From the time I was a little boy, love and basketball went hand in hand. As an adult, love and wilderness have been my drink of choice, but basketball has remained a passionate presence. Traveling around the country with my Yellowstone sermons and more recently with my Grizzlies On My Mind book tour, I’m often asked by audiences: “What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever witnessed?”
Most would just assume that the answer would have to be some experience from my decade+ of Yellowstone adventures, desert southwest forays or time living on the Garden Island of Kauai. A grizzly cresting a hill on a cold spring morning, a bison emerging through the mist of a foggy February afternoon, a sunset from one of the Greater Yellowstone’s remote ridgelines, a walk through one of southern Utah’s enigmatic slot canyons or a humpback whale leaping out of the Pacific Ocean. And while all of these experiences have captured my soul and enhanced my walk upon this earth in immeasurable ways, my answer to the question is far simpler and less glorious.
The most beautiful times I’ve experienced have occurred in grungy locker rooms and poorly lit gyms in small towns across southwestern Montana. Wolves, bears, bison and trout, wild rivers, rugged mountains and sweeping valleys are what brought me to the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. But some of the most meaningful relationships I’ve forged, and experiences I’ve shared, have been with the boys (and girls) I had the opportunity and privilege to coach while living on the doorstep to Yellowstone National Park.
I fill many pages with stories of my time as the head boy’s basketball coach at Gardiner High in my recent book, Be Audacious. While we always overachieved, losing with dignity and winning with grace, it’s not what we accomplished on the hardwood that encapsulates the meaningful nature of that chapter in my life story.
It’s the relationships forged, the bonds made and the life skills developed. I always said that we were in the business of helping young boys in their quest to become strong, character driven, resilient young men. And I’ve long believed that there is unmatched power in sport to teach some of the intangibles that matter most, impacting the fathers, husbands, preachers and teachers, employees and entrepreneurs that our boys would become.
It’s been five seasons now since I last prowled the sidelines at Gardiner High, battling it out in small town gyms in places like Twin Bridges, White Sulphur Springs, Ennis, Clyde Park and Sheridan. But those relationships still impact my life on a weekly basis. Every Sunday morning, I mean EVERY Sunday morning, since graduating in 2009, my three-time all state big-man calls me just to check in, and say “I love you, Coach.”
After our return to Montana from Kauai, me on crutches and in a walking boot cast, Kamiah and I started a new chapter in our lives, just the two of us. When we made the trek from Missoula (where we landed and spent time with my folks) to Bozeman, four of my former players where there to greet us, mending our hearts and enhancing our sense of belonging and family. Over the course of the next six weeks the same four players would help us move three times (into a rental, out of one storage unit and into another, out of the rental and into our new home). When the day arrived for us to move into our new house, they all turned out to help “Coach” and “Baby K,” who wasn’t a baby anymore.
What could have easily been a devastating experience, moving into a new home, just the two of us, turned into a festival of love. After one long day we were moved in. The team had put everything together, built her a bunk bed, and sat with us for our first dinner in our little love palace.
When I underwent wrist surgery two months after moving into our new home and realized I needed help to parent with one hand, I shot one of my boys, who was going through his own hard time, a text, asking him if we wanted to move in with “Coach.” The next day he arrived from Cody, Wyoming. Four years later, it’s safe to say that Devon is a big brother to Kamiah.
A few weeks back, during one of those self-doubt questioning cycles that all writers and creatives seem to go through from time to time, I received a text from the mom of one of my former players that moved mountains and proved as confirming of my path as anything I’ve ever received. In it she said, “You are a hero to my son…and he’s needed a hero his whole life. I’ll forever be grateful for that.”
This past summer I officiated the wedding of one of the girls whom I first had the opportunity to coach as an assistant in Gardiner. Oh, and she just so happens to have a “Be Audacious” tattoo and wrote the forward to my book.
And then, this last week, a big box arrived at our front door. I could see it was from one of my former players, a graduate of the team that went on the epic run from 2007-2009. He was one of the players who helped us move into our new Bozeman crib. He’s also a central character in my twenty-eight thousand-word essay titled “Bliss Pass” in my Yellowstone based book, Grizzlies on My Mind, describing how he pulled off an epic twenty-mile day carrying a sixty-pound pack while serving as a Sherpa for one of my guided trips.
Justin was one of my favorite kids I ever coached. He wasn’t the best basketball player, but he had a massive heart and a fiery spirit. We dedicated my first year at Gardiner to a young boy fighting terminal cancer. He was a beautiful spirit named Barry Simon. His passing hit the boys hard, but none more so than Justin. The next season, Justin inked “Barry Simon” on his shoes. I loved the young man even more.
Then, on a night we battled the #1 team in the state in their own gym, I received news that my beloved Aunt Susan’s cancer had returned. I shared the news with my team the next week, as I wanted us to honor one of the most amazing women I’ve ever known. The night before we went to play in a game for the ages against Arlee, a night we would win a miraculous game by one point on a shot that rimmed out at the buzzer, my aunt Susan passed away. When Justin walked onto the floor for the big clash with Arlee, at the MAC in Butte (one of the best gyms in the state), the words “Aunt Susan” were penned on his non-Barry Simon shoe.
When I opened the box that arrived on our doorstep last week, Justin’s game shoes were inside. They’ve been sitting in our living room all week. My mom—who after reading that he wanted a ferret, fulfilled Barry’s wish by driving three hundred miles to buy him one—introduced us to Barry Simon, and has laid claim to his shoe. The other will occupy a special spot on my office bookshelf.
It’s funny how life works sometimes. When I left Gardiner, we’d won a lot of hardware, but we didn’t hang any banners. And yet, to this day, I cherish the two and three page letters players wrote me upon my resignation. They represent my 401K. Connection fosters meaning and purpose, and my time spent coaching at Gardiner provided me and Kamiah with relationships that will stand the test of time.
It’s not about the wins. It’s not even about the competition. Basketball, like life, is all about the love.
With nothin’ but love,