Know, that when I say that, it doesnt come lightly. Ive traveled the world a few times over, competed internationally with some of the best athletes in the world from Paris to Thailand. I then acted as a trainer/manager for my fiance's brother as I helped him try to accomplish similar dreams on a international scale. He and I moved to Italy where I thought I'd spend the rest of my life. I had a wonderful job doing what I loved, I lived in a swank apartment in a cozy small town in Northern Italy, and together he and I traveled various continents in search of a World Championship.
Fate would deal me another hand though when a freak knee injury cost him dearly. I soon found myself alone in Italy and it was my girlfriend at the time who decided she'd move half way around the world just to be with me. It was the craziest thing anyone had ever done for me and it was something I knew I'd be a fool to ever take for granted.
The company I worked for at the time (Husqvarna Motorcycles) was sold and the factory and race team were going to be moved to Austria. Being that I was without any roots in Italy and a fairly new employee to the company, my dream of growing old in Europe was cut massively short. Me and my girl moved back to California in October of 2012 where I found myself struggling to find work. So I decided one random nite that I was going to ignite an old dream by embarking on coaching youth basketball. I began calling every AAU team in the Orange County area to see if they needed coaches. I called every private instructor in Southern California to see if they needed an assistant or if they'd let me come learn from them. Nearly every e-mail or phone message I left was ignored. And of the ones that I did actually get in contact with, I was quickly shot down by everyone except one person... that man was Sander Herman. He actually called me back and while he didnt have a spot for me on his staff, he did spend a solid 45 minutes on the phone with me explaining how I should go about getting started with my endeavour. His advice was invaluable and I cant thank him enough for what he did.
Within 3 months my "rec team", the "Irvine Celtics", won the league Championship. We were the bad news bears. But I loved that original 8. Beck, Aziz, Torin, Victoria, Alex, Amin, Kevin, and Devonte. Without that Championship won by those 8 players, I likely never would have been able to get this thing off the ground. It was the euphoria caused by that title that helped push 5 of those parents to be willing to fork over the dough to have me coach their kids full time. I soon found 8 more kids to add to the mix in Ali, Donovan, Hasheer, Tim, Aanan, Tobias, Khalil, and Khmori & Alex (both of whom were far too young to play for our team but wanted so badly to earn a spot they showed up to every practice and would eventually be the blueprint for what our program was all about).
By the Summer of 2013 I was running the Boys & Girls Club Basketball League and coaching free Clinics there 2 days a week. Word was beginning to spread throughout the community about our program. Several more kids joined the team in Payton, Marcus, Andrew, Trent, (Aanan's younger brother) Lucky, Xavier, Pedro, and Jared. With each new kid, our practices grew and eventually we formed 2 teams with a 3rd one on the way. By the Fall season we were a full fledged program with over 30 kids and just me to coach them all. At this point I still was very naive to just what a impact I was having on these kids lives and even more so, the impact they were having on mine. We were not your typical AAU travel ball program that typically have a rotation of coaches and very little continuity. No, our system was built around having a small core of coaches (and by coaches I mean, myself) that build strong bonds with the players. We didnt recruit talent, rather, good parents with hard working kids came to us in search of a chance to play for an travel ball because most other teams were too expensive or difficult to join. At this time we were still very raw, and our goals of competing at the AAU level were still extremely audacious.
Before I forget, it must be noted that during the 2013 season I had the pleasure of meeting three other coaches that would be every bit as helpful as Sander Herman was. Gary Scott of the Irvine Lakers, Devone of the Pasadena Fury, and Dennis Reiland would all become friends and huge assets. I hope the 3 of you see this blog post and know how much I appreciate all you did to help me and the boys of my program. It also must be noted that without the help of Sergio Lovell and Ernest Johnson, my co-workers at the Boys & Girls Club, none of this would have been possible. Ernest was by far the best boss Ive ever had and an even better friend.
By the start of the Fall season in 2013 we had entered a few AAU tournaments and the results werent always pretty. In fact, they were usually ugly. You can read some of my earlier blog posts to see how we were faring at the time. We had the occasional close loses but usually we were getting our butts kicked. We still had so far to go and so I got down to work volunteering every possible hour I could to my kids development. I soon found myself coaching the kids every weekday morning for 90 mins starting at 6am as well as 4 nights a week at our normal times. In short order the kids skills started to improve rapidly. We had a sponsor and the kids all got new Nike jerseys and I let the kids pick out a new team name: the "Irvine Jokers". Thanks Aziz.
It would be these next 6 months that would be the toughest though. With the addition of a 3rd grade team the toll of coaching so many kids was affecting my health. The intense coaching schedule & humbling tournament weekends were beyond taxing emotionally and physically. Especially when as a entire program we would sometimes lose as many as 9 games in a weekend without winning a single one. Often leaving me a wreck all the way into Tuesday of that week. That isnt to say that the 3rd graders were tough to coach, in fact, they were a absolute dream. Noah, (Tobias' younger brother) Gabe, (Khalil's younger brother) Khmori, Lexi and her sister Marissa, Nabil, Sammy, and ALan were going to be my dream team. They were all-effort all the time and in short order became the first of our program's teams to reach a Championship game at a AAU tournament.
