Sidelines: The Q & A of playJan 15th, 2009 | By admin | Category: Active Kids, In Every Issue, Sidelines
Order on the court
By Allison Gorman
Photos by Julie Hogue
There’s something to be said for coaching a team for 20 of its 21 years—so long, says Chattanooga School for Arts and Sciences boys’ basketball coach Mark Dragoo, that “nobody here remembers who the first coach was.” Parents rarely dispute his decisions about strategy or playing time, for example. And for the privilege of being on his team, which made it to state last year, Dragoo’s players make the sort of sacrifices we don’t generally associate with teenage boys: keeping their hair cut to his specifications, wearing a shirt and tie to school on game days, and practicing on Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve.
At CSAS, basketball is serious business.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Coach Dragoo takes the sport seriously. He’s a native Hoosier, and both his parents attended hoops powerhouse Indiana University. “My earliest childhood memories revolve around basketball,” he says. When he was 10, his family moved to Chattanooga, where he played through his senior year at Temple High School. (Dragoo says he was “too slow and too short” to play as a student at UTC, which at the time also was a formidable force in the sport, winning the Division II national championship.)
But for Mark Dragoo, who also teaches at CSAS, the business of coaching goes beyond the gymnasium. If he demands a lot from his players on the court, he demands as much in the classroom, convinced that the “mental toughness” needed to play basketball must also manifest itself in academic discipline. And he makes it his business to be a mentor to his players—who, he says, often have no father figure in their lives. “I think if you just coach and you don’t teach,” he says, “you miss that part of the kid; you miss the opportunity to be able to develop that relationship.”
Q. How is the game at the high school level different than when you played?
A. Basketball’s gotten much more athletic than what it was. We lift all through the season, so that’s a change; when I played, we never lifted weights at all. . . . We’ve gone from two referees to three referees because of the speed of the game. And the kids are bigger. We’ve got kids six-eight here, where, when I played, the biggest kid was six-three.
I do think kids tend not to be as fundamentally sound now coming into our program, because they spend their time shooting three-pointers and trying to dunk. They don’t worry about their free throws, they don’t worry about being a good ball handler, and the ones who think they’re good ball handlers, you have to break that habit, because they watch too much NBA and they think they can do all these things that you get called for in high school.
Q. How necessary is it for a kid wanting to play basketball in high school to have some years in AAU?
A. I’m not a big fan of AAU; I’m a big fan of practice. I have three sons who all played for me here, and they all had their moments of playing AAU, and I think what AAU does—which I think also you could say of every sport, not just basketball, but select soccer, all that—is you get kids who are used to playing with better kids than they’ll end up playing with in high school . . . and then when they come back to their high school team, they have the bad habit of saying, “Gosh, I play with guys in the summer who can do these things. What’s wrong with my team? They can’t do anything,” or they come back thinking they’re better than they are. There are kids that do fine and that can handle that, but more can’t.
And with college recruiting today, the AAU coaches are involved too much, because they just see the kid as a player. When I talk to college recruiters, the first thing they ask me is, “What kind of student is this person?” AAU coaches are not asked that. They’re asked how fast can he run, how high can he jump, how many points does he average. We see the total package. . . and that’s the total relationship that you need to have, because they’re impressionable, because so many kids on our basketball team don’t have a dad in their lives at all. . . . Twenty years ago here it wasn’t that way. But when you’re at the bench and you don’t see your kids’ dads in those stands, it’s tough. I had a kid whose parents did not come to senior night. It was terrible. Everybody’s out there lined up, and the mom knew, but she didn’t come; she forgot.
Q. How did you handle that?
A. One of our coaches, my oldest son, went out and stood with him; he’s got a really strong relationship with him. But there’s nothing you can tell him, because he’s crying and angry and embarrassed—all those emotions, all together. Those are the things you have to deal with more now than you used to. AAU coaches miss out on all that. . . . You can still get good experience from AAU, and that’s a positive thing, but I’m not sure it’s all that great.
Q. Besides ball-handling skills, what physical abilities are you looking for when kids come out for the basketball team?
A. Vision: the ability to see the court, which goes back to ball handling. If you look at the ball when you’re dribbling, you don’t see what’s going on there, and I tell them it’s like driving a car while looking at the floor; I hope I don’t pass them on the road, because they’re going to hit me.
Strength. The ability to act rather than just react. And mental toughness: A kid can’t sit in the classroom without doing anything and then come to practice and say, “OK, coach, I’m ready to play, tell me what I need to do.” You just can’t turn it on and turn it off like that.
The ability to adapt easily, to understand that not everybody’s going to be the star, to accept the coaching. Not every kid can be coached—that’s harder now, too. If you play for us here, you have to have your hair short. You can’t draw designs in your hair. There’s nothing about your hairstyle that should draw attention to yourself, away from the team. So we all wear the same uniform, we all wear the same shoes, we don’t have names on the back of our jerseys. I don’t want somebody to come up and say, “Look at that kid—he has blue hair!” Instead, I want them to say, “Wow, that team played well together, and they played really hard.”
Q. Has that been a deal-breaker for some kids?
A. Nah. This year we had two kids who weren’t sure they were going to play, and I said, “You know, we’re really going to miss you, but if that’s important to you, that’s what you need to do.” They got their hair cut the next day before practice.
Q. What characteristics will you see in a senior player that you might not see in an underclassman?
A. A student who plays here for four years will have been to Florida, North Carolina, Kentucky—somewhere far enough away that they have to stay in a hotel and learn to budget their money and communicate with people. We talk about their phone etiquette, all that stuff.
And we’ve had freshmen who think that just because the middle school season stops in December, that’s when our season stops; during Christmas vacation, they’d miss practice, because they’d think the season’s over—and we play until March. So just understanding that basketball is a full-time job outside of the school day.