Ethan Gaye walked into my office at Rhode Island College in September of 2011 and told me he was interested in going out for the team. He was a local kid from Providence who knew a number of our players but I had never seen play. We had most of our team returning that year and we were pretty good, We didn’t have much room for unexpected newcomers. But Ethan worked out with the team in the fall, and we told him we’d give him a shot. Before tryouts even started, my returning players came into my office to tell me they really wanted Ethan on the team. I had never seen that before. That was probably my first hint.
Ethan made the team, and he played for us. He ended up being a key rotation guy on back to back Sweet 16 teams.
Before Ethan’s senior year he came to see me and told me he wasn’t sure about playing his last year. He was thinking about his future, he wanted to go to graduate school, and he also played a prominent role in his local church. Basketball was a huge sacrifice for him and he wasn’t sure he could make it anymore and still commit himself to the other things that were important in his life. So he didn’t play that first semester in the fall.
I had a new staff that year, as two assistant coaches had left and we added two new guys – Anthony Leonelli and Mike Romano. They were great assistants and D3 basketball veterans, but they had never coached Ethan. When Ethan came to me towards the end of the first semester and told me he really missed basketball and wanted to join the team at the break, I told him we’d have a spot for him. I didn’t expect much, as Ethan hadn’t played basketball in months, but he was a great kid and a great teammate so there was no risk. We hadn’t been playing or practicing very consistently, so we thought maybe he could have an impact. Ethan came back to practice just after Christmas.
I’ll never forget my two assistants reaction after that practice. They thought he was our best player. Or if not, at least our most important player. Ethan was a great competitor and a great athlete packed into a small frame. He was like a defensive back. He played under control at warp speed and just affected things. That’s what he did. He wasn’t a great shooter, a great passer or a great ball-handler – although he was capable in all 3 areas. But he didn’t have any standout skills. What made him great was the way he competed, how tough he was. He literally changed the way our team practiced, just by showing up. My assistants were amazed – they couldn’t believe the impact he had in just one day.
I recently asked a good friend who is a hockey coach how his team was doing this year, and he said they were doing well. He said “I have 12 freshmen, but I love coaching them. They are fearless.” And I thought, what a great trait to have. Fearless.
Ethan Gaye is fearless. That’s exactly what made him special. He didn’t care that there were guys who were better players than him, who had more skill or natural ability. He didn’t care who he was guarding or what you asked him to do. He didn’t care if he was the new guy on the team who wasn’t recruited or if he started every game. He didn’t care if he looked bad trying to do something – if he threw up an airball or turned the ball over. He didn’t care about the size of the crowd when we played D1 teams or about guarding someone bigger than he was. He didn’t care about playing in front of his hometown friends, and sometimes not getting a lot of run. He simply competed at a high level all of the time, regardless of circumstance or outcome. Nothing fazed him, and nothing got in the way of his ability to compete.
I wonder if we have as many kids who are fearless today as we’ve had in the past. With the way technology has exploded and the amount of information everyone has at their fingertips, there is just naturally much more to think about. To concern yourself over. To worry about. Has that made fearless a trait that is harder and harder to find? I think it may have.
The game is also more public than ever. It seems like everyone is playing on TV or at least broadcast on the web. You can get the stats of any college game at any level within minutes of the final horn going off. We have more analysts, more opinions, more access to teams than ever before. By nature, that might make a player more reserved. More measured. In comments and in approach.
I want to coach a kid who is fearless. Who’s only concern is the next possession and how hard he can compete to help his team win. He’s not thinking about his minutes, his role, his status or how he might look. He’s not thinking about the result, his scoring average or trying not to turn the ball over. He’s not worried about who he’s guarding or the team we are playing, and how good they might be. I want to coach the kid who gets dunked on, because he doesn’t care what it looks like – he wants to try and stop the other team from scoring.
Fearless. What a great characteristic to have – in your players and on your team.