Abby flu game jpg

A Father and Daughter Follow the Bouncing Ball

Near the end of a long journey together, a basketball coach reflects on his favorite point guard

By Alan Shipnuck

As a little girl, my daughter Abigail was so shy she regularly hurt her grandparents’ feelings by bursting into tears whenever they dared to make eye contact with her. She didn’t say her first words until she was 3½ , and then complete sentences came tumbling out; it turned out Abby had been processing language the whole time but was hesitant to let any of us into her world. Her mom, Frances, and I occasionally fretted over how this docile little thing would make her way in the big, bad world.

The answer revealed itself once Abby hit the youth soccer field, where she turned into a whirling dervish, all pigtails and attitude. She also excelled at softball; in her first practice she made an over-the-shoulder basket catch that evoked Willie Mays and I jumped to my feet in the bleachers, animated with delight (and shock!). I certainly hadn’t taught her how to do such a thing. When Abby reached the fifth grade she announced she wanted to try basketball, perhaps nudged by her dad—I was still playing pickup ball and Warriors games were a staple on the family TV. Her YMCA team wound up needing a coach and I knew exactly whom to call: my lifelong best friend Kevin Price.

We were 40 percent of the starting lineup of a championship basketball team at Salinas (Calif.) High, and Kevin went on to coach eight years at our alma mater. (I was his assistant for one season—I loved it, but given my work travel and a house full of little kids, I couldn’t continue to devote the time.) During his break from coaching, Kevin moved to Carmel (where the Shipnucks were living), got married and had a baby girl, Claire. I knew he missed being in the gym, so it wasn’t hard to sell him on the idea of coaching Abby’s Y team. The girls chose the nickname Purple Dragons and we had way too much fun. Along the way, Abby emerged as a quicksilver point guard. She still didn’t say much, but amid all the pixies running helter skelter on the court, she stood out with her intensity. She was always the fastest kid and every time she had a breakaway Kevin and I would shout, “Go, Abby, go!” It became an unofficial motto.

Abby first hoop photo jpg

The next year she matriculated to Carmel Middle School, where the girls basketball coaching position happened to be open. It felt like destiny. Kevin got the job and I signed on as his dutiful assistant. We went undefeated that first year, and I embraced the role of sports psychologist and head cheerleader. Abby seemed to get better every day and helping her refine her game took me back to when my dad would endlessly hit me ground balls at the park when I was a Little League third baseman.

We were still undefeated heading into the league championship game of Abby’s seventh grade season. But that week she was felled by the flu and still a little weak and woozy on the day of the big game. I cued up YouTube and showed her clips of Michael Jordan’s “Flu Game” and Willis Reed hobbling onto the floor at Madison Square Garden. That night Abby never came off the floor and scored the decisive points in Carmel’s win. At the buzzer she fell into my arms. The photo (top of story) remains one of my most treasured possessions. That game was when I realized she was built differently.

The grit and fearlessness Abby displayed on the court (and soccer field and track and field oval) began to define her away from sports. She became more confident in the classroom and around adults, and more boisterous and silly with friends and siblings. Being in nature had always stirred her soul, but now she attacked every challenge, routinely climbing to the tops of redwood trees, a speck barely visible among the branches.

“What if she falls?” Frances once asked, fretfully.

To which I replied, “I think it would pain her more not to climb that tree.”

Despite the back-to-back unbeaten seasons, Kevin and I didn’t get to coach Abby in eighth grade as we were swept out of the job due to Machiavellian middle school politics. I sat in the stands brooding as the team struggled, my heart heavy for the girls, who didn’t look like they were having much fun. But as Abby arrived at Carmel High the basketball gods again intervened and the girls varsity coaching position came open. Kevin got the job. I was going to be his assistant, but when no one applied for the JV head coaching position I offered to fill it to help build the program. I knew there was a chance I wouldn’t get to coach Abby and, sure enough, a week into the preseason it became clear she belonged on varsity. She was the shortest girl on the team but sinewy and strong and unafraid of tangling with players a head taller.