But where the 9Us were excelling, the other 2 squads were struggling massively to get over the hump. It took what felt like forever but eventually the 11U's would break through and get their first AAU win, followed by several more, and eventually becoming a dominant team in their division. It all culminated in our final tournament together. Where my 11U's would dominate all the way to the championship game only to fall short. Despite the 2nd place finish, I could not have been more proud of my boys for all they endured to get to that point. They had learned "how to lose" plenty and now they were showing they "knew how to win". All the hard work had finally paid off, they had finally made it. From a team that was getting beat by 60 pts 9 months earlier to being the team dominating the opposition. Funny, those same AAU programs that wouldnt call me back just 18 months earlier, we were now beating them easily. We were now a legitimate AAU team and we (the players and me) did it 100% thru player development. Life is about up's & down's. But for these kids it was mostly "downs" that first year. But they never ran from the tough times. With their "heart" I had the sole tool I needed to mold them and prove another of life's great lessons: Life is not about "how too", it is about "want too". Coaching my 11U's to that 2nd place finish is the greatest thing Ive ever accomplished and while I fought back the tears during my post game speech to the kids, the way those boys played that weekend was the highlight of my life.
During this whole journey maybe nobody had struggled more than my 13U team. It was my original team, but far from the original lineup. Only Torin remained from the Championship winning Celtics team, and only Ali, Aanan, and Khalil from the Spring season team. The numerous hard loses and intense training schedule took it's toll on the roster and resulted in a lot of turnover. Which is why I give all the credit in the world to Torin, Ali, Aanan, and Khalil. Their perseverance, fortitude, and loyalty to this program revealed their true colors. They are tough as nails and I admire them immensely. Eventually the roster would settle down and they'd be joined by 3 sets of twins in Isaac & Simon, Hunter & Kyle, and Kyle & Ethan, and Michael. The team had undergone a complete makeover but is now more talented than ever before. This is a really good group of kids with a ton of personalities, and I will always regret not getting to coach them longer and see thru their development.
Their time is coming soon but even if it wasnt last weekends time for the 13U's, it was our programs finest weekend. All 3 teams played the best they had ever played. I gave the kids everything I had the last few months and had I not been on my 11th game coaching in a 30 hr period I believe I would have had the right energy to guide my 11U's to a much deserved Championship. I used to think losing was hard. But the truth is, when Im locked in and coaching at my best, it's even harder. We won the most games we'd ever won at a tournament as a program and Ive never felt more drained. Which is a funny thing. When I worked with pro athletes, I had a habit of pushing so hard that I often showed them their limits. Well, the honest truth is that this time around, these kids finally showed me mine.
Bittersweet the entire weekend was though because several months earlier I had been given a huge job opportunity that would give me the financial security to be able to take care of my now fiance & start a family of my own. Coaching these teams was a labor of love and extremely taxing on my health. Bills were starting to stack up as was my blood pressure. The great thing about kids is that they'll take as much attention as you have to give them. And for whatever reason I just cant say no to them. One thing Ive prided myself on as a manager/trainer/coach is that I could show a athlete their limits, well, for once it was the athletes that showed me my limits. Ive been very hard on every one of my players but they all know, I never told them "no" when they asked for more help in any way shape or form. Upon hearing that I would be leaving Southern California, it would be the first time I would ever tell these kids I couldnt say "yes" to their request. The time has come that I not take for granted the love of my life, the girl who moved all the way to Italy to be with me, and then followed me back to Orange County, another place where she'd never lived, in hopes that I'd one day ask her to marry her. Well that time has come and It's time that I move on to the next chapter in my life. As the great Colin Cowherd says, "there are two things in the world that make really smart men dumb......Sports & Beautiful Women". Aint that the truth.
This decision has been the hardest decision of my life. I care about my players like they were my own children. Watching them grow as a human being & basketball player has been the single greatest experience of my life. The loyalty my players have shown me is the greatest gift I could ask for. They have done everything I have ever asked of them and I know Ive asked a lot. It hasnt always been easy but they never gave up on themselves or me as their coach. We've won games, we've lost games, we've laughed, we've mourned. It's been everything you could ask for out of a full life.
The bond between a player and coach is something that will never fade even long after Im done coaching. Almost everything I know about basketball (and life) I learned from my first coach. He coached me from 3rd grade until 7th grade. I am still friends with him even though it's been over 20 years since he last saw me dribble a basketball. I hope I can carry on the same relationship with all of my players. If they ever need anything or just simply someone to talk to for advice, I will always be there for whatever they need.
Basketball, like all sports, is just a tricky tool used to teach youth the valuable lessons in life. Understanding these lessons is the key to overcoming life's challenges so that a child can one day reach his or her potential. Change is a inevitable part of life. Change is not something you can avoid. All you can control is how you prepare, and eventually, deal with that change. However difficult, I know my players are prepared for this next step. This is just one of many challenges they will face in life. I expect them to use the lessons Ive taught them to attack it head on and overcome.
As my father used to tell me, "...Life is a series of hills and valleys, without them, the world would just be flat..." The point of that is, while this may be difficult for us now, if you stay focused and keep working hard you can climb out of a valley then you will reach the new heights that await you around the corner. And with that I want my players to all understand that while I will no longer be coaching them on a full-time basis, this is not a "goodbye". Im simply taking a backseat role and handling the administrative duties of the program from afar. I'll be with them in spirit and the "RJ" on their team shorts will always stand for "Riff's Jokers".
I know that doesnt make the situation any better because for all of these players, since they were all plucked from "rec ball" where the coaches are volunteers, Im the first "real" coach theyve ever had. So naturally, the parents and players alike are all afraid of what lies ahead. But the truth is, the strength of this program has always been the loyalty of the players, the work ethic, and the tight knit family structure we've fostered. Im putting good qualified caring coaches in charge and if they get the same support I received, they will be able to repay it just the same and our program will continue to grow. I believe in Coach Mo and Coach Sergio, but more importantly, I believe in the families of this program. We didnt come this far just to give up now. The future is bright for this program, always has, always will.
I will visit often. I plan on attending most of the team's tournaments and hopefully watching some of these players eventually excel at the High School and College level. But the ultimate honor for me will be to find out that Ive inspired if just one of these kids to one day become a coach themselves in the same way my childhood coaches inspired me.