Recently, my mom shared some sad news: my seventh-grade basketball coach passed away in late March. It was one of those moments that transported me back to seventh grade, almost instantly.
I can’t think of Mr. Hart without thinking of middle school–they’re intertwined forever. If I think long enough, I can picture the awkward team photo, complete with decorative border housing our school’s name and the year. Most of us are sporting 90s bowl cuts–questionable at best–and our feet are clad with sneakers I’d be embarrassed to own now. And then I think of Mr. Hart, again.
Names are important, as is one’s reputation. In one episode of Seinfeld, I can remember Kramer’s reaction to learning that the library cop on the show was named Bookman–a no-nonsense authority figure enforcing late fees and badgering all perpetrators into submission. Kramer’s reaction: “That’s like an ice cream man named Cone.” In other words, how fitting.
Speaking of interesting names, my parents still have the same neighbors from when I was a boy. Russ and Alice Good live right next door. What a cool last name, right? And you know what, the name Good fits. I can remember Mr. Good walking up to the hedge that separated the two lots and gently tucking money into my father’s shirt pocket. My mother was ill with cancer at the time and the Goods, along with many others, were eager to help. My mother is healthy now, and I’ll always be thankful for that sweet couple next door. A good memory, for sure.
And when I consider Mr. Hart, Coach’s name seems to fit, too.
Despite the slight variation in spelling, his heart was what made him special. He cared about his students and players, which is something I understand now more than ever.
I’ll never forget the night when I felt the full weight of Coach Hart’s discipline. It was a home game. My siblings, parents, and grandparents were all in attendance. I don’t remember why Coach took me out of the game that night, but I’m sure it was for good reason–probably a botched play or an errant pass. What happened next is something I remember so vividly. Even now, at 35 years of age, I can see myself at that moment. I didn’t want to come out of the game. And to make it abundantly clear to Coach–and all in the stands for that matter–I reared back and smacked the bench chairs with all I had.
“Oh, we’re not gonna put up with that,” said Mr. Hart, without hesitation.
And there I sat for the rest of the game. I knew it was a mistake. Instantly. I was “showing up” the coach, and he didn’t tolerate it, not for a second. I’m not sure he said anything else to me that night. The benching and ensuing silence said it all.
I sat there, slumped, knowing my night was over. Even worse, though, my family knew it, too. My mother was embarrassed–angry even–but not at Coach Hart. At that moment, I wasn’t thinking about my family or how the choice I was about to make would impact them. Smacking the chair felt great for a second, but the regret haunted me for much longer. My family came to watch me play and all I did was treat them to a self-inflicted, painfully embarrassing early exit.
That night, my mom’s disapproval came with a stern warning. Her exact verbiage escapes me, but it was definitely of the “if you ever do that again” persuasion. I wasn’t often in trouble as a youth, but I knew what that meant.
At practice the next day, I remember walking up to Coach Hart. I apologized for my behavior, and his response made good on his name. He instantly draped his arm around my shoulders and said, “Oh, Pat. That’s OK.” Reassuringly, he walked with me for a few more steps–arm still around my shoulders–and I knew everything was fine. It was like it had never happened. It had, but Coach Hart was ready to move on. In fact, he already had.
I learned a valuable lesson in that 24-hour span back in the seventh grade.
My actions led to negative consequences, which I fully deserved. Without getting in my face or shouting expletives in my direction, Coach Hart made his point and doled out the punishment.
As a parent, I now understand how my mother felt. As a coach, I understand Mr. Hart. In a time where entitlement seems to plague our youth, I look back at his lesson and I’m thankful for what he did. At the time, the discipline was painful in my eyes, but I’m pretty sure it pained Mr. Hart, as well.
Respect for authority figures is important. Jesus made that abundantly clear in scripture and though I didn’t realize it at the time, Mr. Hart was illustrating that very principle. That night, he impressed upon me an indelible lesson in self-control and respect for others. It’s a timeless lesson and a story I plan to share with my own children.
And as I sit here writing this, it saddens me to think I’ve lost the opportunity to tell Mr. Hart just how memorable and lasting his impact has been. Over the last few days, I’ve been thinking about how special it would be now–some 20+ years removed–to look him in the eye, firmly shake his hand, and say thank you. And after all that, I’d give him a big hug.
But I guess I’ll have to settle for this moment, right now. So thank you, Mr. Hart.
Thank you for disciplining my childish outburst so many years ago.
Thank you for reminding me of my responsibilities as a representative of my family.
Thank you for reminding me of my obligation to my peers as a member of a team.
Thank you for reminding me of why it’s important to respect authority.
Thank you, Mr. Hart, a thousand times.
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