Coaching the JV team turned into one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Mentoring tough, confident young women is an important kind of community service. I learned more about preparation, leadership and team-building than I could have in an Ivy League MBA program. I can say with some certainty the girls’ favorite practice of the year was when they showed up and there were no basketballs in the gym, just pizza and drinks; we sat around the half-court circle noshing and revealing ourselves through questions cribbed from the Proust Questionnaire (“What is your greatest fear?” “Who are your heroes in real life?”). I had grown up with a reflexive veneration for my coaches, and it was humbling to earn that title from my players. On game days I was so aflutter I could barely think of anything else, and for hours after the final buzzer I would replay the games in my mind, delighting in what the girls did well and anguishing over how I could have put them in better positions to succeed.

Both the JV and varsity teams won league championships that year. I served as a bench coach and statistician for the varsity. Abby was still building her offensive skills but had already become a tenacious defender who we always unleashed on the opponent’s best scorer. Kevin and I had a pregame ritual devoted to whomever Abby was guarding, looking at each other and saying a variation of, “I wouldn’t want to be number 12 tonight.”

Abby faced another defining challenge in her first playoff game at the end of that freshman year, which fell across Carmel High’s February break. Our other starting guard—the team’s leading scorer and primary ball handler—got stranded in Grand Cayman. (Carmel is the land of first-world problems.) That meant Abby was going to have to carry the load against a senior-laden opponent. The night before the game I barely slept. Abby would sizzle for hours after losses; I knew it would have been crushing for her if she were to struggle as her team got bounced out of the playoffs. 

In the first minute of the game, Abby turned it over twice against heavy full-court pressure and my heart was in my throat. But she settled down and helped keep us close in a hard-fought game. Early in the fourth quarter Abby had a flurry of two steals and three baskets as we pulled away. I have never felt so elated and relieved. I didn’t even realize I had tears streaking my cheeks until Kevin gently said, “You OK, Coach?” After the game Abby was swarmed by her giddy friends (below), another treasured memory.

Abby friends jpg

Covid arrived a couple of weeks after the season ended. The high school was shuttered so abruptly I didn’t have a chance to return my keys to the gym. With the world shut down, Abby and I began sneaking into the gym at night. We’d take out the rack of 15 balls and I’d rebound for her as she shot until her right arm went limp. Every time we heard a bump in the night we’d hide in a corner of the gym, tittering. Over time we became more brazen, blasting music and hooting and hollering as we played ornate games of H-O-R-S-E. These gym sessions kept both of us sane, and Abby’s 3-point shooting improved dramatically. 

Her sophomore season was pretty much wiped out by the pandemic, but during her junior year Abby played with a pent-up intensity. She was named the league’s defensive player of the year and earned all-county honors from the Monterey Herald, which noted that she led all of Monterey County in steals and assists. (She nearly had a quadruple-double against Monterey High.) The varsity went undefeated in league play, and I coached the JV to another league championship. I watched Abby’s development with pride, of course, but the overriding emotion was awe. Can a middle-aged man have a teenage girl as his role model? 

Abby plays with so much passion it draws others in; her games have turned into family affairs, the stands crowded with aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and great-grandparents. Frances is always there, too, which takes me back to Salinas High—she was a cheerleader and we used to make eyes at each other when I was on the bench. Along with their mom, Abby’s siblings are her biggest fans. Olivia is charismatic and adventurous and beginning next fall will study film at American University in Paris. Michayla is artsy and edgy; she dreams of owning her own tattoo parlor and is honing her aesthetic by graffitiing abandoned buildings on Cannery Row. Ben is a sweet, contemplative kid who can sometimes be found on the roof stargazing; the student of the month citation he recently earned noted his “high level thinking.” Each of the kids has played various youth sports—Ben remains a tennis player and is planning to run track as a freshman—but if they ever felt any rivalry with their sister those days are long gone.

Abby is a senior now. This fall she had a heckuva season in field hockey as her squad became the first in Carmel High history to reach the Central Coast Section playoffs. Twice a first-team all-league selection, she controlled the action as a tireless midfielder with dazzling stick skills. In the first playoff game in program history, on the home turf of a big school in San Jose, the game was tied after overtime and went to a shoot-out. Each team chose five girls and Abby pleaded with her coach to go last. After nine players had taken their best shot the score was 3-3. I watched Abby intently throughout the shoot-out and her manner and expression never changed; her calm was eerie. With the season hanging in the balance, she stepped to the ball, nudged it to the right and then juked hard left. Before she had finished the cut her teammates were already screaming because the poor keeper never had a chance. Abby put the ball in the net for a walk-off goal (below) and her teammates sprinted across the field to engulf her. High school sports remain undefeated.

