JM MOFFETT’S DESTINY DELIVERED HIM DIRECTly into the vortex of 1990s America. He lives in Piano, a city composed of the largest settlement of Anglo-Saxons this side of Liverpool. He has a career as a consultant, in which he advises corporations on how to restructure management schemes, a job that his parents back in Oil City, Penn., probably don’t completely understand.
And he has an addiction.
In his Las Colinas office, Moffett talks freely and openly about it. Moffett has allowed himself to be drawn, heart and soul, into the gentle and seductive quicksand of.. .fourth-grade girls’ basketball.
At least the man can find some solace in the reality that he is not alone. If the Soccer Moms of America emerged as an identifiable voting bloc in 1996, then the road to the White House in 2000 might well pass through the mind-set of the Basketball Dads.
“There is no doubt that it (kids’ basketball) absolutely becomes a focal point in people’s lives. Absolutely no question,” Moffett confirms. “I have one parent who will call me at 10:30 or 11 at night and talk for a half-hour after he’d just spent three hours watching games that didn’t even involve his daughter.
“He was scouting the upcoming opposition and talking strategy for tomorrow night’s game. He said that he’d learned that the opposing team’s best guard had a schedule conflict and might be playing in a soccer tournament instead of the basketball game.”
At a time in life when other men of Moffett’s age (36) grow neurotic over their preoccupations with rising taxes and swelling prostates, all Moffett can think about is tonight. His team, the Piano Magic, is scheduled to play the Lady Mavs, and Moffett, who, frankly, looks a lot like those guys coaching big-time college hoops, thinks his team is going to win. “We match up well against the Mavs,” Moffett declares and it is obvious that his confidence is real. “The team that worries me, the Bulldogs, we play them next week. That’s going to be the tough one.” At this point, Moffett’s Magic and the Bulldogs top the standings with 3-0 records.
These teams-the Magic, the Bulldogs, the Lady Mavs, an outfit that calls itself the Attitudes and yet two other versions of the Magic-constitute the league standings in the Piano YMCA’s fourth-grade program. Of 1,500 kids playing YMCA league basketball in Piano alone, more than 500 are female. Basketball, not soccer, reigns as the ultimate “Y” game. The sport was invented by James Naismith at the YMCA in Springfield, Mass. But Jason Dillard, Piano YMCA sports director, says, “In my opinion, girls basketball will never outnumber the kids who play soccer.. .simply because it’s easier for 6- and 7-year-olds to be competitive. Basketball requires greater and more advanced skills in terms of ball-handling technique and shooting to play the game well.”
Moffett would probably agree, since he molded his Magic into a competitive force “largely from a bunch of soccer players. We had three practice games and lost them all. They didn’t know a thing about basketball. So we went back to practice and focused on things I thought we could build on.
“I had them moving down the court backwards, shuffling their feet and doing basic basketball things. Then, when we shut down for the Christmas holidays, I sent them home with instructions to work on their dribbling and ball-handling skills and had their parents sign off on that.”
The coach of the Piano Magic had been a star athlete back in Oil City. His wife, Teresa, he says, had actually been cut from a fourth-grade girls team “and from that negative experience…she became very anti-sports, at least from the participation standpoint. Never played again and became a cheerleader, in fact.”
In fashioning a coaching technique, Moffett acknowledges that his coaches in high school “were a little too driven to win and did not talk about some of the human issues of competition. I tell the girls that winning is important, but nothing to be consumed with. Winning is a decision you make and winning has many elements-you have to work, you have to play hard and you have to love the game, and if one of those elements is missing, then you can’t win.”
The coach concedes that competition at this age level requires maintaining reasonable elements of control over parents, perhaps more so than over the players. The so-called Little League Syndrome, in which otherwise rational adults become transformed into braying jackasses while kids play grade-school games, can become a very real threat. YMCA guidelines state that “rude or abusive behavior by spectators will not be tolerated and may result in ejection of the spectator from the gym.” And what qualifies as rude or abusive behavior? According to the person who wrote the rules book and has evidently seen it all, this means “throwing of objects, kicking or slamming bleachers, using profanity, running onto the court, abusive yelling at referees, disruptive action during opposing team’s free throws, instigating conflict…”
Moffett says, “I tell the parents that I want you to be enthusiastic. I want you to cheer and scream and be very involved with your child’s athletic development. But I don’t want you to be critical of them, ever, on the sideline, because I never will be.”
Moffett will not deny that his approach to the game, even though fourth-grade girls are involved, could not be described in any other word but intense. “I would compare my coaching style to…oh…certainly not Bobby Knight…way too severe…but maybe…Pitino! Rick Pitino! That’s it…very animated…in the game the whole way.”
Apparently, even Pitino, coach of the defending NCAA champion Kentucky Wildcats, might be hard-pressed to match the coaching effort of Moffett. The skills practices he suggested during the holidays have paid some dividends. In the opening league game, trailing by a basket with 59 seconds to play, a Magic guard stole the ball, dribbled the length of the court, sank a lay-up, was fouled and hit the free throw. Trailing after three quarters in the next game (fourth-grade girls play six-minute quarters), the Magic rallied to win again. “We became fairly sophisticated in a very short period of time. We learned that we could run a spread offense with a fair amount of effectiveness,” Moffett declares.
