The roots of the journey

Why player development specialist Kevin Cantwell is committed to making sure every parent knows how to take the right basketball journey for their child.

The roots of the journey

Why player development specialist Kevin Cantwell is committed to making sure every parent knows how to take the right basketball journey for their child.

One of the most shameful traditions in all of sport is a coach rendering his reserves __ those players on the end of the bench __ as irrelevant. The player who has not yet panned out is sometimes regarded as a nuisance to the coach's designs on winning a championship. It is something not said, but the disdain is easily conveyed by the coach's attitude.

"Get better, kid, because right now you are not in my plans."

Kevin Cantwell would sooner kiss a hot iron than treat a player as an afterthought, or tell the kid the burden was on him to get playing time. As a Division I coach at Appalachian State and Georgia Tech for 28 years, Cantwell's coaching DNA has an extra dose of empathy. He is certain he is here to throw his arm around the forlorn kid at the end of the bench, or the player stuck as the sixth man.

Cantwell has moral clarity about that player. You don't let him and figure it out for himself, or worse, go home. You put your arm around him and coach him like he's going to have something to do with the team's success. It is not hand-holding. It is not leading the player on. It's genuine empathy.

This is why Cantwell is on a mission to improve the state of U.S. basketball, starting with the book, "Parent's Guide to Youth Basketball and Beyond," which he wrote with Pat Alacqua.

"Great coaches care about the last person on the bench. I thought 'Holy crap, I can teach kids that no one is paying attention to.' That realization was big for me. It kept me in the game."

"Our two sons probably would have given up on the game if it were not for Kevin's great personality and making the boys feel comfortable," says Jeff Manka, who, along with his wife, Stephanie, have two boys in Sylvia, North Carolina. "When watching Kevin, you can tell how devoted he is to the children and the sport."

A parent in Spain read Cantwell and Alacqua's book and sent Cantwell a testimonial via Facebook that was signed by his school's entire coaching staff. They pasted several pages of Cantwell's book to their Facebook post that had nothing to do with skill. The pages were about handling failure, trusting teammates and sacrifice.

The book resonated on so many levels with the parents and coaches in Spain. "This is what I want for my children," one parent said.

If you want to know who Cantwell is and why you should trust him to mentor your child in basketball, you have to understand that practice never ended when practice ended at Appalachian State and Georgia Tech. Cantwell, at the end of the day's practice, would keep a player for at least 30 minutes to smooth out his shot or work on his dribbling skills.

"Bobby never played more than six people, so there were always kids on the bench who needed to be picked up emotionally," says Cantwell, who was the assistant coach under Bobby Cremins at Georgia Tech from 1985-2000. "Ambitious kids that were not happy. "We would tell them over and over 'roles change.' You can't say that one time to a kid and leave it alone. You have to care about it and believe it and repeat it. The player is not going to understand right away, but keep telling them roles change but for that to happen you need to stay positive and keep working hard."

Cantwell leans in on this next point and holds it close, "You don't coach a team, you coach individuals. You learn empathy."

The road taken
Cantwell learned empathy the hard way. He was cut from his middle school team at 13. He was an afterthought as a high school player in New York City, until he grew physically and became a highly-respected player who receive a lot of scholarship offers. He eventually was inducted into his high school Hall of Fame in 2002.

Cantwell went on to have a very good college career and then went into coaching. When his collegiate coaching career ended in 2000, he looked at the landscape of youth basketball and saw a disjointed system of weekend games created solely for the elite player.

What about the other kids – the ones with potential who were late bloomers or just wanted to play for fun? Those kids gave Kevin Cantwell a purpose to stay in the game. Several times he was asked to join corporate America and redirect and change his career. He remembers the plea: "Hey, Kevin if you get out of coaching, call me, we can use somebody like you."

Cantwell was a salesman, alright. A CEO gave him tickets on the second row of a World Series game in Atlanta in 2000, a nudge to get him on a suit-and-tie team. He dipped his toe in Corporate America and was once put in charge of a printing company his boss had bought.

"You don't coach a team, you coach individuals. You learn empathy."

Cantwell kept coming back to basketball. It was empathy pulling him back – the idea that he could make a difference with one child.

Jon Babul says empathy is a core principle of Cantwell's coaching philosophy. Babul played at Georgia Tech from 1996-2001. He had to redshirt one year because of an injury. He was bumped out of the starting lineup one year to sixth man by a future NBA player. Cantwell was always there to throw him a net.

"When I was sixth man he would tell me, it doesn't matter if you are starting the game, if you are on the floor for the last 10 minutes you are doing all the right things," says Babul, who's currently the Atlanta Hawks VP for basketball development. "When you are 18 and 19 years old to have that positive voice in your ear is important. He was always thinking about his players feelings mentally. He was great at emotionally connecting to his players and reading them."

Babul says a lot of coaches don't show you a human side, but that Cantwell does. "He wore his heart on his sleeve. If you played for Kevin you felt a connection. I can't say there are many coaches I played for where I felt that connection."

That's why Cantwell's over-riding principle of basketball matters: You coach individuals, you don't coach a team.

"Great coaches care about the last person on the bench," Cantwell says. "I was constantly aware of kids and how they would feel in certain situations. I had that in me. You look at individuals. When I got to the new world of youth basketball I became a sort of clinical psychologist. I could see the lip quiver when a kid got anxious. I thought 'Holy crap, I can teach kids that no one is paying attention to.' That realization was big for me. It kept me in the game."


Ray Glier is a freelance journalist and author whose work has appeared in USA TODAY, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Youth TODAY, Simon & Schuster (Howard Books), Macmillan Books, and many others. He also is author of "How the SEC Became Goliath: The Making of College Football's Most Dominant Conference" and co-author of the upcoming, "4th and Goal Every Day: Alabama's Relentless Pursuit of Perfection."

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