Most of the members of the tightly knit field hockey team went on to play soccer, which in this part of California is a winter sport like basketball. For weeks, maybe months, Abby had been contemplating playing soccer instead of basketball, floating the idea to various family members but never to me. I suspect she felt the burden of how much was riding on her shoulders in hoops. When I caught wind of her uncertainty I encouraged her to play soccer even though I had accepted a role as a varsity assistant under the new coach, Tom Dooner. It’s her life, and I’ve never put any pressure on Abby when it comes to sports. In the end, she couldn’t resist the siren song of the hardwood.

Even at 5’4” and maybe 115 lbs. she remains a defensive menace—13 steals in one game, a dozen in another, five blocks on one night—but this year Abby has taken on more of the scoring load. Sometimes the jump shots fall, sometimes they don’t. It hasn’t been an easy season, as we were moved up two divisions within our league. Carmel High has less than 800 kids and we’re now facing basketball powerhouses that are three and four times our size. Our starting shooting guard went down with a knee injury in early January. Our all-league forward has missed a bunch of games in favor of travel volleyball. Freakish storms scrambled the schedule. Dooner got Covid and I filled in for the game he missed, a thrilling and nerve-wracking experience. Abby lost a week of practice to Covid. (Naturally, on her first day back she played all 32 minutes in a fast-paced game, and only afterward did she confide that her eyes weren’t focusing quite right.) Twice this year we have been down a point in the dying seconds and Abby has had the ball in her hands. I could barely breathe. (On the second of these games I was actually out of town on a business trip but my kids were sending me real-time updates and videos!) Both times Abby got off contested shots. Neither went in. She was utterly crushed but I felt nothing but admiration—I know how much fortitude is required to want to take those shots. Five days after the second of these losses, we found ourselves down two points in the final seconds versus our arch rival Pacific Grove. They tried a long inbounds pass to the girl Abby was guarding. Big mistake. Abby plucked the ball out of the sky, weaved up the court and fired a jumper from the elbow. It missed and, embarrassingly, I screamed out in agony. But the rebound got batted back toward Abby and, without hesitation, she put up another jumper at the buzzer. Nothing but net! She ran off the court and jumped into my arms, one of the best hugs of my life. Then we beat P.G. in overtime for a cathartic win.

No matter what this season has thrown at her, Abby’s leadership and effort never waver. In practice, the kid who used to be afraid to speak is now the loudest voice, cheering and cajoling and counseling her teammates. She is a better assistant coach than her old man, that’s for sure. During games, whenever I gently offer advice, Abby will ignore me or bark a rebuttal. The first few times it hurt my feelings but now I kind of love it. The pupil has become the teacher. Like Kevin before him, Dooner has encouraged Abby to think about a career in coaching because she sees the game in such a sophisticated way. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll be her assistant. Once basketball gets in your blood it never really goes away.

A couple of junior colleges have recruited Abby, and I think she could play at the Division III level or maybe even Division II if she chased it hard enough, but upon graduation she will hang up her hightops and take a gap year. Abby’s plan is to travel the world WOOFing, which is to say, working on organic farms and learning about sustainable agriculture practices. She wants to save the world, not work on her jump shot. It’s one of the things that amazes me about Abby: If I had been such an accomplished athlete in high school it would have been my entire identity (and still might be!). But her closest friends aren’t jocks and she spends her weekends with them by painting, making jewelry, playing guitar, swimming in the ocean and backpacking in Big Sur. Basketball is not her life, it’s just something she does in her spare time.

