Smith: An open letter to my junior high basketball coach
October 7, 2013
Dear Coach Gasparini,
I'm writing to you after all these years to ask for your forgiveness.
You probably don't remember me, as I never made a game-winning shot from half court or sank a crucial free throw. In fact, the only time I was ever actually on the court was when you put me in during the last few seconds of games that we were already assured of losing.
But you and I have seriously influenced each other's lives, and I think it's time you knew the truth.
Had you bothered to notice, you'd have seen that as I kid I was absolutely passionate about basketball. I had Dr. J posters on my bedroom wall and a Nerf hoop over the door. I'd practice layups and between-the-legs dribbling and spinning the ball on my finger — all the Harlem Globetrotter moves that I thought would make me a great player. Like so many American kids, I was destined for a sports-drenched life.
But you, Coach Gasparini, only saw a scrawny little 13-year-old with pipe-cleaner biceps and crooked glasses.
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At this point I have no illusions about my skill level. Even if you had put me in with the big boys, I don't think I really had what it takes. I was young and gangly and not particularly athletic, so I understand.
You were probably only in your late 20s when you arrived at our school, still basically a kid yourself. You were from somewhere back east, showing up to work at a small town in the Deep South. You had a funny Northern accent and a funny name, Gasparini. Gasp-a-REE-nee. We were simple folk who weren't used to names or accents like yours, and you probably felt that subtle Southern judgment from your peers. You probably even wondered what was so weird about a name like Gasparini, seeing as the English teacher's last name was Turnipseed and nobody seemed to think anything of it. Well, welcome to Mississippi — Yankee.
As someone who also moved to a radically different culture as a youngster, I can relate to the stress this can put on a person. Maybe it was that stress that caused you to say what you said to me that day.
I remember it like it was yesterday. We were all in the locker room after practice, and you were talking to the other players about whatever cool things you all talk about. As you walked past me, I asked you how you thought I was doing. Just an insecure kid looking for some encouragement. Some coaching, as it were.
You said — and given that these words changed my life forever, I assure you they're verbatim — "You're so weak it's pathetic. You need to lift weights or something."
Yes, you said that. In front of everyone. And then you walked away.
Other kids might have taken this as an opportunity to rise to the occasion and embark on an "I'll show you! I'll show you all!" training program. But instead I took a different route. I let your comments get to me, and I quit the team. In fact, I quit all the teams, forever. You ruined sports for me, Gasparini. Basketball, football, baseball, hockey — you name it, I hate it. All because of you.
Thank you, thank you, thank you!
Because when I think about how much of my finite, precious life energy I have not squandered by watching, thinking about, talking about, reading about or even giving two craps about sports — wow. You have given me the greatest gift of all. The gift of time.
Had I known that then, what happened next never would have transpired. But I was young, I felt threatened, and I thought I had no choice but to retaliate in the only way available. You see, what I lacked in upper-body strength I made up for in juvenile wordplay.
You probably noticed an increase in giggling at practices after that. I'm guessing you found out about your new nickname by accident, as nobody would just come out and tell you. I suspect some student slipped up before catching their mistake.
"Hey, Coach Grasp-a-weenie, are we gonna — oops."
And maybe in that moment you wondered who would ever assign such a childish nickname to you.
You got the short end of the stick, Coach, and I'm sorry. I imagine a sobriquet like "Coach Grasp-a-weenie" is bound to stick with you for quite a while. Maybe your whole career. It just rolls off the tongue — the perfect junior high nickname. You really didn't deserve such a fate. I mean, all you did was pump up the jocks and denigrate the nerds and weaklings. Isn't that just called doing your job?
Anyway, I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me. Also, I hope you enjoy watching the game tonight. Assuming there's even a game on tonight. How would I know?
Barry Smith's column appears Mondays. More at http://www.barrysmith.com.