THE BLOG
11/26/2013 11:20 am ET Updated Jan 26, 2014

When the Buzzer Sounds: Basketball, Giving and Thanks

This piece is co-authored by Dan Engelstad, Head Men's Basketball Coach, Southern Vermont College.

Southern Vermont College's first basketball game of the 2013 season started with a remarkable win over Williams College. Williams was in the top three in NCAA DIII preseason polls, and we had a pre-season ranking of 410 (out of 414). We called ourselves the Wrecking Crew, but our low rank was motivating, not demoralizing.

The pride when the SVC-Williams game ended was palpable -- for the fans, the athletes and the coaches. It was college basketball at its best -- hard work, practice, commitment, perseverance and teamwork that produced amazing results especially considering we play in NCAA DIII, where there are no athletic scholarships.

There have been several lessons learned as this young basketball season launches. As powerful as the first win was and is, it is the other "wins" we have been experiencing that will enrich our community too. When our season opened, the Richie Incognito story surfaced, raising questions not just about professional football player locker rooms but all locker rooms. Is there such a thing as "acceptable" hazing and what harassment is permitted, even when the participants are adults with enormous physical strength?

An early on-campus event addressing this situation featured Aaron Kelton, the head college football coach at Williams who worked with the Dolphins pre-season; the event was well attended and has made all of us focus on the locker rooms on our own campus and how students conduct themselves -- not just athletes at games but students on and off the court and field. This is a conversation we have started -- not concluded.

Beyond the court, and into the STEM arena, our basketball team is pairing up with the Maple Street School, a local K-8 independent school. These younger students are working on mathematics using the SVC individual players' statistics -- measuring free throw and shooting percentages among other tasks, emailing players each week with a student -- produced stat report, visiting campus, and watching a game. SVC's players will visit these youngsters on their campus and run a basketball skills clinic for them. With the national conversation about the importance of learning STEM disciplines, linking STEM activities to basketball provides a fit and has engaged students with the link between math and how it applies to everyday experiences.

But, there is another important aspect to this partnership. Vermont, a largely white state, has many students who have not lived or worked with minority populations. That is a handicap in a world that is increasingly diverse and as these students leave the state, they will be considerably unprepared to learn and work within the richness of our diverse nation. What better example can there be than a group of college athletes from a wide range of ethnicities working on both academic and athletics with the non-diverse Vermont students? More life lessons there.

And then, on Sunday mornings, our basketball players and coaches have run skills clinics for local kids -- programs designed to build self esteem while building teamwork, community engagement and improved wellness. And, the sessions are fun-filled with laughter. This effort stands in sharp contrast to the recent articles about the AAU -- Amateur Athletic Union. AAU basketball has turned high stakes with sponsorships, shoe deals, and other perks on the line. It's become such a big business that coaches and managers are scouting kids in elementary school. A recent Time Magazine story by Sean Gregory got it right, unfortunately.

There is an AAU national ranking of second graders -- before we know which kids will grow tall and which will be fast and which will have a passion for the game in high school, let alone college or the pros. Individual accolades as opposed to team goals have become priority. From experience across all levels of high school and college basketball, we know the over-recognition of young talent can make this athlete uncoachable when in high school or college. Pressuring second graders just can't be healthy -- at least not for most kids. And too much competition of the wrong kind can make the game, and perhaps other things, a chore rather than a passion.

Yes, SVC's basketball wins (and upsets of higher ranked teams) bring enormous pride. But, as a President and a coach, we are also proud of the other activities that accompany our collegiate basketball season -- "giving" activities that serve our players, our community and our local kids well. In addition to listening to the buzzer and the final score, listen to the laughter, the joy, the cheers, and the pride.

I am reminded of the movie starring Al Pacino titled "Any Given Sunday;" in any given week, any given team can win -- regardless of rankings. Not a bad life lesson. It promises to be an amazing season.

In sum and in the spirit of Thanksgiving and holiday season that are fast approaching, we have much for which to be thankful at SVC -- on and off the court.