"Blaming the Best" is a story about Chuck DeVenzio, Coach DV, an old-fashioned and colorful coach who I have been lucky enough to have met. The story is an excerpt from the book, "There's Only One Way to Win", written by Dick DeVenzio about his father, Coach DV. Coach DV's philosophy is one that I admire and agree with, but also one that I cannot subscribe to wholly, mostly because of where I am in my coaching career. The stories about Coach DV are at the very least entertaining, and to me are ones that serve to explain to others and myself why I do what I do. I always have instincts to do things that Coach DV has done, but don't know exactly why. I can't explain my reasons to anyone either. Maybe I am just trying to validate my actions. Whatever the case may be, I love reading about Coach DV.
After playing for his father in high school, where their undefeated Ambridge team has been called the best in Pennsylvania history, the writer of the book, Dick DeVenzio, was a three year starting point guard at Duke University, where he was an Academic All-American. Since then, Dick has played and coached professionally, has written numerous articles on college basketball, has run several basketball camps including the Point Guard Basketball College, and is the author of several books.
Literally thousands of times in Coach DV's illustrious career, he shocked his star player by "jumping in his face" when one of the other players, not the star, made a mistake which enabled the opponent to score.
The exchanges that occurred, when they came during games, shocked the fans, too.
A mediocre player would allow his man to penetrate to the basket for an easy shot, or some other player would throw an obvious bad pass that would sail out of bounds. At times like those, it was typical for fans to look at Coach DV to see his reaction. Would the kid be yanked from the game?
Many fans used to say that the real enjoyment of the games came just from watching Coach DV's antics and emotional reactions. Coach DV wouldn't hesitate to pull a starter from a game in favor of an untried junior varsity player. He'd stick Kruth in the game, and the fans would groan. "He's just crazy enough to do something good in there," Coach DV would say about a kid who hadn't even played particularly well for the jayvees. Although the fans and even his assistant coach would disagree completely with the decision, the kid would almost always do something good. Coach DV's instincts were nearly as infallible as his willingness to try the unexpected. Fans just never knew what Coach DV would do.
Following obvious errors by teammates, it wasn't unusual for a star to look over to Coach DV -- at least early in a season before he learned -- perhaps as if to ask, "What can we do?" or at least to get reassurance that whatever had happened wasn't his fault.
But those looks, instead of being rewarded with reassurance, were often met with scowls of disgust. Coach DV's response was always instantaneous. He could spot a mistake coming long before it actually happened and, usually long before the star had time to seek reassurance, Coach DV was yelling at him, pointing at him, telling him in the most precise terms: "YOU threw that pass!"
Or in the case of the easy basket: "YOU just gave them that basket."
"Who me? I didn't throw that pass." Or, "I was all the way on the other side of the court. I didn't give them that basket."
Few players actually spoke up and voiced their objections; mostly just felt hurt and bewildered. Maybe they were furious. THEY didn't do anything wrong.
But Coach DV was adamant, and always entirely clear in what he thought, though much less clear in what he said. What had happened was so obvious to him that spelling it out seemed unnecessary. He believed his criticism was the only reasonable explanation for the error.
"YOU just gave them that basket."
Only occasionally did he explain: "Any poor simp could have seen that their kid was going to take the ball to the basket. He takes it just about every time he gets the ball. And poor little Jones was guarding him. Didn't you SEE that was Jones? Who has Jones EVER stopped? That wasn't Michael Jordan guarding the ball. That was Jones. You know everyone flies by Jones."
Usually, Coach DV would pause and look over at Jones. "I don't mean to yell at you, Jones, you're trying, you're working at it. But you don't stop anyone."
"We didn't need a GAWT-darn soothsayer to know that guy was going to take the ball to the basket. What the h*@% could you have been thinking?" Coach DV would scowl again at the star. "You're at practice very day. You know Jones can't stop anyone. How was he gonna stop that kid on their team? You were standing right there, just a few feet away, and it was like, every person in the stands knew that kid was going to pass Jones up and go to the basket. YOU were the only person in the building that had no idea what the h*@%was going on.
