Grit, resilience and determination do pay off – it just can take a while!
IICS HS Boys win the CEESA Basketball tournament in Macedonia

After five years of hard work, soul-searching, and unrelenting effort the IICS HS Basketball team was successful in winning a major international tournament.

“So we won. Finally we won a CEESA tournament. But it was no coincidence, before travelling I knew we’d win, I told people we’d win, not out of overconfident bravado, but because I knew we were the best team going into the tournament” Mert, Team Captain

The tale of this five-year journey is less about obsession with winning and more about the development of a team mindset and positive attitude, less about what were the barriers to
success and increasingly all about the next play…

Next Play – Coach Pultz

Last year was supposed to be our year, the culmination of a five-year journey, one that didn’t have the most auspicious of beginnings. With the exception of one player, nobody on that first team had played organized basketball. They were mostly football players who needed something to do in the long offseason. The guy who turned out to be our best player joined the team to fulfill CAS requirements, and he never quite got that you couldn’t just run with the ball.

At our 2017 CEESA competition, the pinnacle of our season, we were completely outclassed, losing our first game to Prague by 30 points. Despite the margin, our boys never quit, and they got better throughout the tournament; not good, mind you, just better. We even managed to win a game. And our reward for this great feat? A rematch against Prague in the 3 rd place game.

As our team hung around deep into the fourth quarter, fighting for every loose ball, Prague was visibly shaken. At a timeout with 15 seconds left in the game, we were down 3, but they had the ball. We needed a stop and a shot to send the game into overtime. In the huddle, the boys were as together as I’d ever seen them. They wanted it, and they were prepared to do everything they could to take it. They believed that they were going to win. Our defense stepped onto the court; our trap created the turnover; we got the ball into the hands of our best shooter; we got the shot off.

The Prague coach told our boys that we had won that game, but we didn’t. The shot didn’t go in. Our CAS-hours kid was in tears in the locker room. He’d wanted this so badly; it might have been the first time in a long time that he’d failed at something. It was at that point that I was sold on what we had started. I told the boys that we played with more heart and grit than a more-skilled team. If we wanted more than a moral victory, then we would have a lot more work to do.

So for the next five years, we developed the program. We got the students to practice a few concrete skills in the offseason. We aligned all of our teams, compiling resources to share between coaches, filling in the gaps in our collective knowledge. We eliminated excuses about long bus rides and limited facilities. And we built a program philosophy on respect, attention to detail, and a team-first attitude. Equal time was spent in hallways and classroom consultations as was spent on the court. We got more game experience, taking on better competition. And we experienced a number of other tough losses and moral victories along the way. And with all of this, at the beginning of last year, we were finally in a position to win this thing.

But then political issues began to flare up in Turkey. The American consulate ordered an evacuation of families and we lost our best player. Another had to unexpectedly return home, another couldn’t balance the commitment with his club team obligations. Another injured himself just before the tournament. Despite it all, we kept working, less-skilled players got more playing time, but we couldn’t quite shake the pall that was with us all season. And so we experienced our lowest placement in all of my time here.

That hurt. And I’d be lying if there wasn’t a lot of second guessing on the part of the boys as well as the coaches. This is a lot of time to commit to something to feel this way at the end.

After three days of watching the boys hang their heads in the hallways, I pulled them all together for a team meeting. In it, we declared an official end to mourning, and an official start to the preparation for next season.

As this was year-six for the eighth graders I started with, this senior year would be their last chance at something more than a moral victory. And it would be tougher for them to honor their commitments with mounting DP coursework and university applications. Replacing players who had graduated, we took on a few lowerclassmen. Would they mesh with the rest of the team? We had some typical issues at the beginning of the season: there was a lot of ego, a lot of hero ball, not enough listening. Issues would be brought up during lunchtime team meetings, and once sorted, we’d huddle up and voice a quiet “team”.

We trained hard, we kept in constant contact via Whatsapp, we reinforced simple messages: “pick each other up” and a more-powerful- than-I’d- imagined “next play”. We won some games, we lost some games, but in each, the team grew closer. We weren’t a great offensive team, but our team defense was the best we’ve ever had. It was already another moral victory, but these boys deserved a little more than that. I wanted them to get what they wanted…a little taste of victory. And so we went and won the thing.

We beat a talented Skopje team twice in front of a hostile home crowd. Our inspiring defense slowly won over our own fans in the crowd in addition to our home community following along on the livestream. There were so many great moments that this win will permanently etch into these boys psyche for a long time to come, but none was better than having each of the opposing coaches congratulate our boys on how well they conducted themselves. Our players accepted the referees’ decisions, we walked away from unproductive conflict, and when mistakes were made, and there were plenty, they reminded one another: “next play.”

I happen to love the game of basketball, but I’ve said it time and again that what we do over the course of the season has much less to do about putting a leather ball through a hoop, as it does learning to control what’s between your ears and caring about something bigger than yourself. I allowed the boys to hold their heads proudly for three days, and then we had a meeting.

I said, “I’m happy that we’re feeling good about ourselves—”
And they beat me to the ‘but’, “We know, Coach, we’ve been talking about it, too. Next play, next play.”

Quotes:

“In the previous times that I joined basketball I always had that thought of quitting whenever it was difficult, but this time it wasn’t the case. In every practice that I got tired or frustrated and thought that I couldn’t push myself I always had my coaches and teammates cheering me up to keep pushing and every time I did push myself further.” Firat

“A moment which I will never forget was every single coach and assistant coach coming up to me and congratulating me, not for winning the tournament, but for being an amazing sportsman and keeping my head during the tournament.” Sarp

“I think the basketball program has helped me in ways I never would have imagined to be possible. After all, it was just a game to me in the beginning. But the way it helped me grow, and how you, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Abizaid, and my friends helped me grow, has changed me into a better person than I could have turned out to be without all of this. I know this is true, and so I want to say thank you for helping me to become a good man.” Ayush

“This season, the basketball team learned to “pick each other up” by “respecting” each other, supporting one another, and keeping a positive attitude when things went wrong, on and off the court. In other words, we grew and matured as we improved our attitude towards our teammates.” Manu