Friday, December 7, 2012

Women’s basketball and the uncommon kid

Patti Olsen, co-captain of the Royals women's basketball team, helped bring new players up to speed this season.

By Eliot Dix James

What does it take to turn around a basketball team that hasn’t ranked nationally in over 15 years? You might say a coach who cracks the whip. Or a roster of the hottest players.

For coach Curtis Nelson of the Royals women’s team, though, the answer is more refined: the uncommon kid. Who is this rarified student athlete? Nelson explains, it’s someone who doesn’t say “Why do we have to this?” but instead, “Hey, why not?”

The uncommon kid - young woman, if you will - doesn’t just say she wants to be great. She acts great. Not only in basketball, but in school and with her friends. Nelson is clear about his expectations. And he’s scared away some potential recruits. But the right players have helped him and his crew slowly build a winning team since he arrived at Douglas last season.

The Royals-that-couldn’t now rank #10 nationally and are up 6-2 in league games at mid-season.

Nelson credits his two captains for much of this success. Patti Olsen and Amonda Francis have helped to recruit and bring the season’s nine new players up to speed.

Olsen knows about uncommonness. She was born prematurely but has grown to succeed in the lofty heights of hoops. But she almost didn’t return to play out her fifth and final year of college sports. When I asked the basketball guard what changed her mind, she pinpointed Nelson’s style. “He’s very hands on. He wants to teach basketball and he also cares for each individual that is part of our team,” she says.

Olsen’s in her third year in the Child and Youth Care program and plans to teach special education. Last year, she got her first college A. She says playing on the team has made her more disciplined. Nelson couldn’t be more pleased.

“Accountability, responsibility, communication skills, dealing with adversity, teamwork. These are life skills that aren’t exclusive to the basketball court,” he says. “And if you don’t get that, then you probably aren’t going to succeed in my program.”

High expectations, indeed. Still, Nelson runs his team more like a collective than a platoon. If the players need a rest, they get a rest. He believes that giving his athletes a voice makes them happier. And when they’re happy, they try harder.

“If I properly do my job as a coach, then I become superfluous to the operation. You really don’t need me here,” he says. “Because you’ll understand what it takes to be successful.”

It’s an approach that Nelson admits could devolve into anarchy if not done right. An uncommon philosophy, fitting for uncommon athletes. And so far, I would have to agree it’s working.

The women’s Royals return to the court Jan. 11 against Vancouver Island University at 6pm in Nanaimo.