What tactics, then, would the Magic employ in the upcoming game against the Mavs? The coach presented a game plan that might not be less esoteric than the NBA version the Orlando Magic and Dallas Mavs would construct.
“We run the Nevada-Las Vegas run and gun,” the coach explains. “We’ll spread the floor and the first time down, we’ll have Allie, our point guard, just beat her defender, one on one, and take the lane up the middle. Then when they [the Lady Mavs] start wanting to overplay that and help her [the player guarding Allie] out- and a lotta times the opposing coach will call time out and set that up, to try to get a double team on our point guard-then we’ll counter with picks off the spread and we’ll start flying in the wings and setting up the picks for the point guard and after a while, when they start playing to the outside to cut that off, then we’ll start picking low off the spread. So that’s the plan. Spread ’em out, we pick high. They overplay, we pick low and then they overplay low. So we’re forever altering the offense.”
Moffett was requested to deliver a scouting report on his own team, the Piano Magic. He was up to the task.
“OK. Allie, our point guard-outstanding speed and a real competitor. She’s the one who stole the ball and scored the basket that won our league opener in the closing seconds. Very athletic.
“Sara. Very tall. Very athletic. Very fast for her height. Runs the court very well for a tall girl.
“Allison [Moffett’s daughter] has good height for a forward but has a guard’s body and a guard’s shooting skills, so we play her in different spots. If we want to slow the game down, we put the ball in her hands because she can hold the ball as long as we want her to.
“Emily is a forward. Good shooter! Been able to shoot since me first time she touched the basketball. Rebounds very well.
“Ashley is a hard worker, not real big but tough as nails and smart. If we want to run a pick and have it work, I’ll tell Ashley what to do and she’ll execute it.”
After three minutes of each quarter, Moffett runs another unit onto the court.
“Haley is the point guard on this five. Soccer player. Fast. Tough. Good ball handler, taller than Allie. Cerebral player as well.
“Karla’s the center. Fairly tall, bigger than Sara. Also could shoot the ball from the first day on…don’t know why. Good hand-eye coordination. Real aggressive and grabs a lot of rebounds,
“Heather is kind of like Ashley on the other group. Tough kid with good natural defensive tendencies. If I want to create trouble for the other team, I’ll put Heather on their ball handler.
“Mallory is another soccer player and she’s not afraid to get in there to rebound against much bigger competition. Excels in the paint, real scrappy. A real battler.”
“Brittany is real quick. A ball hawk. She can cover the passing lanes and sets up steals because she is good at timing the rhythm of the dribbler and swats the ball away.”
In the National Football League, they used to heave out this time-honored cliche about how on “any given Sunday” the worst team in the league offered the capability of beating the best. Well, on any given Friday night at the gym at Meadows Elementary, strange events infiltrate the universe of the fourth-grade Piano girls hoops league.
In the opening game, one onlooker offered this evalu– ation of the center for the team called the Attitude: “That little girl,” the guy gasped, “is big” That she was, standing easily a foot and a half taller than any other player on the court. Dominant underneath, the previously winless Attitudes beat the now once-beaten Bulldogs-the team that Jim Moffett fears-25-24.
Now the Magic and the Lady Mavs tip off. As the action unfolds, the picks and traps and creations of lanes that Moffett had earlier described is difficult for the neophyte spectator to identify. What does seem more readily on display is a magnificent choreography of unbridled chaos.
The Magic controls the tip and promptly heaves the ball out of bounds. The point guard for the Lady Mavs, No. 21, receives the in-bounds pass and, dribbling the ball left-handed and head high, races the length of the court, only to lose her footing. The ball skids one direction, No. 21 off in the other.
After a period-long procession of air balls, the basketball appears in flight from a mob scene underneath the hoop, The ball seems to sit on the rim for about a week, then finally decides to fall through the net. Finally, one of the teams, the Lady Mavs, has scored.
These fourth-grade Piano girls register varied reactions to the ebb and flow of the battle. One Lady Mav, whistled for traveling, turns to her coach and giggles. But a blocking call on a player for the Magic evokes tears. Moffett quickly hustles a replacement onto the court and offers consolation to the girl until she regains her composure.
But the Lady Mavs suddenly find the range and surge into an 8-3 lead near the half. Moffett calls time out and assembles his team; “Ladies, remember what we talked about in practice. If you want to win, you’ve got to play hard. Now, are you really giving it everything you’ve got? So come on. Let’s swarm. Let’s dominate. Let’s rebound. Let’s pass the ball.”
During the lull, one of the parents yells over to the ref, encouraging him to watch for a zone defense-against the rules in fourth-^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ grade Piano girls Y games until the fourth quarter. ’The ref, Steve Burks, appears not to hear. “’I was calling a game involving first-grade boys the other day,” Burks says, “and some parent gets on me for not calling an illegal screen. Illegal screen in a game for first-graders! Those kids don’t even know what ’dribble’ means. But the kids,..I’ve never had one, not one, ever complain about something or question a call.”
