There’s more to coaching basketball than just the Xs and Os

Buzz Williams is a basketball coach, but he teaches far more than basketball.

He wants his student-athletes to know why the national anthem is played before games and why it matters.

Just to be clear, the reason for his action was not in reaction to Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem in 2016. The teaching moment below occurred before Kaepernick took a knee.

Before the 2014-15 season at Virginia Tech, Williams printed out lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner” and read them aloud with his team until every player could recite them. 

A year later, Williams invited military veterans to Cassell Coliseum to stand in front of the Hokies’ bench and across from his players as he talked about sacrifice and the need to respect the men and women of this country who served in the military. Many of those men and women who joined the coaches and players at this particular practice came dressed in their military uniform.

Williams addressed his team: “We didn’t earn those chairs. Your talent didn’t earn those chairs. How tall you are and how fast you run, how well you shoot, didn’t earn those chairs.

We draw up a play. We recruit real hard. We work real hard, I didn’t earn the chair.

Pointing to the veterans, Williams continued: “These guys when they were your age, interrupted their life. They paused their education. They changed their career, and they gave their life for those chairs.

Do you guys understand what I’m saying?

Not us. Not us. And so, when the anthem is played, we’re going to stand like grown men, and we’re going to honor men like this that gave their life so we could have a chair to sit in.

And in the two-and-half minutes that the song is played and somebody sings it or the music is played, we’re going to stand at attention in honor of these men.

We’re not going to sway back-and-forth, we’re not messing with our shorts, we’re not messing with our jersey, those two-and-a-half minutes we’re going to give to the people that earned these chairs, because that freedom allows us to do what we’re doing.

I don’t care if you sing, but I want you to know the words, and I want you to be respectful of the words, because those words represent people’s lives.

And when we stand, we’re going to put our right hand over our heart, and our left hand behind our back, and we’re not moving, and we’re not looking down and we’re not swaying. We’re standing still with perfect body language.

And all that we’re thinking about is these men who earned the right for these chairs to be here.”
The next thing you see in the video, are the players and military veterans standing at attention side-by-side on the basketball court in an otherwise empty arena as the National Anthem is sung.

In a blog, Williams wrote: “The average age of a newly enlisted soldier in the army is around 20.9 years old. That is the age of our sophomore/junior players in our program. I want my players to know that someone their age is actively fighting for them so they can pursue their dreams…so I can be here doing what I love…and so my children are able to go to school and follow their dreams. So, for two minutes, while we honor those that are far away from their families to fight for us and protect everything that our country is built upon, we are able to recognize them and thank them for everything they have done.

            “Every game day when they play our national anthem, I stand up, I look up to the flag, put my hand over my heart and sing, because to me, it is more than just lyrics.”

            The kind of respect preached by Williams may be the exception and not the rule.

Doug Samuels wrote: “Watch your guys next time they’re in uniform when the national anthem plays, and chances are that you catch a glimpse of some of those same behaviors that Williams took issue with. Players likely don’t even know they’re doing them, and they are surely not being done as a sign of disrespect, but Williams brilliantly used it as a teaching moment for his guys.

The result is something that should be shared among coaches that start any sporting event with the playing of the national anthem.”