“I wish we had a scoresheet for character in athletics”

by Dan Bauer

In 1971, the legendary John Wooden was trying to recruit a six-foot-eleven-inch junior college player to transfer to UCLA.   “I’m going to make you two promises,” said John Wooden, “One, you’ll probably never ever get off the bench.”

Not exactly a positive and tantalizing recruiting pitch.

“But two,” Wooden continued, “You’re going to get a chance every day to practice against the best player in America, and I promise you, the best coaches in America are going to work with you every day.”

Swen Nater didn’t hesitate to say yes and after two years of practicing against future NBA Hall-of-Famer Bill Walton and winning two National Championships, Nater was the 16th overall pick in the first round of the NBA draft.  He remains the only first round pick to have never started a game in college.  One year later Walton was the number one pick.

Prior to being drafted, Walton was asked who was the best center he had played against, he looked down at the end of the practice court and said, “That guy down there, is the best player I’ve played against. Swen Nater.”

It is a beautiful scenario of the benefits the athletic experience can provide for any player.  It is difficult to imagine this happening today, with so much emphasis on the short-term gratification and playing time used as a measure of a player’s worth to the team.  Had Nater, who was left on the steps of a Holland orphanage at age six, been impatient and transferred, like so many college athletes today, it is likely his future would have been dramatically altered.  The competition in practice and the coaching were his ticket, not his playing time.  He did get off the bench, but not often averaging 4.9 points a game in his two seasons at UCLA.  Today he is an accomplished author, public speaker and vice-president of Costco, a Fortune 500 company.

Not a bad resume for a bench warmer.

In my coaching career I have seen many examples of the sacrifice Swen Nater made for his UCLA teammates.  I could list them but would be fearful of leaving deserving players off the list.  Players who were incredible teammates despite their limited playing time.  They exist on almost every team and are respected by coaches and teammates.  They have the power and potential to be a contagious positive influence on the team’s energy.

Playing time and winning have become the pot of gold most are seeking at the end of their child’s athletic rainbow.  Opportunity and has been replaced by guaranteed playing time and good coaches are only those who make decisions that favor my child.  Playing time is the imaginary carrot that lures players to other teams through open enrollment or the college transfer portal.  Players and parents say they want fairness, but what they really want is more playing time.  It is the inaccurate measuring stick used on our athletes.

Your playing time has no correlation to your real worth to your team or as a predictor of your future success after your athletic career.  Playing time is a finite resource that every coach must try to successfully manage.  Unfortunately, it can also be the sand that grinds the gears of well-oiled team to a halt.  Achieving equal minutes among the team is impossible.  Absolutely impossible.  Entertaining that fantasy is a high-speed chase to disaster.

In 1997 Arizona won a NCAA basketball championship behind future NBA 2nd overall pick Mike Bibby.  His teammate, walk-on Josh Pastner, scored 12 points that season, but teammate Miles Simon said, “He (Josh) was absolutely one of the keys to our championship run”.  Pastner befriended Bibby and got him to the gym at 7am for extra shooting and then coaxed guard Michael Dickerson to do the same at 11pm.

Pastner, only a freshman, understood not only his role, but how important the roles of Bibby and Dickerson were to the team’s success.   His role never changed as he averaged 2.3 minutes per game over his four years at Arizona, but later went on to become a successful college coach with a 276-187 record in fourteen seasons as head coach at Memphis and Georgia Tech.

These aren’t fairy tales, they happened to players who were bottom feeders in the playing time pond.  Being an important part of a team is not tied to your child’s playing time totals.  Please put your stop watches away and allow your athlete to make their own way up the team’s depth chart.  And if they don’t reach your playing time expectations, don’t encourage them to quit or make life miserable for their coach with your interference.  Instead encourage them to be a great teammate that earns something even more valuable—respect.

It is a fact that teams with players who accept their roles are much more likely to be successful.

There are few things I have witnessed as a coach that are as powerful as when that role player that has waited patiently and positively finally gets their opportunity.  The player that is constantly there for their teammates cheering them on and lifting them up when things go bad.  Their attitude is as contagious as a toddler’s laugh.  When their number gets called it is a wonderful moment of genuine appreciation and giddy energy that surges through the team.

When things didn’t go their way, they didn’t give up too soon or make excuses or find another team.  When life pushed them around, they learned to push back.  They persevered, they showed grit and character, they put the team first.  And if that is your son or daughter, that should generate more pride and happiness than any number of goals or awards could ever provide.

I wish we had a scoresheet for character in athletics.

The illusion is that amateur athletics is about playing time and statistics and trophies won, when it is truly about watching your kids grow into responsible, trustworthy, hardworking and humble adults.

You see, the real magic isn’t watching great athletes perform in the arena, it’s watching your athlete transform from a carefree child into a prosperous and productive adult.

And unlike playing time, that metamorphosis is no illusion.

Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI.  You can contact him at  drbauer13@gmail.com