Remembering Coach Fitz
If you asked me, as a Fairfield High School freshman basketball player, if I was looking forward to playing junior varsity ball under Coach Walter Fitzgerald, the veritable legend, I'd have given a resounding no.
His style of coaching terrified me. He'd show up at our Saturday morning freshman practice -- and just about every other freshman practice -- scowl disapprovingly from the sideline, and then erupt when you botched a layup drill. Nothing seemed up to his standards. During one outburst, directed at me, I remember looking this white-haired, red-faced, firecracker of a man, and thinking, "Why does he hate me?"
Then you'd lob a cross-court pass -- as I often did -- and the other team would intercept it, head down-court, and score an uncontested layup. Fitz wouldn't just interrupt the scrimmage to remind you -- and everyone else in Fairfield -- that you weren't playing with heart. He'd do so by saying something like, "Some move, Tim! When do you plan to quit standing around with your finger in your ear and start playing some basketball?!"
Coach Fitz was a straight talker. He was also demanding, relentless, quick-witted and hilarious.
His compliments were worth far more than the actual words he used to make them. Most of them came subtly -- imbedded in his outbursts, laced in his sarcasm, or conveyed through cackling teeth and dancing eyes. For my entire freshman year and the beginning of my junior varsity season, the only "compliments" I seemed to get were about my finger being stuck in my ear.
Then he'd say, "Tim, it's when I stop yelling at you for making a mistake that you better worry. Because that means I'm not sure you'll ever do it right."
Coach Fitz never stopped yelling at me. Yet at some point -- around Christmas-time my sophomore year -- I noticed, with some surprise, that he was no longer tearing down my confidence but building a more mature form of it back up. It took time for Fitz's magic to wear off on me. But when it did, I was a new basketball player -- and I think, a more mature person.
Coach Fitz built basketball players for life, not just for taking on Bridgeport Central. He toughened you as a player and person, developing self-confidence that isn't reliant on others patting your back. And when you finally came to play to your full potential, he'd ask you to dig a little more.
The high point for me came at the end of my junior-varsity season. He and I were both aware that something had clicked during the course of the season. But other than inserting me into the starting line-up and keeping me on the court longer with each successive game, he never mentioned anything. Then, while congratulating our team at the season-ending banquet, he made a special, unnecessary, though much appreciated announcement: "Tim," he said, "has improved as much in one season as anyone I've coached in my entire career."
That was nine years ago and it remains one of the deepest compliments I've heard in my life.
Over the past decade, I've thought of those words for inspiration countless times -- when I felt overwhelmed in college and grad school; when I've felt swamped at work; or when I'm not sure I can handle something new or terrifying in life.
I remember Coach Fitz, vein pulsing in his forehead, screaming: "Some move Tim! Now get that your finger out of your ear and start playing some basketball!"
Then I remember this.
Heading up to Rhode Island for our season-opening roadtrip, a senior informed Coach Fitz that his 18th birthday would come while we were in Providence.
"So are you going to put me up in suite for the night?"
"No, you'll be staying with me," Fitz said, not missing a beat. "There's nothing sweeter than that."
We'll miss you Coach. But we won't forget you