Friday, March 6, 2015

Dave who?

For some coaches, it’s about the headlines, the recognition, the limelight.

For others, like Dave, it’s hard to find the faint pulse of ego.

Dave who?

Dave Joerger is in his third season as the head coach of the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies. He is a quiet, unassuming gentleman with a keen coaching eye and the ability to get buy in from players, staff and fans. He currently has the third best record in the entire NBA and his team is poised to challenge for an NBA championship this year.

Joerger walked into the Phoenix Suns press room where pre game meals are provided for visiting teams and press in the bowels of the US Airways arena before a January game. The attendant at the table asked his name. Wearing a “Property of Memphis Grizzlies” t shirt, he told her Dave Joerger. She looked up and asked him who he was. He smiled and said he was the Memphis coach. She looked up again at him. “Are you new?”

Joerger is used to this. He is a coach who came up the ranks, literally. After graduating college in 1997, He took on a front office position in the IBA, basketball’s equivalent of baseball’s Durham Bulls. He got onto the bench as an assistant coach that year and three years later the head coach. For the next 7 years he succeeded in different teams and minor leagues, winning five league championships, until he was called up to the NBA as an assistant with the Memphis Grizzlies. Those early years grinding out a coaching career helped lay the foundation for Joerger’s humble nature.

“My upbringing professionally in coaching lends itself to never taking anything for granted.” He says. “A lot of van rides, a lot of bus rides, having to fight and scrap for every win for every player that you’re trying to help in their career and helping them get called up to the NBA. Nothing was ever given, you had to try and earn everything. I appreciate every single day that I get to be a head coach in this league and every person that I meet and media sessions and players meetings and games and travel. I have a deep level of appreciation for it.”

One thing you notice about the Grizzlies is how much they all tend to really like each other. Players, staff, broadcasters, they all seem to be in tune with what needs to happen and how to make that a reality. It all starts with Joerger. “I try to be very inclusive. Our community really cares about our team and certainly everybody that is with us either on the plane or if we have a game at home, you just try to be nice to everybody and make sure everybody feels included because everybody is working hard. I just try to be nice to people.”

One of Joerger’s strengths is putting players in a position where their individual tools can best help the team. For the team he coaches now, he has implemented a stingy defense that helps ignite an efficient offense. “My favorite style of play is to get up and down the floor, move the basketball and be hard to guard.” He points out. “We’ve tried to get up and down the floor a little bit faster, as far as there won’t be more possessions in our game just by the way we are built, but just for us to get in our offense a little bit quicker and use the entire 24 seconds of the shot clock.”

Two hundred games into his NBA coaching career, he sports a gaudy .675 winning percentage and with this season, will be three for three in playoff appearances. Yet Joerger’s coaching philosophy might surprise. “I don’t really have a coaching philosophy other than, again coming from the minor leagues, you might have one kind of team start the year and players come and go and then you have a different kind of team, so the philosophy of whatever’s best for the team however the team is built or whatever their strengths are, that what I try to play to or coach to.”

Dave was asked if there was a secret sauce to the kind of success he’s achieved and falling back on his own 10 year climb up the ladder, he gives this advice. “Work for free! Go work and try to get as much exposure as you can to as many different people and formulate your own collection of thoughts from as many different people as you can. I think sometimes guys get under one coach or follow one coach and then they don’t make up their own mind about how they want the game to be played. Blend as many different thoughts from great coaches as possible. That would be my advice.”

Joerger’s under-the-radar mentality doesn’t work for some coaches who crave the limelight and the attention. He just does his job; grateful for the opportunities given and taken along the way and most importantly, doesn’t plan on wasting his shot in the big leagues. When asked what his goals were for his NBA career, in typical Dave Joerger fashion, he was eloquent and understated.

“Just to keep my job as long as I can.”

Sunday, March 1, 2015

A Small World....

It started with an e mail from a Club Director letting his coaches know that one of their own had a tragedy in the family and we could donate to help the family.

It ended two hours ago with one of the bright spots in a long coaching career.

If you hadn’t read about it, then you must have dropped out of society. Megan Lange, a young mother of two and a fire dispatcher was headed home around 1 a.m. after her shift when she was hit head on by a drunk driver going the wrong way on I-17 near Camelback Rd. She was kept alive for 15 hours until her husband Patrick was told by doctors they could do nothing and he would have to let her go. She died that night.

The story rocked the local newscape as only the tragic and sensational can. TV, radio, newspaper produced item after item to keep the story on our screens and pages. Then, a few days after Megan’s death, a letter was published in the Arizona Republic from Megan’s sister in law Heather.

This was the deal breaker.

Calls and e mails went out to find a gym to host a friendship tournament. Maybe the generosity of a handful of coaches and parents and athletes could help eat away the mounting debt the family incurs from Patrick studying nursing, the care of a 2 year old and their 6 month old diagnosed with respiratory syncytial virus, a virus that causes infections of the lungs and respiratory tract and of course the medical trauma costs of Megan’s last night.

Court One responded. It costs roughly $2,200 to run a tournament all day in Court One but owner Mitch Brown donated not only the gym but his crew as well for the entire day.