Thursday is Senior Night and Abby’s final home game. I am tearing up just typing those words. I have coached two of her teammates since sixth grade: Delaney Castagna and Riley Palshaw. Delaney is sweet and silly until she steps on the court and morphs into a fierce rebounder and ruthless shotblocker. Her father, Dave, has put three daughters through the Carmel hoops program, serving as an assistant coach all the while. We huddle together on the bench, living and dying on every possession and expressing deep appreciation for each other’s kid. With her sly sense of humor, Riley has always been one of my favorite players, even though coaches aren’t supposed to admit such a thing. (I mean, c’mon, she sometimes wears a New York Times T-shirt to practice!) Riley’s younger sister, Avery, is also on this year’s team, and it makes me smile when I see them whispering inside jokes to each other while working on their free throws. Their mom, Kelli, was my assistant coach for two seasons and is now the rowdiest fan in the stands. Her husband Mike was Olivia’s favorite English teacher and I have been a guest speaker in his journalism class. We’ve all become one big family and it’s hard to imagine not spending winter nights together in loud, crowded gyms. I know we will savor these last few gatherings. 

Battle-hardened by our brutal league schedule, this team will be dangerous in the CCS playoffs when we go back to playing other schools our size, but even a playoff run will extend the season by only another week. Recently, Michayla sighed, “I wish the basketball season would go on forever.” I know the feeling, kid. But the end of a long journey looms.

Not long ago I found a box of Abby’s trophies, all-league patches and news clippings in the recycling bin. She didn’t understand my horror; I’ve now stashed these mementos away for safekeeping. (I am typing this next to a shelf that displays my first Little League home run ball, dating to 1983, and various trophies from my youth.) Abby is so self-effacing I know she will be mortified that I have written so much here, but I didn’t do this for her. There are boys out there who are going to be bewitched by her radiant smile, gentle nature and fearless spirit, and I think it’s only fair to warn them that the gal they’re falling in love with is basically Draymond Green with a better crossover. Someday, Abby will have kids and they should know what a badass their mom is. But really I wrote all of this down for myself, to memorialize so many favorite memories. Maybe it wasn’t necessary at all. My favorite point guard is growing up and I’m growing old but I know in my mind’s eye she will be forever young, streaking up the court with a ball in hand and ponytail flying, her very hoarse and very proud father shouting, “Go, Abby, go!”

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7 thoughts on “A Father and Daughter Follow the Bouncing Ball”

  1. Lovely, heartwarming column Alan. My kids are 7 and 5 and I am just beginning to volunteer for every coaching opportunity that comes up. I just don’t get the same fulfillment up in the stands as I do down on the court or diamond alongside my son and daughter, imparting both athletic and life advice all the while being careful not to be too overbearing. I am also finding that the other parents involved are becoming like an extended family to my own.

    It’s funny — when I was younger I never had a burning desire to be a father, I just sort of went along with it because my wife wanted kids and that’s what adults do. Now, though, it’s the all-encompassing best thing in my life. All week long I look forward to the 8am Saturday morning 1st & 2nd grade basketball game at the school gym. In the spring I’d rather be soft-tossing baseballs during my son’s coach-pitch game than pegging it during a coveted 9am tee time.

    I read this column and I see your pictures and I know how fast time goes, and I’m so aware of trying to soak up as much of it as I can. From one dad to another, thank you for sharing. And best of luck to Abby in her future endeavors.

  2. Fantastic. Enjoy every moment. Both of my girls, like their mom and dad, fell in love with the round ball. It’s provided them structure, taught them discipline and hard work, and given me so much joy and great memories watching them. My oldest continues to play the game she loves as a sophomore in college and my other, a junior in HS, tips off tonight in just over an hour. I can barely wait.

  3. What a great piece of writing, Alan. Certainly not at this level, but I got to co-coach my daughter child’s fifth grade basketball team (she’s now 37), and it remains one of the high points of my life. Now, we’re getting to watch her seven and four old daughters take up the game in a coed church league. They won’t be the athletes your Abby is, but I can’t think of anything that brings me more joy than watching them mix it up and have fun. I don’t need to tell you, but this great life goes by so fast!

  4. Loved this, Alan. A big fan of all your stories, but the personal ones are best. Thank you for sharing Abby’s journey with us (your coaching reflections were a highlight too!). She and her siblings seem like a wonderful kids approaching life’s excitement and big adventures ahead. Parenting is so damn hard but amazing you’ve had this basketball experience together.

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