Late in the contest, the Magic, down by four to the team that the coach was almost certain he would beat, establishes momentum. Haley, a point guard, launches a 10-footer that strikes the top of the backboard, bounces straight into the air and drops through the hoop to tie the game.
The parents of players on both teams become frantic now, and the little gym becomes saturated with the tension of a NCAA Final Four title match. However, with a minute to play, the five girls sitting on Jim Moffett’s sideline are not eyeing the action on the court as intently as they are the coolers containing the Popsicles and other post-game treats. Joe! Peal, in charge of marketing for the Piano YMCA says, “That’s kind of typical. These games appear so competitive but afterward, on the ride home, half of these kids will ask “Who won?’”
The contest ends in a 19-19 tie. At this level, there is no overtime. Under the circumstances, Moffett seems happy with the deadlock. “Oh, we couldn’t buy a basket in the early going, but at least we’re a half-game up in the standings.” The rarefied air of first place disappeared in 12 hours. On Saturday morning, the Lady Mavs beat the Magic in the final seconds, 20-19, while the Bulldogs avenged their upset loss to the Attitudes the night before.
Now the Magic’s critical confrontation with the Bulldogs presents new significance. A half-game down in the standings with the season heading into its final days, the Magic simply cannot afford a loss.
Jim Moffett had one week to devise a plan and on game day morning, standing on a sidewalk outside a Piano grade school, he outlines his tactics. His grand design had better be good. As the Bulldogs arrive in their royal blue uniforms, they appear serenely confident and somewhat more mature than the girls of the Magic. “The Bulldogs beat the Lady Mavs, the same team that beat us, by 20 points. So I have to face the fact that if we play them with our conventional schemes,” Moffett declares, “we are simply going to get killed. So, what I think I’ll do is start the game with my twin towers in the lineup,” he declares. The twin towers, Sara and Karla, function as centers and usually alternate on the floor.
“With the twin towers out there together…that’s something I don’t think the Bulldogs will expect. The rest of our girls will have to go full throttle, attack the ball and do anything they can to disrupt the Bulldogs. We’re going to have to get some steals thai lead to easy baskets. That’s the only way we can hope to compete with the Bulldogs, and it’s going to require a top performance from all 10 players.”
A hemorrhage quickly materializes in Jim Moffett’s bonsai battle design. Haley, a point guard whose proficiency as a ballhan-dler makes her a major cog in the Magic’s offense, shows up with one hand bandaged. She had injured the hand playing soccer. Haley’s mother thinks that the hand might be broken. Moffett swallows hard. “Well…maybe she shouldn’t play…I mean, if…”
Haley’s mother says that the girl has insisted on at least giving it a try. So, as they say in the NFL, her status would still be questionable at game time.
What happened next exemplifies the mystical dynamic of fourth-grade girls basketball. At 9 a.m., the scheduled tip-off time, the coaches are ready, the players are ready, the refs are ready, and so is the timekeeper and the scorekeeper. The parents all register an attitude of keen anticipation for the Big Game. Only one component is lacking.
A key to the gym.
The building custodian who should have been there a half-hour earlier has vanished from the planet. Calls to the YMCA office yield no results. While the Magic players practice their shooting technique against the back outside wall of the gym, the parents shuffle their feet. One father offers a solution: “Maybe we should open the door with a crow bar.”
With the anxiety escalating, Moffett takes his team on the other side of the building. They throw bounce passes to each other. Meanwhile, Teresa Moffett stays on the car phone to the Y office. “They are telling us to ’hang tight.’ The custodian hasn’t been located and there is no answer at his house,” Teresa reports. Some of the parents experience difficulty in concealing their exasperation. The building custodian suffers a low popularity rating in the parents’ latest opinion poll. Poor guy. Probably off somewhere riding a white-hot bender. Must have been a doozie. He’ll catch hell on Monday.
Meanwhile, Jim Moffett receives some alarming news. After playing catch for about 10 minutes, Haley informs him that her hand hurts.
Finally something official arrives from the Y office, via cell phone. The game site has been shifted to Gym II at Wilson Middle School. Instantly, a high-speed caravan of Plymouth Voyagers, Jeep Cherokees. Chevy Suburbans and Ford Explorers roars away toward the new game site. At the middle school, the teams leant that it will be a half-hour before the court becomes available.
Jim Moffett, who until now has avoided any communication with the coach of the Bulldogs, Larry Dupree. approaches his rival and presents a proposition. With so much at stake, he reasons that both teams, now void of concentration and the customary pre-game adrenaline, could only produce performance levels at less than their best.
Dupree, a tall, slender man in suspenders with a hawk-like face that suggests no nonsense, agrees with Moffett. The contest is rescheduled for a week from Sunday. The coaches shake hands and part company.
An onlooker approaches Coach Moffett. “A week from Sunday, huh?” says the onlooker. “Maybe, by then, that little girl’s hand will be better.”
Moffett grins and says, “S-s-s-h-h-h!”
So the girls of the Piano Magic must wail another eight days for their confrontation of the season. Win or lose, though, they can come away secure in the knowledge that their coach has given it his all.