Next came the teams. An e mail was sent out with the link to Heather’s letter. Responses started slow as everyone treaded water wanting to know if it would get enough teams but in nine days, the tournament had secured a dozen 14’s teams and a dozen 16’s teams for play.

No officials would be used to keep costs at $0. A call went out to Gordon Graphics and a “program” featuring pictures of Megan and her family wrapped around the letter Heather had written was printed in full color to hand out at the tournament. The cost was $0. The Arizona Region donated man hours and supplies to help run the tournament at a cost of $0.

Sunday, March 1st was cloudy and breezy. Teams began streaming in at 7 a.m. like any other normal tournament. At the Coach/Parent meeting, Parents were asked to understand that the kids would be reffing this day and to see the bigger picture. The tournament ran without any Parent incident.

The coaches were told they would play an abbreviated pool play of just two games to 15 and in the event of a tie in points, a “Gnarly Point” would be played with the server decided by a coin flip and one point would dictate the winner of the match. Only one “Gnarly Point” was played all day giving Fortitude’s 14 Gray team a win over Tucson’s Sky Islands 14-2 team. After was a four team bracket with full matches in each age specific gold, silver and bronze division. Warm up was 5 minutes shared which saw several teams just mixing up to play queens and others doing hitting lines, taking sets from the other team’s setter. Often times, right before the match would start, you would see groups of both colored uniforms at the net, just talking and laughing.

Commissioner Harold Cranswick came by to say hello to the players, coaches and parents. He helped post scores and answer questions of parents about this different format but all the while enjoying what he was seeing first hand: the volleyball community working together for a common great!

As people read the “programs” the cookie jar at the tournament desk filled up with cash and checks and change. A few of the players cried as did some parents. One Mom named Julie came up and told the story of a very close relative who was also killed by a drunk driver. She had put together a bag of toys for Megan’s two young boys. She wept telling of her family’s loss and how great this event was and that she wanted to meet Patrick.

It was a charming sight to look up and see kids, in every color uniform, in the ref stands beckoning for serve and whistling violations on their peers. Sometimes they missed stuff, most times it didn’t matter. They let play go and seemed to unconsciously like the fact that the color of a libero’s jersey or a player racing onto the court because of a spaced rotation moment didn’t really matter much in the stream of play. They played and played a lot and had a great time.

Brynne from the Region office came by in the early afternoon as the courts were starting to wind down and went upstairs to add up the donations. A few minutes after that, Patrick Lange walked in the gym. One of the first people he talked to was Julie who shared her account and gave Patrick her gift for his boys. He met Mitch and thanked him and got to meet a few coaches and players from not just the tournament but from his cousin’s team, the one that started this all.

In a brief conversation, Patrick talked about his last month. How he was getting better on television despite being a quiet person in general. How amazed he was at the outpouring and generosity of people. Then he said something quietly that is still hanging in the air above the tournament: “I think I realize now that it is such a small world.”

Revolution 15 Elite topped the White Tanks 16N1 team to win the 16’s division while the White Tanks 13N team topped the Sky Islands 14-1’s team for the 14’s plaque. After you read this, and the Parents and athletes stop posting it on facebook tonight and tomorrow, not too many will remember. But it wasn’t the reason these 23 teams and coaches and parents came this afternoon. They came to play. They came for a grander purpose and they came to show their compassion for another human being in need.

Brynne came downstairs and handed Patrick an envelope. In it was cash, checks and change, a bag of which was donated by Coach Tonya’s young son Bowen from his piggy bank. She handed him a piece of paper that had written in a bold Calibri font: $8,389.

There has been e mails from other parents, clubs and coaches that are dropping off more checks this week so that number will probably grow. White Tanks Mountain, the club in which Megan’s cousin coaches and the first many of us had heard of Megan Lange, donated over $2000 with the Club Director Paul Vitola matching funds for each of his six teams in the tournament up to $125 per team.

Ignite volleyball tried to put a team together but had to pull out a few days before, dropped by the tournament just to drop off a check for $150. Club Payson drove 3 hours first thing Sunday morning in the rain to play and donate $300. Sky Islands from Tucson had three teams in the tournament and they brought in over $400. SVA’s 16 Rage team donated $670 and Az. Sky’s three teams brought in $1240. Club One's 15 Yellow team gave $700 and the promise of more checks this week. Club One's 15 Yellow team gave $700 with the promise of more during the week. The AZVC 13 Insanity team, coached by Doug who is going through his own health issues, drove back to the west valley from Tucson late the night before and donated $545. The two Fortitude teams brought in $600 combined. Scott’s Az. Storm 14-Strike helped out with $200 listed but with several parents, including his, adding to the cookie jar throughout the day.

Heroes are defined in a lot of ways. Poets and novelists, songwriters and comic book illustrators all have a hand in those definitions. Sometimes they are right beside you or a court away; in a lawn chair watching their daughter play volleyball. Sometimes they are on the sidelines, directing traffic and guiding their athletes through the windy country roads of youth competition. And sometimes they are the actors themselves, playing a difficult sport to their maximum effort for a team and parents they love.

And sometimes it’s simply someone who helps another in need with a hug or a kind work, maybe a check or a little extra cash or maybe with the gift of their time and effort.

Thank you to all who made this event happen: coaches, players and parents. For one Sunday in March, the volleyball world was such a small one.