One Year, My Basketball Team Lost Every Single Game
This is what I learned
Sports can teach you a lot about life. About teamwork, about group dynamics, about yourself.
I played basketball in high school. The Port Richmond Red Raiders. Four years. Junior varsity, then varsity. 1996–2000.
Throughout my high school sports career, this is what I learned.
Lesson #1: Work hard and you’ll make friends.
In my freshman year I entered school not knowing very many people. In order to make the basketball team, all aspiring players who weren’t returning sophomores had to compete in what was called open gym.
Open gym was like this — you came in and played for a couple hours, and if the coach liked what he saw, he kept that in mind during tryouts. It was an audition.
I played well in open gym, impressed the coaches and other kids who were going out for the team, and subsequently left having made a few friends.
They didn’t know much about me, or I them, but there was a respect there— this kid can play, and he plays hard— and that lead to friendship.
Lesson #2: Don’t be afraid to embarrass someone. But don’t be a dick about it.
While a handful of the freshmen who tried out were relegated to the freshman team, I was one of three lucky kids who made the J.V. squad.
I felt really cool and talented for the first time in my life.
But when practices finally began, I was just like everyone else, competing with other players for playing time. I was fairly tall for my age, but not quite the tallest person on the team, and frankly, was a little undersized to play center or power forward. Those were my positions, though.
A kid named Joe was returning to the team and he was a sophomore. He was taller than me, stronger too, and was a skilled ballplayer. I knew that if I wanted to play, I needed to prove myself against him. And others. But primarily him.
So I did. Day in and day out we were matched up together, and even though he outsized me, I was faster and had a better shooting touch. Any time I had the opportunity to score on him, I did. Rebounds over him, I did. Make better passes, I did. I was embarrassing him. The coach noticed.
The thing is, I was never a dick about it. I never celebrated. I never talked trash to Joe or anyone else. I always encouraged him. I didn’t set out to make him look stupid. I was just trying to earn my spot. We were still a team. If you’re going to embarrass someone, do it in good sport.
Lesson #3: It doesn’t matter how you start. It REALLY doesn’t.
The season started and as a result of my great practice play, I made the starting lineup. A freshman in the starting lineup was a big deal. If you were starting as a freshman, you were the shit.
*points fingers at self* I was the shit!
In our first game of the season, on the very first possession, we all passed the ball around the perimeter like it was a hot potato, everyone seemingly afraid to shoot the damn thing. After an eternity, it came to me in the corner. I didn’t hesitate.
As my high school girlfriend and all her friends cheered from the bleachers, the 14-year-old Paul raced down the court thinking he’d just scored his first basket on the way to the NBA hall of fame.
The hotshot freshman, making waves already.
It didn’t last long. For some unexplicable reason my teammates stopped passing me the ball and I didn’t quite know how to do anything without it.
We lost that game by 20 points. My line for the night? Four points, one rebound, no assists and a bruised ego.
Hall of fame my ass.
Lesson #4: If you don’t produce, you don’t play.
(Sub-lesson: There’s always someone jockeying for your position)
Despite my poor play, I continued in the starting lineup for the next few games. The same scenario kept playing out. I’d hit a shot or two, then just fall into a routine of passively blending in, standing there waiting to get the ball and/or giving it up when I got it.
It was like I was trying to be America’s top teammate.
But when I got subbed out of the game, the guys who were coming in for me were playing like animals. There was one guy in particular, Jay, who was about the same size as me, but he was far more athletic and eager to make an impression. He was a freshman too, and it must have stung that he was riding the pine while I wasn’t.
Jay had a point to prove, and so when he came in the game, it was noticeable. He was rebounding, scoring, playing great defense. Mostly, he had a contagious energy that I didn’t. You could tell he was on the court. He made an impact. He was hungry. Selfish, but in a way that helped the team.
The guy I was outplaying in practice, Joe, he too was hungry. He never got down about being embarrassed, or if he did I never saw it. He just put his head down, kept working hard and in the games— where it really counted— he was a presence. He scored well, rebounded a lot, blocked shots. All the things I didn’t do.
I became the odd man out. Soon, I was on the bench.
Lesson #5: No complaining. If you want something, go get it.
Dejected, I went to talk to the coach. I wanted to know what I was doing wrong, why I wasn’t playing.
