Inside the Mind of a Disgruntled College Athlete

Basketball players and their coaches have two kinds of relationships:

Blissful and symbiotic –

DOC: I love you guys. PAUL: I still don’t know what ubuntu means. KG: One day, when you’re coaching a different team, I’m going to say some unforgivable things to you and your players. I love you, but I’m a sociopath.

Or nasty and toxic –

I've had some wild coaches, but I've never seen someone get kicked. Too funny.
I love how nobody on the sidelines even reacts to the coach executing a running kick on a player. Just another day at practice!

I know players who loved their coaches, and players who wouldn’t have helped their coaches if they’d found them trapped in a burning car. There’s not really an in-between. It’s a love/hate thing, in my experience.

I thought it’d be interesting to look back on a time in my life when I was convinced my old college coach, Tommy Amaker, was a sadistic person. I truly believed that he was determined to ruin my life and drain me of every last vestige of enjoyment that I could get out of basketball. This should offer a glimpse into the psyche of a college athlete, and allow you to understand how nuanced player-coach relationships can be.

For some context, know that I used to be incredibly bitter regarding stuff that happened in my college basketball career. The more time that passes, and the further I get from the world of organized spots, the more I realize that I was way too myopic/intense/obsessive when it came to basketball. I’m proud of how hard I worked, but holy shit do I wish I could go back in time and swap out a few lifting sessions for some quality time with a therapist. Six-foot-nothing Jewish kids from the suburbs should be thrilled just to be playing college basketball, let alone starting for an Ivy League team.

Also, for what it’s worth, Coach Amaker and I are on great terms these days. I will always be grateful that he took the time to give me a solid recommendation to my team owner during my second year abroad.

So, after my sophomore year of college, the team was summoned to the locker room for a meeting with Frank Sullivan, our head coach at the time. We filed into the locker room and sat in folding chairs while Coach Sullivan paced back and forth, rocking a tight leather jacket. We knew something was up, since he normally wore the same four shirts. Either he was having a three-quarter life crisis and was inviting us on a ride with his new motorcycle gang, or he was no longer a part of the program, and thus no longer gave a shit what he wore. Turned out to be the latter. He told us that the athletic director was letting him go.

As much as that must have sucked for Coach Sullivan, I was excited. Our team was pretty terrible, and I thought some new blood would be good for the program.

To be clear, I never asked for Coach Sullivan to be fired. I didn’t have that power anyway. I was the third fiddle on a team that just finished at the bottom of the standings. It wouldn’t have been like MJ demanding that Doug Collins be ousted.

I'm the GOAT, and you're some dude with a perm who's only famous for losing to the Russians in the Olympics. Get out of my face.
Doug: “You’ve gotta pass the ball to Brad Sellers!”   MJ:  “…”

Regardless of how it went down, Coach Sullivan was out and Tommy Amaker was in. Amaker was a college basketball legend: One of the best defensive guards of his era as a player at Duke, and an assistant coach at Duke for multiple championships. The best part, I thought, was that he was a point guard. That’s the only position I’ve ever played. I thought it was the perfect match. Little did I know that our personalities, styles of thinking, and approaches to the game would vary so drastically.

He was a product of the Duke way of thinking. He loved cliché motivational quotes, people screaming encouragement to each other after every play, and guards slapping the ground as they went into their defensive stance. I have no problem with any of those things. I respect people who wear their heart on their sleeve. It just wasn’t me. If I ever slapped the ground while playing defense the only advantage I might gain would be due to the offense being thrown off because they were laughing so hard.

Those basic differences helped to drive a wedge between us almost instantly. I didn’t want to morph into a new player for this guy, and he didn’t want anyone who wasn’t 100% on board with his operation. I would think, “I put in a lot of work to get to where I am. I can’t change who I am as a person just to please this guy.” He was thinking “Tell Drew to show me his national championship ring when he gets a chance. What’s that? He doesn’t have one? Well in that case, tell him to shut the fuck up.”

So, there were a few instances during my time with Coach Amaker that stand out as being particularly emblematic of the problems that arise when a player and coach are not on the same page.

The first incident happened early in my junior year. The season had started, but things were not going as I had hoped. My playing time was down and my confidence was in the tank. I had a meeting with Coach Amaker where I detailed some of the things I was feeling. He was pretty blunt in telling me that it was not his problem if I was feeling out of whack. He was there to play the people who were going to perform. Period.

Which is fair.