"I can't yell at Jones. He's trying. He's just too small and too weak. He hasn't learned to play this game yet. But you," Coach pointed and scowled at the star again, "YOU know how to play this game, you're just too GAWT-darn dumb or too GAWT-darn lazy; I'm not sure which it is. You HAD to see that guy was going to take the ball in. Couldn't you see that?"
Hard to believe that what seemed so incredibly IL-logical to so many players for so many years was actually so incredibly logical. When a star, capable of anticipating a play and preventing it, fails to do that, it is indeed his fault. It's that simple.
And when that bad pass went sailing far over the star's head, clearly making it the passer's fault in every fan's eyes, Coach DV would, again, often, launch into one of his famous, furious tirades: "YOU threw that pass!"
The star would think (but not say), "Who ME? I was waiting to CATCH it. What game are you watching? That ball flew six feet above my head into the ninth row of the bleachers."
But Coach DV was relentless. "Yes, you. You threw it away just as though you had grabbed the ball yourself and kicked it out of bounds."
Was Coach nuts? How could he say such a thing?
Easy! But again, the explanation, so rarely stated, is so obvious in retrospect.
"The grade school cheerleaders could see Jones was in trouble. H*#$, he was shaking like a leaf . . . I'm sorry Jones, I don't mean to yell at you, but if you want to learn to play this game, you're going to have to lift weights all summer and practice hard and learn to play this game. You've got to learn to play this game . . . But YOU," Coach DV said, turning back to the star, "you SAW that was Jones, you SAW him about to pee in his pants, you SAW that double-team and you KNEW Jones was shaking like a leaf. Poor, nice Jones. You KNEW he couldn't wait to get rid of the ball, and you JUST STOOD THERE waving your arms like a GAWT-darn FLAGMAN!
"Did you think that was Bird? Bird doesn't play on our team. I know you're a fan and you like the Celtics. That's nice. But you're not playing with the Celtics. When you play with the Celtics, you can stand in the corner and be a flagman. You can stay the h*%@ out of the way and if Bird wants you to have the ball, he can throw it to you once in a while. But this is Jones. Look at him. You see him every day in practice. This is poor little, nice little kid, Jones. GAWT-darn-it, when Jones gets the ball, you have to be ready to run right up to him and take it off him. And Jones, you just gotta lift some weights and get tougher and learn how to play this game . . . but till Jones does that . . . we can't wait till Jones does that, Jones may never do that . . . dammit Jones, are you gonna get stronger or am I gonna have to yell at Johnson here every time you get the ball? H*&%, I shouldn't have to yell at you, Johnson, but if we don't have Bird on our team, then you can't play like we have Bird on our team. We haven't had Bird all year. Forget about Bird. This is Jones. When Jones gets the ball, run up to him so he can hand it to you, do you understand? You're no passer Jones. When you get the ball, just hold it until you can give it to somebody . . . Dammit, if only I had a couple of kids that could play this game, it would be so easy. They're just LETTING you guys have easy baskets and you won't take them."
How could a star fail to get his body in the lane to stop a penetration that even the grade school cheerleaders could see was coming? And how could a star fail to run toward a kid who was an inch away from peeing in his pants? There could only be one explanation. The kid had fallen asleep.
"Wake up, Johnson. You're just giving them this game!"
It hadn't initially seemed like Johnson's fault, but it was. He had been capable of doing something to prevent the error, but hadn't reacted. Coach DV's thinking, once understood, was quite logical. Why bother yelling at the referee, or at some little kid who just couldn't get the job done in spite of trying hard? YELL AT THE KID WITH THE ABILITY TO GET THE JOB DONE.
Coach DV's criticiams were never just to make noise or vent frustration. They were frequently confusing to players and especially crazy-sounding to fans. They were also filled with common sense.