I knew the reasons, but thought if I talked to him I’d bring attention to my unhappiness. Maybe I could complain my way back into the lineup.
“Well, what did you do in the last game?” he asked me.
“I got in for a for a few minutes,” I said. “I got a few rebounds right away, scored two points and blocked a shot.”
I was lying. I didn’t do any of that. I don’t know why I thought he wouldn’t remember. In reality I played a few minutes, ran up and down the court trying to get into the flow of the game, then got subbed back out and sat on the bench until it was over.
“Right. Well, when you’re in there, you need to make a difference,” he said. “You need to show me something, kid. I saw it in open gym, I saw it in practice, but I’m not seeing it now.”
“But how am I supposed to show you something if I’m not playing?” I shot back. “And when I’m in there, the guys aren’t even passing me the ball.”
He looked at me like I was crazy.
“Son,” he said, putting his hand on my shoulder. “If they’re not passing you the ball, you go and get the ball.”
I stared at him blankly.
“Shots are going up, why aren’t you getting the rebounds?” he said. “If you want the ball, work for it.”
Lesson #6: You will be faced with tough decisions.
The season wore on and we had many issues with our team. Players didn’t respect one another, the coaches weren’t always on the same page and we lost most of our games.
One evening, I missed practice because I wasn’t feeling well. Too sick, I thought. I came back the next day and found out that all hell had broken loose the night before.
A huge argument between the head coach and assistant coach had spilled over onto the court. The assistant thought the head coach wasn’t dedicated enough because he was always missing practices, didn’t come up with any of plays or strategy. In general, the assistant coach felt like he was running the team. He may have had a point.
It lead to a huge argument and a fallout between the two. Something deeper was at stake.
The head coach was black, had been a star player in his youth at another high school and did his day job elsewhere. He was relatively young, dressed in baggy clothes like we did (remember, this was the late 90s) and talked in streetball slang that we could all understand. He was tough on us, but he was a baller, so we related to him. Still, he really did miss a lot of our practices.
The assistant coach was older, white and worked at the high school. He was also a star player in his youth, but didn’t have quite the same degree of local cred that the head coach did. At the school he was a drug counselor, and he’d come into our classes giving little presentations on why we should “JUST SAY NO” and all that other stuff. He had been a heroin junkie at one point, which made him extra qualified. Few of us could really relate— it’s not like we were drug addicts— but he never missed a practice and would check up on us at school during the day. He seemed to care about us little more.
After their brouhaha, each coach gave us their pitch as to why they should be the one to lead the team. The one we wanted would stay, the other would go. Almost our entire team was black, but we unanimously picked the white guy to be the coach. I’m not sure everyone’s reasons were the same, but that was what happened.
Lesson #7: The difference between winning and losing is heart.
(Sub-lesson: Never underestimate a good motivational speech)
Armed with a new coach, you might think we went on a winning streak, but we just kept on losing. Dozens of games. We sucked!
Still, at some point toward the end of the season, after we’d been read the riot act about how we needed to stop fighting with one another— and I mean literally fighting with each other, fists and all— we started getting it together.
Maybe it was because we couldn’t sink any lower. We started making the extra pass to the open teammate on offense, helping each other out on offense, diving for loose balls, pumping each other up during timeouts. It was like one of those movies. Hoosiers. We started winning games. We made it into the playoffs.
Despite our better play, we were expected to lose the first game of the playoffs and for our season to be over. Why? Because we were a scrappy public school team— a bunch of rag tag guys from the projects and some surrounding ‘nice’ neighborhoods— going up against a polished Catholic school club that had destroyed us earlier in the season.
There was no way we could win. Or was there?
Before the game, we spent a lot of time in the locker room. The coach came in. He sensed that we were all nervous.
“Nobody believes in you guys,” he said. “Nobody expects you to win. I know what that feels like. People think you’re a bunch of losers. They think they’re going to come in here and walk all over you.”
He was right. We thought that too.
“Listen guys,” he said, as we huddled up around him. “The difference between winning and losing in life and in basketball is this right here.”
He pointed at his chest.
“Heart,” he said. “If you’ve got heart, you can do anything. Don’t be afraid of them. You can beat these guys. Go out there and leave everything on the court.”
We beat that team by 25 points.
