You have to remember this is the type of basketball league where mothers rush the court just prior to tipoff to help team members put pretty barrettes in their hair, where referees often remind players that they have to dribble (only the NBA calls fewer travels than this league), and where fans applaud for every basket — even if the player shot it at the wrong hoop.
But given all that, there were still a few odd looks when Alyn Thomsen left his coaching position on the baseline and stepped out to block the shot of a player. Odd looks tend to happen when a legitimate seven-footer blocks the shot of a first grader who may be a legitimate three-footer—with the help of tippy-toes.
Thomsen insists he did it because the two teams of first and second grade girls didn’t know they were supposed to stop playing when the referee blew his whistle. Something had to be done to halt the action.
But if you really quiz Thomsen — get a stepladder and look him right in the eyes — you’ll get the sense that the big fellow maybe enjoyed it just a bit. Another block for the career stat sheet.
“Players are always looking to pad their stats,” Thomsen says with a laugh.
Thomsen was a player for a long time. First at the University of Tulsa (86 blocks, good for No. 9 on the school’s all-time list), then for a semi-pro team coached by future NBA coach Flip Saunders, and finally international ball for a Portugal professional team.
All told, basketball has taken him to five different countries and every state but Alaska.
“I had a high school coach who told me if I didn’t give back to this game after what it had given me, he would hunt me down and hurt me,” Thomsen says.
So Thomsen, 44, spends his Saturdays coaching first and second-grade girls in Lawrence’s Parks and Recreation basketball league, roaming the baseline and trying not to bump his head on the backboard.
And what a job it is. The coaching tricks of the trade in this league are a bit limited. Remember how Roy Williams used to take off his suit jacket and fling it to light a fire under his team? That doesn’t really work here, not to mention that the suit jacket of a seven-footer may cover the entire bench. Instead, the most effective motivational gesture seems to be a near-constant windmill motion of the coach’s arm — as in “please come down to this end of the court now.”
There are also no Bill Self masterpieces drawn up on a whiteboard. Strategy talk generally consists of reminding your point guard that she must dribble. (There can never be too many reminders about dribbling.)
And then there is the league itself. Every team is loaded with talent, if talent is measured in cute smiles and quick moves to the postgame snack line.
Thomsen also can tell you what else is in great abundance: reminders of what it's like to be young again.
“They’re so much fun to be around,” Thomsen said. “I had forgotten how literal you have to be at that age. It has taught me a new appreciation for first and second-grade teachers.”
For those who want to get a sip at that fountain of youth, Thomsen — who has coached for the past eight years — has a few tips for youth coaches: Be organized, because first and second graders aren’t going to do that for you. Make sure the snack list gets passed out. Remember to have fun.
“The big thing is to let them have some fun and reinforce the positives,” says Thomsen. “Then they’ll go out on their own and do it, and that’s what we really want them to do.”
Thomsen — who jokes that for a living he puts together broken basketball players (he sells medical devices used in ACL knee surgeries) — has some advice for parents too: Enjoy, but don’t worry.
Don’t worry about whether your son or daughter will suit up for the Jayhawks or some other basketball powerhouse. Most never will. But that’s OK. Even if the jump shot never develops, it will all work out.
“Kids will find their way,” Thomsen says. “They really will.”
Every once in awhile, even in a first and second-grade league, they happen to find it on the basketball court. On this particular Saturday, Thomsen’s daughter Sawyer hit a 12-foot jumper, a teammate made a nice pass, and yes, the point guard remembered to dribble a few times.
“When somebody who hasn’t made a basket makes one,” Thomsen says, “or somebody actually understands how to play defense for the first time, the smile she gets on her face is great.”
A great reminder that you are never too big to help the smallest learn something new.
But yes, sometimes you really are too big to block a first-grader’s shot.
— Each Sunday, Lawhorn’s Lawrence focuses on the people, places or past of Lawrence and the surrounding area. If you have a story idea, send it to Chad at firstname.lastname@example.org