Nothing to Lose
When parents and potential players gathered earlier this spring for the inaugural meet-and-greet with the coaches and founders of the Colorado Impact girls' basketball club, the main message was all about...losing. And not just letting a few squeakers slip away, either.
"We will get thrashed," coach Gary Anderson promised. "And," he warned, glancing at the parents, "if you can't stay in the stands and understand our vision without getting all whacked out, then this is not for you."
Nervous chuckles: It was a joke, right? But Anderson, who has coached the Arvada West High School girls' varsity basketball team for the past six years, had still more bad news to deliver. "He told us, 'If you're a hotdog, here to showcase your skills, then this isn't for you, either,'" recalls Kurt Hansen, whose daughter Amelia signed up that night.
"He said that the club wasn't there to get scholarships or be promoted or get [recruiters] to come watch the girls," adds Denise Ashford. Despite the coach's dour outlook, her daughter Whitney signed on, too.
Is this any way to start a competitive sports club? After all, this is the age in which kids' athletics has become as serious -- and occasionally as fun -- as organ donation. Youth sports -- year-round tournaments, practices, travel -- have replaced vacations in the rhythm of a family's year. The Colorado Rush, a private soccer club, boasts a sponsorship from Nike. Crested Butte Academy prepares students for life as professional snowboarders. The Colorado Hoopsters, another girls' basketball club, whups ass across the country and promotes itself as a player pipeline to tuition-free college-basketball bliss.
In today's busy athletic families, who has time for losing?
But Anderson is convinced that his retro approach will work. "If I'm gonna do club basketball," he says, "I'm gonna do it right. We're about team basketball, sportsmanship, competitiveness. And community service."
Oh, right: Among the Impact's to-do list of what it takes to make a crack basketball player, there's even more bad news for jocks who think the stock market opens and closes with their latest jump shot. In order to join the Impact, each player must commit to performing ten hours of community service, too.
"If we can humble some of these kids a bit, perhaps they'll turn out to be better people," hypothesizes Ronnie Simson, another coach and founder of the club.
Better people? What does being human have to do with playing serious hoops?
"When I was growing up, it was a privilege to play basketball," explains Anderson. "It was a privilege to get in a game; it was a privilege to wear a uniform. Now that's all seen as a right. I want my girls to understand how grateful they should be."
Tim Neises looked into several other girls' clubs before bringing eighth-grader Courtney to Anderson's tryouts. "He told us, 'We're calling this the Impact because we want to have an impact on your lives,'" Neises recalls.
He adds that he was impressed that when tryouts were over, Anderson invited the girls who didn't make the team to come to club practices anyway so they could improve their skills. One of those who stayed ended up making the squad. Neises also compares the Impact to his son's competitive traveling basketball team, which costs seven times as much and stopped practicing together once tournament play began. The Impact teams, by comparison, "have practiced twice a week, religiously."
"It's been a breath of fresh air coming to this club," says Neises.
Anderson is convinced that this is the right way to do it because he's seen all of the ways that aren't. A girls' basketball coach for more than two decades, he'd already experienced firsthand all that modern youth sports had to offer. It wasn't pretty: Screaming, red-faced parents who shuffle their children from program to program because Junior or Jane doesn't get enough court time. Elite squads that serve as showcases for a few superstar players trying to attract the attention of a Division 1 program. Eight-year-old prima donnas factory-installed with a sense of entitlement simply because they know their way around a ball and a pair of high-tops.
Hell, Anderson had even done it himself. A half-dozen years ago, he coached the Colorado Wildcats, an elite girls' basketball team based in Arvada. From the day school got out for the summer until the beginning of fall, he dragged the girls to prestigious tournaments from San Diego to Oregon to Washington, D.C. The costs were astronomical. He estimates that each kid had to fork over more than $4,000. At times the team was on the road for nearly two weeks straight. "And for what?" he wonders.
About three years ago, he met up with Simson, who offered to coach some of Anderson's youth camps. A native of tiny Walden, Colorado, Simson brought his own history of what basketball should, and could, be. An astoundingly mediocre player as a youngster -- "with thick brown-rim glasses and two left feet," he recalls -- he scrapped and hustled to make his JV team. Actually, he says, "I was fortunate enough to live in a small town, so everyone always made the team."
But he practically slept in the gym. Slowly, he became a genuine ball player. He finally started his first game as a junior. In his senior year, North Park, never before ranked -- much less a prep-school powerhouse -- won the state championship. Simson was named MVP of the tournament. "I know what it's like to start at the bottom and work toward achievement," he says.
