Long Shots

On every team roster, you’ll usually find one or two athletes who don’t see much playing time.

Usually this is because they aren’t as talented as the other athletes. In some cases they aren’t given the opportunity because the coaches have decided they simply can’t help their team immediately.       

In my experience, these athletes are also some of the hardest workers in practice and on the court. They value the time they get to participate as a member of a team-even if their playing time is only a few minutes the entire season.

Deemed the “guy(s) at the end of the bench,” these athletes learn to accept their situation.

Some, though, refuse to be labeled. They scratch and claw until they have made a name for themselves-the Rudy Rudigers of the world.

But not every athlete can overcome the odds. T.J. Whatley is one example who comes to mind.

Whatley played four years for the Kansas Jayhawks in the ’90s and never climbed out of his infamous role as a Hawk bench warmer-partly because the teams KU put out on the court those days were so talented and partly because he just wasn’t very good.

But he was well-known nonetheless-at least among KU fans.

In some cases, being among the last two or three players off the bench carries some prestige. When they do get to play, the fans go nuts for them. The crowd wants them to score every time they touch the ball.

That’s what makes these athletes so special.

How about the little guy on the movie “Hoosiers”? He didn’t play a lot for his team most of the season, but came in and sank the winning free throws that gave his team the chance to play in the state finals.

Who wouldn’t love a player like that?

Many of these bench players are also some of the smartest players on the team, making up for their lack of athleticism. Some went on to become the greatest coaches in the game.

But the real issue here is that regardless of whether these players are embraced by fans or whether they know the game better than those playing, these athletes are usually counted out before they’re even given a chance.

I’ve seen this occur much more at the high school level than at any other level of basketball.

In middle school, at least in Hillsboro, guidelines are in effect that give kids the chance to play even though it may jeopardize the team’s chances of winning.

At that level, why not?

While I’m not a big fan of equal playing time, I believe each athlete possesses some trait that can help a team improve.

True, some athletes play better coming off the bench. But if we label them as bench players before we give them a realistic opportunity, we can’t expect them to be the best they can be. Nor can we expect them to be excited about working hard to better themselves and the team when they don’t feel like they’re a contributing member of the team.

Instead of containing their ability, coaches should try to squeeze every ounce of ability out of their players-not just for the coaches’ benefit but for the benefit of the team and the player.

It’s not a perfect world, and I understand that. I’ve been in both positions, as a player who started for his team and as a player who road the pine. Both positions are difficult.

Players inevitably remember aspects of sporting events long after the game is over, and their memories usually have a lot less to do with the basketball games and practice and more to do with how they were coached, embraced and perceived.

A coach is a powerful influence in the life of a young man or woman. They have the ability to inspire and build an individual’s confidence.

They also have the ability to enrage and scar an individual for life.

And I’ve experienced both.

We count on our coaches to use this power positively, but sometimes we all get lost in the “win-at-all-cost” mentality.

Perhaps, winning isn’t as important as we make out to be.

Whether a player plays a little or is a starter, each player has the ability to help a team. What a coach decides to get out of their players is ultimately up to him.

But simple mathematics tells me that a team of 12 has a better chance of winning a basketball game than a team of five.

So give me five starters and seven bench players any day, because at some point they all have to sit on the same bench.

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