“If there’s one thing we have here, it’s inherent drama. You can’t miss it. I don’t care if you know basketball.”
— Paden Fallis; "The Play About The Coach"
If you’re watching a basketball game, you probably have a vested interest in one side or another proving triumphant. You probably haul out the Michael Jordan fist pump when Star Player X bangs home an off-balance jumper with the shot clock running down. You bellow at the refs when opposing Star Player Y gets away with traveling or pushing off for the umpteenth time. As the seconds tick off the clock, you cross your fingers, furiously rub on your lucky rabbit’s foot/jersey/other totemic item, and, assuming you’re not watching this game alone, lose yourself in a throng of fellow fans; the nigh-unbearable excitement and the gut-wrenching anxiety of the moment -- the last-second heave, the final defensive stand -- building to a near blinding crescendo.
And for all you have invested in the outcome, that's nothing compared to your team's coach. He has serious skin in this game -- his livelihood, his professional reputation, all his hopes and dreams and so forth.
Which is why, when the cameras cut to the well-dressed gentleman prowling the sidelines, you’ll often see someone who looks a bit like an adrenaline-infused madman or a Sufi mystic in the midst of a most disturbing trance.
This character is the hero and subject of playwright Paden Fallis’, "The Play About The Coach;" a one-man show that will have a month-long run from February 27 to March 17 at the 4th Street Theatre in New York City.
In the play, the audience is taken through the harrowing final three minutes of an Elite 8 game during March Madness as seen and experienced by a maniacally charming coach on the precipice of a complete and total nervous breakdown. If a young Bruce Campbell were suddenly tapped to run Butler or any other mid-major’s program, that’s what this performance would look like.
Though the players, refs and spectators are nowhere to be seen, Fallis does a wonderful job of crafting a world by taking still frames of the gyrations we’ve seen from each and every high-strung descendant of Bobby Knight:
Crouching on one knee fidgeting with his lip, hands on both knees and bent over; furiously calling the players back to the huddle by whirling his arms together.
The tight-lipped stare while arching back and raising an eyebrow.
Clapping while hunched over, not in approval, but in sarcastic encouragement.
Slumping over in his seat, hands on his forehead as if he could wipe his face away and then slyly barking something at an assistant coach/benchwarmer.
Nervously over-adjusting his tie a la David Brent from the British version of "The Office."
Flinging his jacket off.
Hitting the water cooler like a man dying of thirst and then wantonly chucking crumpled paper cups on the ground.
Clutching his hands in prayer towards the ref before walking away with a dismissive wave—and crafting them together to form a fluid dance of gestures.
After a rehearsal earlier this week, the play's star, Fallis, and director Tamara Fisch and I hunkered down in a coffee shop to talk about coaches.
I brought up Brian Phillips’ brilliant recent article on Grantland where he describes the phenomenon of Coach-as-avatar for the aging fan.
"There definitely is a way that the coach is the fan’s access point. Part of his job is to channel the fans rage," said Fisch. I mentioned that I often want to fling heavy objects while watching the Knicks, but I realize such behavior is generally frowned upon. "That’s the fascinating thing," she continued. "The fans can’t throw things. They need the expression of the rage from the coach to experience the catharsis they’re looking for.”
I remarked that, not that it’s fake or crafted when a real coach loses it but it feels like ritualized action that’s in part for our benefit. She continued: "Exactly. The first impulse feels true, but then they keep going for another minute and a half, and you’re like, ‘No, no, no.’ You take one chair and fling it, okay, but then …"
I asked why they made the play about a college coach, instead of one from the NBA, and Ms. Fisch replied: “It’s the great American narrative about how underdogs can become extraordinary or an average guy can achieve great heights. It feels true about college sports as opposed to the pro game, and the great divider is money. Pro athletes feel like another species of being and the emotional access just isn’t there. It [College ball] feels like a real, hometown connection. They still feel like kids, where their success is your success.”
We continued talking about college hoops and how the notion of innocence and identification with the NCAA might be another theatrical construct, and how Tom Crean and Bill Self were early archetypes for the character that Fallis created. I asked how a non-sports fan would relate to the piece, considering how heavy it is on basketball jargon and coach-speak. Ms. Fisch said, "He’s trying to insist that this [the game] has meant something. His life has to have meant something. When some event removes a pillar of your identity, who are you? Who you are is completely annihilated. And we’re lost."
After we’d parted and I was trudging towards the subway, I couldn’t help but think of all the times I’d died after a loss. I was reminded once again that (though it’s not something that’s particularly fun to ponder if you want to keep watching and retain your sanity) we fans all realize deep down that for all the love we pour into a team, we have absolutely zero ability to affect the outcome. The coach, on the other hand, presumably does, especially in college where he is the be-all and end-all and a stern, noble, revered figure to boot. We identify with him because he allows us to live in the fiction that our faith has an impact.
But as "The Play About The Coach" ably demonstrates, that element of control that the coach supposedly wields is just as much an illusion as our own. For all his brilliant and not-so-brilliant stratagems and words of wisdom culled from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens (Okay, no coach alive would go to the Bard for pep talk aphorisms, but I’d certainly support any who did.) he’s still wholly reliant on whether or not a jumper clangs off the rim to determine the value of his entire existence.
Fallis’ coach does, in his failure, become aware of his own powerlessness and in his defeat, in his psychic death, holds his revelation up like a mirror to our own. That’s the job of the theater: to take our illusions and dreams, and, if the play’s a tragedy, show them smashed to bits in front of our eyes. He and we recognize the degree to which we’re all subject to unseen fates and inscrutable forces much greater than ourselves.
Sports-as-drama is far simpler. The winners rejoice and the losers rend their garments. It’s a Manichean plot that exists to help us escape real life's maddening half-truths and myriad shades of gray. That doesn’t make sports any less meaningful or necessary than tragedy, but it’s a different animal than a work of art -- a vehicle for more complex, difficult truths and ideas.
But in the end, they’re both undoubtedly dramas.
For more information about "The Play About the Coach" visit the Paden Fallis website.