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As the first day of Spurs training camp approaches . . .

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Insight from former college players about their experience with the beginning of basketball season.

When I coached college basketball at Claremont McKenna College (20 miles east of downtown L.A.), the first day of practice was one of my favorite days of the year. While the players had been in the gym playing and (hopefully) getting in shape, NCAA rules prevented the coaches from being on the floor with the players. As a result, that first day of practice was the first opportunity for the coaches and players to come together on the basketball court.

The first day of practice was also the first time for the players to play with only other members of the team. While the players attempted to play in pre-practice pick-up games with the other guys on the team, there were always also non-team players in those games. Indeed, as recounted here, the pre-practice games in our gym often included players from our rival school, the Gregg Popovich-coached Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens.

While our players were preparing for the start of practice, the coaches were doing the same. To get ready for the season, coaches first needed to get ready for practice.

Each year presented new challenges, which meant new opportunities. The coaches met numerous times, on the floor and off. We decided what offense to run and whether we would play solely a man-to-man defense or also mix in a zone, and if so, which zone. We also had to determine smaller details, such as how to defend the pick and roll, whether to and how to double-team the post, who would in-bound the ball against the press and on the offensive end, and whether to run a structured fast break after misses.

On the first day of practice, all the preparation turned into reality. In many ways, the feeling of anticipation before that day was similar to the feeling everyone has before the first day of school, of college, or of a new job. With teams like the Claremont Stags, or the San Antonio Spurs, this coming together is one of the best parts of sports: Being part of a Team. After players retire, they invariably say that what they miss most is being part of that special group — not the games, not the adulation from fans, and not even the championships. Ex-players, and coaches, miss not being around their team. Manu Ginobili’s recent interview puts it well:

“What I miss the most is the locker room, the dinners after the games. The preparation, the sense of going out there and be a team.”

The Spurs open training camp on Tuesday, October 1 after reporting the day before. In preparation for that day, and this article, I asked some of my former players for two or three sentences describing their thoughts as they approached the first day of training camp. Being Claremont grads, several scoffed at the “two or three sentence” suggestion. Their comments:

Ross Slusser, from Sacramento, power forward with a great handle, two-year varsity starter:

“The one unifying theme was just the pure excitement and joy about being around the boys again. Just the camaraderie of being on a close knit team. It’s the whole reason I push my kids to play sports. Being part of a team is a priceless feeling that can’t be replicated outside sports. Aside from the pride I felt every time I put the uniform on, the crazy fun times of hanging with teammates is what I miss the most. As such, it was what I looked forward to the night before every season started. (Even though we hung out together all year, it’s just ‘different’ once the season starts.)”

Henry Albrecht, post player from Seattle, Conference Player of the Year:

“Did I do enough running? (Will I throw up?)

“Then . . .

“I love that smell of varnish and sweat and dust.

“I can’t wait to see if the new kids can play, and see which vets got better.

“Let’s bang. There’s no feeling quite like battling it out in the trenches, boxing out, setting hard screens, diving for the ball, closing out, feeling the burn and gasping for air.

“Let’s do this.”

Morgan Bartz, high level water polo player from Orange County, trying to make the JV team (he did, and became the team’s best defender):

“Ha, well ... did I practice enough and get better enough to even make the squad?”

Dominic Nappi, All-CIF from North Hollywood, All-Conference at Claremont:

“About 3 weeks before practice, started to plan stuff out. Not a big weight room guy (shortens longer latitudinal muscle flexibility and variation, witness KD) but did like push-ups, jumping and sprinting drills to get in last minute shape. Frustrated trying to get good solo gym time for needed individualized drills. Gym wasn’t readily accessible so I ended up using the outdoor court for solo practice. Once we finally started official team practice playing in the gym on hardwood, I felt invincible on it. It was a sweet transition and confidence booster -- also making performance easier and with less effort.”

