WHY I COACH, by Steve Bunin, ESPN Anchor and High School Basketball Coach
Updated: 2011-02-28 08:56:43
Although I consider myself the luckiest man alive to have landed my dream job as an anchor at ESPN - the job I wanted since I was ten years old – I have found a different, and often deeper, reward in my second job – as a basketball coach.
I got into coaching simply to fill time while working as a nearly-non-paid television sports reporter in the late 1990s in Flagstaff, Arizona – a city so small, it doesn’t even make the list of 215 television markets in the United States. While my broadcasting career was yet to take off, the seeds were planted in what soon became my second love.
A friend asked me to coach some 9-year-olds and before you could say turnover-prone, I was hooked. I had played for a demanding coach in high school, and we were a perennial state power, so I knew I knew the fundamentals. But I didn’t know if I could teach them to children, and I certainly didn’t realize how much fun I’d have trying.
Over the next four years, I moved four times (from Arizona to Michigan to California to Washington) pursuing my journalism career, but always keeping my hand in coaching, working with older kids each year.
By 2001-’02, I was coaching at Northwest Yeshiva High School in my hometown of Mercer Island, Wash., a suburb of Seattle. It was an experience that transformed my life.
Our star scorer and one of the greatest kids I’ve ever known, Ari Grashin, was diagnosed with brain cancer before our first game. He was our most dedicated player - a spindly sophomore guard who could light it up from 23-feet, had the ability to finish a la Jimmer Freddette, and had smarts to match.
It was truly heartbreaking to watch Ari fight this ever-growing tumor, but his battle and the way his family and friends came together inspired me then and inspires me still.
Ari passed away on September 23, 2002, 17 days shy of his 17th birthday. But he quasi-adopted me throughout his year-long struggle, letting me into his life and introducing me to the rewards a more observant lifestyle could offer.
Nine years later, I still keep in touch with most of the players from that NYHS team, Ari’s best friends who became like brothers and sons to me.
In the summer of 2002, after a year and a half out of broadcasting (an eternity in my field), I got a job in tiny Battle Creek, Michigan, and one year later, I landed at ESPN. I know in the deepest part of my soul that I would never have been hired if not for Ari.
While on my interview at the ESPN campus in Bristol, Conn., I felt Ari’s presence with me. He had only died ten months earlier, and having seen Ari go through literally the battle of his life, I knew that whether I got the job or not, it was NOT a life or death situation.
And that sense of calm helped me stay relaxed throughout what otherwise would have been the most stressful experience of my life – the job interview I’d waited for my whole life, an 8-hour ordeal meeting multiple ESPN Vice Presidents, doing an audition on the SportsCenter set, all the while knowing you were going up against other candidates at the top of their game.
I talked about Ari a lot that day, and I am convinced it separated me from the rest of the field. The following Monday, my agent called and asked, “What do you think about moving to Connecticut?” Needless to say, the tears flowed.
I did not coach basketball in Battle Creek, but once I moved here to ESPN, I quickly signed on to lead the Hartford Maccabi team in the Boston Games of 2004 (I had played for Seattle in the 1990 Detroit Games), and although we went 0-and-4, it reminded me how much I loved coaching.
My work schedule precluded me from coaching for another five years, but last spring, I was approached to take over at the Hebrew High School of New England, and despite now having a child of my own, my wife and I agreed it was time for me to get back on the sidelines.
Coaching the HHNE team this season was – like every coaching job - alternately thrilling and frustrating. From the lows of tough losses and discipline issues to the highs of seeing struggling players improve and earning hard-fought victories, it was a season to remember.
We finished just 2-and-8, but had the nation’s leading scorer (among Jewish high schools, of course), Nate Pava, at 27.0ppg. What makes Nate great is that he’s a better kid than a basketball player, a humble young man who will grow up to be a great leader in his community, I’m convinced.
And that is what makes coaching so fun for me, especially at the high school level. It’s never about the wins and losses. It’s about the life lessons you can impart on teenagers as they make the transition from boys to men.
It’s about knowing that, years from now, they’ll still call you “Coach,” and you’ll always share a bond that cannot be broken.