What was unfair, in my mind, was that he brought this up the next day when the team gathered at half court before practice. I was under the impression that we were talking in confidence, yet he aired our issues with only the thinnest attempt to hide who he was talking about. He said that it was not his job to give people confidence, and if one little bitch of a player in particular required constant praise, maybe the school should have hired Drew’s mommy as the head coach. (That’s what I heard, though maybe it was phrased slightly differently.) I felt betrayed, and I was pretty bummed out.

But not as bummed out as I was a couple months later, when I started suffering from anemia. At the time, I was taking around 700 Advil a day to cope with some gnarly knee pain. This eventually caught up to me. A polyp on my colon was bleeding, and I was going to have to have to undergo a colonoscopy to investigate. As if getting ready for a home game against Vermont and trying to study for a science midterm wasn’t enough, I now had to had to prep to have a camera shoved up my ass. You haven’t truly felt uncomfortable until you’ve had to self administer an enema on the cold floor of a communal dorm bathroom at 7 AM. (Also painfully uncomfortable: being quizzed by the nurse at student services about why there might have been blood in my stool. She asked me several times whether I liked to “put any foreign objects up there, like toys or something.” I was close to shouting “I’m not putting plastic fire trucks up my ass like some goddamn member of Jack-Ass! I’m just sick.”)

In lieu of all this, I decided to set a meeting with Coach Amaker. I asked that I be allowed to chill a little bit more in practice, seeing as my knee really hurt and I was bleeding out of my butt. I was an upperclassman and a hard worker in general, so I thought it wouldn’t be the end of the world for him to lay off a little.

My pleas for leniency fell on deaf ears. He was kind of baffled, actually. He told me that I could practice full out, or not at all. I reiterated the whole thing about the butt-bleeding and being unable to catch my breath and having the knees of a retired NFL running back. He was sympathetic, but nothing short of a personal phone call from Mike Krzyzewski was getting me leniency during practice.

Looking back, I realize that you don’t just waltz into the office of an intense, former DPOY and say “hey buddy, how bout you cut me some slack with this whole practice thing. I’m second on the team in steals!” You have to approach those situations with some delicacy. I had none. I was very blunt. Unsurprisingly, we failed to see eye to eye, and our relationship continued to deteriorate.

The worst memory I have of the whole two year span came early in my senior year. I was out with an ankle sprain, so I was sitting on the sidelines watching as the team did their pre-practice stretching. One of our redshirt freshman was about to start sweeping the floor, like he did everyday. It’s what redshirt freshman do when you’re playing low-D1 and you don’t have seventeen team managers.

This particular day, Coach Amaker decided that he wanted to change things up. He told me to get the broom. I asked why. He said I was sweeping today. I asked why. He did not respond, and told me again to get the broom. The freshman must have felt the awkwardness, because he nervously announced that he had no problem with sweeping that day. Coach Amaker shot him a look that said “one more word and I’ll make you run suicides until you want to join the Track&Field team because at least they’ll teach you proper running form.” The freshman handed me the broom. Amaker told me that I was on sweeping duties for the day. My face literally burned with indignation as I shuffled past my teammates.

At the time, I couldn’t fathom his motives for this one. I thought he was just being an asshole. Now, I see that it would have never happened if I had done a better job of keeping my mouth shut. (Never learned that lesson!) I had a tendency to complain, moan, point out inequities and send fake emails pretending I was Coach Amaker:

It's funny if you get the inside jokes! Kind of...
It’s funny if you get the inside jokes, I swear!

I was spewing way too much anti-coaching staff rhetoric in the locker room and over email. A coach could have easily overheard me imitating someone, or bemoaning the lack of options at team meals, or railing against our insanely long pre-game warmup routine that was more tiring than the actual game. None of it was malicious, and I always tried to keep my complaints lighthearted, but it’s entirely possible that Amaker knew exactly what was going on. I’m sure he made me sweep the floor so that I remembered who was really in charge. Which, I reluctantly have to admit, AGAIN, is totally fair.

In the end, while  I still feel justified in having certain feelings, I also understand Amaker’s motivations a lot better. It’s hard out there for a college basketball coach, and having a wise ass point guard doesn’t make things any easier.

All I can say is that I wish more disgruntled players would engage in yoga, meditation and mindfulness practice. I would also like for all the coaches to become more understanding of what it’s like to be twenty years old and have your entire identity wrapped up in how well you can throw a ball through a hoop. Then, the (basketball) world will know peace!


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