Last year, Simson and Anderson began tossing around the idea of a girls' basketball club that would feel more like an organization out of the 1950s. It wasn't hard to come up with the ideals each man was nostalgic for. No travel, for starters: There was plenty of good competition here in Colorado. It would also keep costs down: $300 to $600 per season versus $3,000 to $4,000 for top tournament-trotting clubs.
Besides, they decided, showcasing top players was overrated, anyway. If the Impact happened to have a girl who was genuinely destined for Division 1, the scouts would find her soon enough. And if not, says Anderson, his new club would be happy to take a pass on all the top players altogether. "I'm great with that," he shrugs.
For parents of such girls, it can be a relief to admit that the game doesn't have to be about money, road trips and scholarships. "The chance that my daughter will go on to college basketball is very rare," says Karen Ragland, whose eighth-grader, Rachael, decided she liked the Impact. "So we have to teach them to be more than a basketball player. And that's what this club is all about. Gary wants them to be better people, not just better players. This is about life in general."
At tryouts last March, enough girls showed up for the Impact to fill eight squads, junior high through high school. At a recent evening at Arvada West, about half the club -- forty girls between the ages of twelve and fifteen -- gathered for one of their twice-weekly two-hour practices. First up are pivot drills, then chop drills to learn how to get in front of an advancing player. The team takes baby steps; none of these players would be mistaken for a star.
"How much do we talk about dedication in practice?" Simson, dressed in black shorts, a sleeveless gray gym shirt and black Nike hat, demands loudly.
"A lot," the girls mutter.
"Absolutely," he says. "This is where the games are won. The question is, how many of you are committed to excellence -- to doing better this time than last time?"
The drills continue. After one group neglects to stop its opponents in a cutting-and-passing exercise, Simson halts play and makes the derelict team sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" as penance. No one remembers the words; everyone giggles. "Okay," he says, point made. "Let's start again."
For the coaches who would spread their vision, Simson and Anderson decided to recruit men and women who already knew what it was like to work on a tight budget and struggle with a group of girls of wildly divergent skills -- in other words, high school coaches.
"We've always grumbled about competitive club teams and their lack of focus on all the players," says Kaylyn McIntosh, who coaches the Bear Creek High School girls' team and who has signed on to coach a first-year Impact team. "They highlight one or two athletes and use the other players to help them.
"Gary threw out the idea of developing people and players at the same time," she adds. "I mean, there's an awful lot about life that can be learned through athletics." Sacrifice, for starters: None of the Impact coaches are getting paid for their time.
Shockingly, none of the girls or parents seemed to mind the retro philosophy all that much, either. During early meetings, the girls pitched some ideas for how they could fulfill their community-service requirement: a sports camp for special-needs kids, volunteering at a soup kitchen, helping out at Race for the Cure. They settled on making puzzles for sick kids at Children's Hospital and volunteering for a Special Olympics event.
This past weekend, around 7:30 in the morning, about two dozen Impact players showed up at a practice field adjacent to Englewood High School's football stadium. They pounded stakes with distance measurements and lay tape in preparation for the Special Olympics softball toss. As they worked, Anderson grabbed a microphone and started serenading them with "Hound Dog." The girls rolled their eyes.
Maddie Puryear, a team captain and point guard, said the day was a big departure from her experience at another competitive club. "With the other team, you just practiced and played," she explained. "Here you feel like you're having an impact on the community. It's real different."
"When we first heard about the community service, we were kind of shocked," added Emily Dalton, who, like Puryear, will be a junior next year. "But now it makes sense. It'll give us a better understanding of our community. I think it will make us better people."
Anderson and the other Impact coaches get something out of the Impact, of course. Increasingly, traveling clubs are making high school sports irrelevant. A hyper-talented soccer or volleyball player knows that his or her real chance to shine for college scouts is at national tournaments, not the local high school stadium. By melding a club team with high school coaches, Anderson is making sure school basketball programs stay important. On a smaller scale, Anderson, McIntosh and the others get to keep an eye on prospective players for their school teams in the off-season.
Still, Anderson says, for the most part, it's all about the girls, and the scoreboard is only one measurement of a team's performance. Indeed, as promised, the Impact teams have been getting smothered in local tournaments. At one recent competition, one of the squads lost by 42 points. "We got hammered," Anderson says with a shrug.
Big deal. "We're supposed to fizzle and burn because of our ideals," he says. "But nobody's in it for what we are. If they were, I wouldn't be doing this."
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