Michael Jordan (no, not that Michael Jordan), high level soccer player from Arcadia, California, trying to make the JV team (he did, and still plays in my Sunday game):

“I have more memories regarding the first practice than the first game. I think that’s because for me, practice was my game time. I knew I wasn’t likely to play in most games. That’s not to say I didn’t get up for them or have some excitement, but my opportunity to play came in practice.

“My first practice with you was my first practice on an organized basketball team. I knew I would have two things that I could contribute to a team: energy and coachability. I felt like I could help set the tone for enthusiasm and focus -- that the other players would hopefully choose to match. I’d never done basketball drills before, and I remember making my best effort not to make that obvious. I knew that I was athletic enough to fit in eventually, but I didn’t want others to know how little experience I had.

“I remember running suicides that first day. Does anyone like running suicides?!? I did. It was a chance for me to be on a more even playing field. I knew that the long-time basketball players in the gym hated it, and didn’t want to do it, and wouldn’t put energy into it. I knew I could make up for their long-stride advantage with sheer determination and energy. I didn’t beat everyone. Some were long, fast and determined. But I could beat most. I took it as an opportunity to show leadership by example. I tried to make it so the coaches would recognize it and maybe even say that ‘little Michael Jordan should not be beating you, you or you.’ That was the one thing I had to offer. I could help drive and motivate the starters by showing them what maximum effort looked like, every day, all the time.

“I always took great pride in our teams’ victories and successes. I was confident that I’d contributed as best I could, which was really just by making the best players better in practice.”

Chris Greene, from Marin, California, Conference Player of the Year and First Team All-American:

“I am thinking about focusing on my conditioning mostly, getting into that last bit of shape before the two-a-days and full load conditioning starts. I could get back to working on the jumper once the first few weeks of practice are over and I got into shape. My basketball skills would definitely regress while my legs were dead from longer than normal first few weeks of practices.

“That transition from pick-up hoops to the real start of practice was always a tough one.”

Rick Neault, from Upland, California, two-year JV starter, one-year key varsity reserve as a senior, with the quickest first step in the program:

“It was a strange mix of confidence and fear that kept me awake the night before the first practice of a new season, and as my brain produced a memory loop of successful moves and shots I had made in the past, my feet would sweat and make the bottom of my bed sheets damp. My confidence was based on having been a key contributor to previous teams on which I had played, but a decent chunk of my confidence also sprang ironically from having been underestimated by opponents along the journey of basketball competition.

“The fear was the same one that gnawed at me from the first day I faced a player better than myself: the knowledge that eventually there will always be someone, then a few people, then an overwhelming number of them, who will be better than me at the game, and all but a select few of us rises inevitably to a level of competition where too many of those superior teammates and opponents are present. So the eternal question kept my nerves on speed-dial---is this new team I’m joining going to finally be the one, the one where I am no longer counted on, no longer feared on the court, and God forbid, no longer even good enough to be worth having around?”

Peter Schwartzman, from Virginia, four-year JV starter and captain, played one varsity game, now Professor of Environmental Studies, Knox College, Illinois:

“Coach: Here is what was going through my mind before the first practice:

‘I know I was supposed to run every day to get into shape...I did some but not enough . . . Man, I am going to feel the pain during the sprints! I sure hope coach realizes that we are not in shape.

It will be great to be competing again. We have some great players here and an excellent coaching staff and I know all will challenge me to get better.’”

Kevin Zitar, from Claremont, California, Conference Player of the Year and All-American:

“Nerves? By the time practice came around, the new crew had been playing together for months. Not sure there were any surprises as we officially walked from the pick-up to the practice floor. We all knew deep down if and where we belonged.

“Mentality? Most of us were gym rats, loved to play and played as much as possible. When practice started, the mentality shifted from the good-natured fun of hours of open gym to the more serious and business-like reality of structured practice and intense fitness. We all knew those early weeks of practice would hurt like hell, but we always came back for more.

Go Stags!”

To which I would only add, Go Stags and Go Spurs. Let practice begin.