dumb sometimes?” And it wasn’t a put down. It was a truth, pointing out something that other people wouldn’t say.
Every time I see Coach, he reminds me of who I really am, and I am amazed that after all these years, and all his girls and all the others in his life he can remember so clearly. He saw me then and helped me see me. He always comments on how I was always one of his hardest workers, and one of the smartest kids he ever knew. And since I believe in Coach implicitly, I hold on to those truths with vigor and appreciation and belief.
One of the reasons my students and athletes have always thought I was harsh is because I do not give out frequent or superficial praise. I am honest with them, which is not always what people want. But my rationale for this is that then when I say: Oh my god! That is awesome! You got it! They will know, I really, really mean it. They truly accomplished something great. That is another gift Coach gave me. After entire games or even weeks of harsh reminders of what could have been better, smarter, more winning; finally getting it right was so much more rewarding. And real.
Underneath it all, we -his girls- had everything we would ever need. And Coach could see this through the ridiculous teenaged antics, we brought into him everyday. For those of us who worked with him, we understood that in some way we had been chosen, and the reasons for this would shape us. It might not be because we were the most amazing athlete – in fact it often was not. It had to do with what we brought to the mix. What we were willing to learn.
I am grateful that after all these years, I can still always go home and Coach is there to remind of all the things he taught me, to introduce me to yet another group of girls, and use me as example of success. Even when I feel so far from it. Especially when I feel so far from it.
And most of all I am so thankful that Coach instilled in me that with hard work and a good head I was going to be just fine in a big wide world filled with bullies, haters, and misogynist jerks. I was battle tested, I have survived. More than that perhaps. Though I am hesitant to speak for him, I think Coach would agree.
Thank you Coach Johnson, you are and have always been, a total game changer.
amos – Class of ’88