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THIS AND THAT: Finally a chance to give locker room speech

December 8, 2018 GMT

The stirring locker room speech from the coach urges a team on to victory.

The voice is deep and powerful. The words are filled with passion. The message is moving and puts an emotional charge into the team. The players erupt from the room and onto the court or field to victory.

It’s been played out in countless movies, books and stories. I’d always thought about what to say should I have the opportunity to address a team. That chance came last Saturday.

Two former students from my USC Aiken writing classes have kept in touch since their departure from the local school. Katelyn Grisillo and Emry Tsitouris sat next to one another in the back of the computer room that holds the class.

Not only were they good students, they were also on the Pacers women’s basketball team. Today Katelyn is the assistant coach and Emry is the graduate assistant at Wingate University in North Carolina. As soon as I found out that the two would be back together this season, I started making plans to attend one of the Wingate Bulldogs games.

After determining that Saturday afternoon’s game against Carson Newman was the perfect one, I contacted the two ladies and was met with excitement. Another Aiken friend of theirs, Coach Abshire, would also go to see the game and reunite with the two old friends.

Wingate and its coach, Ann Hancock, have an interesting tradition – guest coaches. For home games the players or coaches can designate someone to hold that position of honor. Katelyn said that Coach and I would be guest coaches for Saturday’s game.

While studying game film and poring over scouting reports were not part of our responsibilities, we were told that we could address the team in the locker room prior to the opening tip. We would be introduced to the crowd along with the starting lineups and regular coaches. We would also sit at the end of the bench during the game and provide emotional support for the team right next to the action.

With a steady rain falling during the three-hour drive to Wingate, Coach and I made our way north and reached the pretty campus with plenty of time to spare. We entered Cuddy Arena and found the Bulldogs already warming up with Katelyn (Coach K) and Emry (Coach T) on the floor to watch over the proceedings.

After exchanging greetings and hugs, we watched the team go through its pregame routine. Then it was back to the locker room where Coach Hancock greeted us. As the team settled in, Katelyn introduced Coach and me to the ladies who would soon be racing up and down the hardwood floor.

Coach spoke briefly to the players who were seated on stools or standing next to their lockers. Then it was my turn. This was the one time that I would get to address a team and perhaps instill in the players something to help when they ran out on the court.

Here is what I told them:

“I was so excited when Coach K said that Coach and I would be sitting at the end of the bench. Fifty years ago, I played basketball for USC Aiken, when all that was required to make the team was the ability to walk and bounce a ball. I spent most of my two years sitting at the end of the bench, and today I am back where I started – at the end of the bench.”

There was a bit of laughter. Then my serious inspirational speech – or at least what I hoped would be – to a highly regarded team.

“You are all talented. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be here. You have great coaches who love the game, who care about you and who teach you to play the right way. And you have teammates who are like your family when you play the game together.”

They seemed to be paying attention, looking right at me as I spoke.

“Coach K and I share a word that we use often. The word is ‘onward.’ It means that we don’t look back, but always point ahead no matter what happens in life. It is a word that works well for basketball. Whether you make a great play or a poor one, always think ‘onward.’ What is the best thing to do next? If there is a bad call – ‘onward.’”

I think they were still watching and listening.

“For the next two hours, think ‘onward.’ Rely on your talent. Rely on your coaches and what they have taught. Rely on your teammates, your basketball family. Onward! And beat Carson Newman!”

The squad let out a cheer at the conclusion of my little talk. After getting a real pregame speech from Coach Hancock, they went out and won the game 67-58 over the 20th ranked Eagles.

I don’t know if the words they heard had any effect on them, but it was a thrill to be in the locker room with two former students and to get to make the speech half a century in the making. (It should have been better with that much time to prepare, but I never really imagined I’d get a chance to make such a presentation.)

A whistle sounded and the ball was tossed into the air for the opening tip. Players raced up and down the court with the familiar thump, thump, thump of a dribbling ball. Tightly laced shoes squeaked on a hardwood floor. And, there I was once again – at the end of the bench. Home sweet home.

Jeff Wallace is a retired editor of the Aiken Standard.