Lesson #8: You can win even when you lose. But losing still really sucks!
After crushing one team in the playoffs, we then crushed another— a Catholic school team that was also predicted to destroy us, oddly enough— and we wound up playing for the championship.
We were up against our final Catholic school team, a perennial contender with a history of championships, and nobody thought we could win. But we had just beaten two really great teams in convincing fashion. Was Port Richmond for real? Obviously, we were.
We went into the game with the same mentality we went into the others— play hard, share the ball and hit the open man, super basic stuff. We also relied heavily on our physicality and athleticism. We were an imposing bunch, muscling the private school kids around.
But in the championship, our opposition was prepared. With their own set of imposing players, they muscled us right back. We couldn’t push them around. We also played on a court that was much larger than the one we’d been playing on previously, the game was televised and there a couple hundred people in attendance. So there were a few random things at play.
We weren’t on our A game and we ended up losing. It wasn’t a bad defeat, but a defeat nonetheless. To come that far and lose, that’s something that stays with you for life.
They celebrated right in front of us, dancing on the court and carrying on like…like… champions.
It hurt. We all went into the locker room. We cried. We cried together. The coach walked in.
“Look,” he said, “they played a great game. They won. It happens. But remember, nobody expected you to be here. You gave it all you had. So when you walk out of those doors, walk out with your head high. That’s what a real champion does.”
We all went back to crying.
Lesson #9: Winning feels better with friends
The next season was a good one. The juniors moved up to varsity and I, along with the other two returning players, now sophomores, became leaders of the junior varsity squad.
Because we’d gone through so much craziness the year before, there was no guesswork involved— we all knew what was required. We knew the things we needed to do to make a team work. The roles players needed to play, the way to make sure everyone stayed happy and the things the coach needed to see.
What also helped was the fact that we were all friends off the court. Not friends like BFFs, but friends like, we all pretty much liked each other. We played streetball together after school, hung out in the cafeteria, listened to a lot of the same music.
There was a camaraderie there. Our team didn’t feel like it was just thrown together.
On the court, it showed. Everyone was in sync. Our entire starting lineup wound up averaging double-figures in points and we handily beat teams that just a year prior would have walloped us. We played road games on courts our school had never won on, and came away with victories.
We thought we could win a championship, but we didn’t even make it that far. We got trounced in the first round of the playoffs and overnight our season was over.
It was still a great season, though. We won a lot of games, and what I remember most is just how incredibly fun it was. Winning is fun, yes. But winning with people you genuinely enjoy being around, that’s something that really feels good. It makes losing much easier to accept.
Lesson #10: Effort is nice, but you need talent, too.
After a decent junior year, I went into my final season of high school thinking that we’d have a similar team as the one that failed to reach the finals when I was a sophomore.
The old gang would be back together, and with some new additions, this would be our last chance to win a title.
Unfortunately, the rug got pulled out from under us.
Almost every returning senior player— guys I’d been playing with for three years— failed their classes. Thus, they were academically ineligible and couldn’t be on the team.
Our coach said that in all his years, he’d never seen a basketball program decimated like that. Because of grades, man. Because of grades.
With only two players left, we held an open tryout and guys who had never even played organized basketball were summarily added to the team.
It was depressing.
We went out, played our hardest, but it was never enough. We lost every single game that season.
EVERY. SINGLE. GAME.
Just like no amount of skill can make up for lack of heart, no amount of heart can make up for lack of skill. The heart was there, the skill was not. These new guys just could not make up for what we lost.
And even though I had a good season, took home the M.V.P. trophy for the team, what did it really mean? Most valuable player on a team of losers means, what, that you’re most valuable loser?
I give a lot of credit to the guys who joined us for that one season. It was a hard one to play. Losing night in and night out is rough. You learn a lot about how much you can put up with. Just how embarrassed you can get. Everyone laughing at you, saying you suck.
What I learned through that experience is that you can’t win by yourself. You really do need talent around you. Everyone plays a role. I was just a decent player. What we lost, those guys, they were the real stars. And without them, we were nothing. Without them, I was nothing.
Paul Cantor is a writer, editor and music producer based in New York. Formerly an editor at AOL Music, his writing has appeared at Rolling Stone, MTV News, VICE and Billboard, among others outlets.
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