Anyone who has ever coached basketball to young adults knows first-hand the hair-ripping, foot-stomping, fist-clenching, scream-repressing moments that happen while watching from the sideline. The joyous moments outnumber and outweigh the depressing ones, of course. But hell, we all feel frustration. Whether we bury it or not.
When someone asks me what coaching in Rwanda is like, my subconscious takes over initially.
My mind flashes to images of “bye-bye” (knockout) when the kids shriek with delight and race to see who’ll be first at the free throw line. I think about improbable buzzer beaters, made-up three-point celebrations and successful left-handed layups. I chuckle in reflection at the players who laughed at themselves after a mistake, along with the teammates who laughed with them not at them.
Instead of first revealing those good times to anyone who asks, by human nature, I vent about the difficulties and suppress the thrills.
I say how I’m not really a full-time coach. I’m not running every drill and calling timeouts during scrimmages. I can’t be. I’d call myself more of a basketball operations advisor. I’m a crutch for Shooting Touch’s talented, bilingual Rwandan coaches. If I see something in practice that needs improvement, I tell them. In return, they decipher my advice or coaching lesson to the players. My guidance isn’t delivered from its primary source, but it’ll have to do. The English-Kinyarwanda language barrier is an impossible obstacle to overcome without training — being a conversational third-wheel won’t cut it. The primary schools teach students English, but the only phrases that seem to have a lasting effect are “Good morning,” and “How are you?” I get that. Besides some basketball lingo, that’s about all I can muster in Kinyarwanda. So, when I explain things, until translation, I’m just a nonsensical talking head. When I illustrate how to properly jump-stop or plant a pivot foot for a jumper, I might as well be using sign language. It’d be easy to get aggravated or give up trying to help, but I put things into perspective. Half of the players only started dribbling for the first time less than three years ago, and English, for most, is a formality.
Last week in Rukara, I threw myself into a drill and demonstrated a common mistake a young man kept making. I started using English in support of my hand gestures and while he stood there listening intently, I could hear laughter coming from behind me.
“Why are they laughing when I’m trying to teach something serious?” I asked Aline, a ST coach.
“They’re laughing cause they know he doesn’t understand a word you’re saying,” she said.
“Fair,” I said, grinning along.
The other day, I assisted with the basics of a 2-3 zone defense. Granted, these boys and girls already have a tough time keeping an offensive player in front of them without committing arm-wrapping fouls, nonetheless, the lesson required zone principles. The players stared at me as I ran around in clarification, showing where defenders needed to be at what point in time and how they’d need to get there.
Once the whistle blew, they cautiously ran back and forth. The same mistakes repeated. The effort was there, but my instructions didn’t quite sink in.
Nothing to do but take the loss and move on.
Besides building strong basketball IQs and all-star athletes, it’s important to me, and our organization, to build strong people. It hurts that I can’t have more of a personal relationship with the players. I’m not able to comprehend their answers to how school is going or how life at home is. I have to wonder why someone strolled into practice late or didn’t bother to show up. I can only guess why someone performed poorly on our post-curriculum health test. Whenever I have a question, I have to go through someone else. Who knows if the real story comes out?
But I try to break through. I do. In my mind, that’s what counts.
Those are the hard moments. But, as I said, the good does outweigh the bad.
There’s too much good to count, really.
I may have teared up a bit when a little girl from Nyamirama handed me a folded note from school. Inside was a rose in bright red colored-pencil and a few broken-English sentences saying how playing basketball is the highlight of her day.
I can’t forget the time I pulled off the Jason Williams off-the-elbow pass during a break in practice. Once I showed the move, I was forced to pull up the YouTube video where it’s documented. The play blew everyone’s mind, rightfully. They loved it and accepted the trick as a challenge. The next thirty minutes consisted of balls bouncing off elbows, out of control. We shared laughs and plenty of failed attempts. I made sure to stress not trying it during a game.
I cherish all the post-practice breakdowns when worthy kids are recognized for their feats off the court. Awards are given for perfect test scores, Good Samaritan acts and more. I never thought a Fanta or a graph-paper notebook could make someone so happy, but both do.
On the court, I get a rush seeing the kids finally mastering how to dribble with eyes up. I love when the back-up dribble I taught weeks earlier shows up in a heated scrimmage. I applaud whenever opponents pick each other up after hard fouls.
Thankfully, being a good person — or enjoying the game of basketball — doesn’t require a common language. On our courts, a fusion of English, Kinyarwanda and togetherness makes harmony. Since I’ve arrived, the Shooting Touch players have been singing to their own tune. I’m just the foreign orchestrator.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from making my coaching debut, it’s that being a coach holds enormous responsibility. At any point, you have to have what it takes to be a role model, a motivator, a disciplinarian, a jokester, an expert, a critic, or a friend.
I might not speak a whole lot of Kinyarwanda. I might not have mastered the art of coaching basketball. I might not have forever in Rwanda. That’s okay. When my fellowship is all said and done, I hope I’ve made a difference to someone. As coach, or, as Nick. That’d be fine too.