Twin Sons of Different Mothers
One man lives in a winter paradise. The other lives in a tropical playground. One man is a bundle of energy and emotion at work. The other is soft-spoken and stoic. They took dramatically different roads to get where they are. But when you look at their passions and their impact on people, the similarities are remarkable. Steve and Steve. They’re twin sons of different mothers.
Steve Ketchum just completed his fourteenth season as the head basketball coach at Aspen High School. “Coach K,” as he’s known to his players and the school community, has led his team to ten appearances in the Colorado Championship Sweet 16. Although Coach K didn’t play basketball in high school, he walked on and played one year in college at Southwest Baptist University. While still in college, he coached middle school, freshman and junior varsity basketball in a local community. He was hooked. Coach K was born when Steve coached at several high schools in Missouri, and was named the statewide coach of the year at age 26. He spent several years coaching in Germany, including coaching the professional team in Karlsruhe… to a championship season. Now Coach K is at Aspen High School, and you can’t help but conclude that this is precisely where God wants him to be.
Eighteen-hundred miles away in Coral Springs, Florida, Steve Fitzgerald is the athletic director and head basketball coach at Coral Springs Christian Academy. During this last season, his 19th, he passed 300 career wins. Players, students, and parents all call him “Fitz.” After a stellar high school career in Georgia, Fitz played collegiately at Covenant College. Upon graduation, he decided to join the family business: coaching basketball. His father, Gene, retired after a forty-year career coaching both high school and college. Fitz’s program is a perennial district and regional powerhouse, and this year won the Kreul Classic, beating some of the top schools from around the country. How does little Coral Springs Christian Academy compete with, and beat, these other schools? Good players, consistent execution, and teamwork. Sounds like evidence of great coaching, if you ask me.
Coach K and Fitz are gym rats. They love the echo of a leather basketball pounding against a wooden floor. They love the smell and feel of an empty gym. They love the sounds and energy of a home game when the gym is rocking. But the similarities extend beyond basketball… to a spiritual foundation… to an outlook on life… to connecting with people… and walking the walk.
Both coaches don’t just preach hard work and continuous improvement to their players, but work personally to improve as coaches, leaders, and mentors. In an article in the Aspen Times, Coach K said, “It’s a never-ending process of learning to be a better person, a better coach, a better mentor. I’ll never be as good a coach as I want to be, but I thank God every day that I’m not as bad as I used to be.”
Fitz, too, is conscious of the impact he can have on the young men he coaches, and draws inspiration and leadership lessons wherever he can get them. The Bible is a frequent reference and he is known to quiz local business leaders to get their ideas and recommendations. Consequently, his players have been introduced to lessons from such business books as Good to Great and The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.
The focus is on people
Despite their differences in personality, Coach K and Fitz seem aware of the importance of daily interactions. According to Susan Scott, in her book Fierce Conversations, “Our work, our relationships, and our lives succeed or fail gradually, then suddenly, one conversation at a time. While no single conversation is guaranteed to change everything, any single conversation can.”
When you speak to former players and their parents about both coaches, you hear about specific conversations that became important channel markers in the lives of these young men. It was rarely the Pat Riley-esque quote, as much as it was the challenging exchange or the encouraging word that was delivered from a basis of love and respect. And it was perfect for the moment. And it is remembered.
When separately asked to explain why they’ve been successful as coaches, both men point to the personal connections with their players. Coach K suggests that you need to love your players – and tell them every day – and then expect more from them than they’d ever expect from themselves. Players learn more than basketball and competition. They learn about themselves. They learn how to deal with life.
After recording his 300th win, Fitz told the Sun-Sentinel “You never think about the amount of wins you can get… It’s about the relationships you build with players and the good example you can set for them.” In his world, wins are just the by-product of connecting with young men and teaching them to communicate, sacrifice, and believe in themselves.
An international perspective
Both men have used basketball as a means to create cultural opportunities for themselves and their players. Coach K runs the Aspen Basketball Academy in the offseason and organizes Travel Adventure trips, including several trips to Europe, and an upcoming trip to Hawaii, to sightsee and play basketball against local competition. Aspen High School has also had foreign exchange students from Europe play on the basketball team (one of whom went on to play for Bobby Knight at Texas Tech).
Fitz has likewise organized international trips for his players, including a team trip to Costa Rica to play basketball and participate in missions activities. Coral Springs Christian Academy has had several players from Nigeria, who have become part of the fabric of the school community.
The big family
Not only do these men pour their hearts and souls into the development of their players, but both are extraordinarily focused on their own children. Look on their Facebook pages. Listen to the first couple sentences of their conversations. They take great pride – and derive great joy – from their roles as fathers.
Steve and Mardi Ketchum have seven kids, five of whom have been adopted by the couple. Two of the boys were adopted from Haiti.
Lots of basketball coaches love the game and get tremendous satisfaction from developing kids. But for Coach K and Fitz, it’s not enough to coach a dozen kids every year. They take their roles seriously as husbands and fathers – to thirteen kids between them (with possibly two more).
We all hope we have an acceptable answer when someone asks why we do what we do. For these two men, the answer is simple. Coach. Father. Mentor. Different shades of the same role. It’s not just a passion, its God’s calling for their lives.
Coach K and Fitz. Two men who’ve never met, living in different climates and arriving at their current jobs by different paths. They love basketball. They love kids. They’re impacting lives in a powerful way – one conversation at a time.