March Madness: Boston Charter Hoops

The Boston area charter school league basketball playoffs happen this weekend at U-Mass Boston.

In addition to leading our teaching residency, Orin coaches our high school boys bball team.  Here's a quick interview with Coach Orin.

1. Orin, you grew up in the world of the Patterson YMCA, with AAU, and normal high school ball. What's different about the teams in the Boston charter league?

Orin: Even the good teams in our league are medium sized fish in a small pond. My 8th grade team from the YMCA in Paterson, NJ would have probably run the table in our high school league. However, in my 8 years of coaching charter ball - 3 at CCSC and 5 at Match - the level of competitiveness has definitely ticked upwards. Note I didn't say the talent level has improved a ton. But the teams, in general, seem to be better coached, more organized, more cohesive.

I think in the early days of charter bball, schools were conflicted about whether they could actually focus on both competitive high school sports and rigorous academics. Clearly the charters chose the latter, and I wonder if they were at first reluctant to enter the potentially sketchy world of the former. But the best programs now are really doing both.

2. What about your own team - how do you use bball as a carrot with respect to academics?

Orin: We have a strict academic eligibility policy: you need a 73 overall average to play in games. That might not seem like a high target, but it's a significant bar for many of our boys, one that they struggle to clear given the difficult course load that kids at Match take. We see a huge improvement in their grades during bball season.

This year, for the kids who slipped below 73 at the mid-season mark, we implemented daily homework checks by the assistant coaches. The impact was dramatic: I have the highest team GPA that I've ever seen at this point in the season. I had kids last week saying to me, "I hated the daily hw check but it worked." That sort of sentence is music to a high school educator's ear.;I hated ____ (fill in the blank) but it worked." Ahh. Lovely.

3. You've long been allergic to zone D, but overcame that recently.  Why?

Orin: Why? Got my butt whooped in some games last year where we were totally undersized and my ridiculous stubbornness about only playing man-to-man probably cost us some W's. I learned my lesson. We mix up our defenses pretty nicely now.

I still contend, though, that you need to teach man-to-man principles and aggressiveness to build your team's defensive character and identity. No one walks around with a badge on their chest that says, "We play lock-down zone D"; Except maybe Jim Boeheim.

4. What lessons from bball practice to you bring to teacher training?

Orin: Many. But here's one. My old TFA pal and colleague, Caleb Dolan (now the Exec Director of KIPP Massachusetts), taught a session in MTR this year on teaching character in the classroom. He described a particular character-building move that he has seen great teachers make. I've talked about this one before, too, but not with the same clarity of language that Caleb used. He called it the "Stop the World" moment. Essentially it's a mini-sermon that he advises teachers to script ahead of time and practice for a moment in class when students do something that really undermines the values that you're trying to build in a learning community.

The example he used was about kids laughing at a classmate's wrong answer. Caleb said that as a middle school teacher, that was the kind of Stop the World moment that he wanted to respond to early in the year with a very precise tone and content. I jumped in on Caleb's lesson to explain to our teacher residents that basketball coaches need to memorize and rehearse the same kind of sermon. Mine is a particularly colorful half-time speech that I deliver about once a season when we're playing terrible defense in the first half of a game.

The key here, for both coaches and teachers, is that you need to have total control over your emotions and your content in these moments. If you haven't planned ahead for these situations, your emotions might get in the way of delivering a clear message, and you'll lose the teachable moment. Practice and rehearsal is key.

5. What lessons from teacher training to you bring to bball practice?

Orin: Clear goals and bite-sized feedback that's aligned to those goals. This is the #1 principle for coaching rookie teachers, too. Let's say we're running through some basic half-court sets of our zone offense. Just getting a bunch of reps against a 2-3 zone. Well, there's about a thousand things wrong if you really start to diagnose what's going on. The angles of the cuts are sloppy. The ball's not moving around the perimeter fast enough. The shot selection is poor. The ball handling is shaky. Etc.

It's just like when you walk into a rookie teacher's classroom: there's SO much that can be improved. But you gotta choose one thing at a time to be the subject of your feedback. That's the only way to drive sticky changes in behavior. And that takes a lot of discipline as a coach in any situation. I have to constantly remind myself of that.

6. A couple years ago you won the title on Dumarius's 8-foot baseline shot at the buzzer. Where is Du now and what is he up to? Also: what might you run if in the same situation again?

Orin: Duamarius is finishing up his junior year at Eastern Nazerene College in Quincy, MA. He's a biology major. He's also on his college's basketball team for the third year in a row, though he doesn't get a ton of playing time.

He's still a big presence around the Match team, coming to practices and games to root us on. What most people don't know about Duamarius'; heroics that year is that I took him out of the starting lineup for the playoffs. The kid was a senior and he had started pretty much every game up until the playoff tournament. But I wanted a little bit of a quicker lineup, and I liked his versatility coming off the bench as our sixth man.

He handled it beautifully - which would not have always been the case with Duamarius - and then went on to become the hero of that game, the tournament MVP, and the only player from that team who's playing ball at the college level.

I have another senior named Isaiah who I may end up turning into a sixth man in this year's playoff tournament. Maybe Isaiah gets the last shot.  Or maybe not.  Some of the opposing coaches read this blog.  Can't reveal too much.