Book Review: Don't Put Me In, Coach: My Incredible NCAA Journey from the End of the Bench to the End of the Bench

There are 3 things with ‘tell – all’ basketball books. First is they reel me in because of the promise of an ‘insiders look’ into how things are. Second, as I’m reading I’m instantly reminded of my own experiences (with the fantastic exception of not being in a Pro or even Championship team however. Ok maybe a few.)

And finally comes the realization that, Jesus, these guys are just like every other bunch of goofballs here or anywhere in the world. Enormously privileged due to their star – athlete status, they get away with murder in many cases, yet the press and the females continue to fawn over them like they were God’s gift.

Also however, you get to realize just how it really is to be an athlete in a highly competitive team playing in top tournaments. While the privileges they get grate on you, the fact their destinies are dependent on such arbitrary things as how their Coach thinks of them at any particular day, their body’s ability to heal quickly from injuries and of course, their teams ability to win kind of balances things out, particularly for those with borderline skillsets or are just able to make a College team but not good enough for Pro.

Of which there are many examples, all you have to do is think of some College UAAP / NCAA hotshot a few years back whose name everyone revered but didn’t get drafted, and is now like, folding tshirts at a GAP in the States, and you’d know what I mean.

But anyway let’s get to the book.

Mark Titus is a ‘walk on‘ for the Ohio State Buckeyes ie., an athlete who becomes a player without being recruited. He ‘played’ or better put, was part of the roster from 2006-10, and in those four years contributed an astounding (for its mediocrity) a grand total of 5pfs, 2stls, 2blks, 3asts, 5rebs, 6 3pa, 2 3pm, 4fta, 3ftm, 6fga, 2fgm in a total of 48minutes and 9 points.

Amongst his teammates were eventual NBA players Daequan Cook, Eric Gordon, Josh McRoberts, Mike Conley, and Greg Oden.

At some point (I think his 3rd year) he started the blog, where he started telling stories about the team, guaranteeing a terrific following from Buckeye and College basketball fans alike. We all know there aren’t a whole lot of athletes who can write two sentences worth a damn, and here was this guy writing a ton. Plus the fact he is a down to earth and comfortable with his role as benchwarmer and all around team clown, it’s a good read in itself. His blog popularized the term ‘Club Trillion’, which refers to his box scores for most games, which was ‘1’ for minutes played followed by 9 zeroes in points, rebounds, etc. Lots of blogs I follow such as The Basketball Jones and Basketbawful picked up on that term and it’s quickly become commonplace.

If you wonder how a guy can just walk-on onto a NCAA Division 1 team without trying out the book makes it apparent that its a mix of two things. One is that he isn’t a totally bad player. At 6’4 he was the best players for many years at his high school, so that at least guarantees he’s played competitive ball. The second reason is because of Buckeye coach Thad Matta, who quickly saw him for what he could contribute in the locker room as opposed to the court.

This second revelation goes into the reasoning why many Pro teams hire veterans with limited capacity that leave fans scratching their heads. Shouldn’t each team stack their rosters with as much talent as they possibly can? What they don’t realize is that these guys are together for many months at a time. They lead very insulated lives and the experience can become an overall nightmare considering some of the clashing egos and personalities. It is therefore important to have someone with a different outlook altogether, someone who can make the experience easier.

In Titus’ case, Coach Matta already had a talent laden team with sure first round draft pick Greg Oden along with Mike Conley and Daequan Cook. Instead of trying to find even more talent, this allowed him freedom with his roster to put a guy like Titus in with his ability to lighten the mood and keep the locker room lively with his antics.

And boy did he take to this role. Titus was acutely aware that he had an ice – breaking effect around many of his shy or ill – at – ease teammates. His logic was brilliant: Pulling a prank or ‘insulting’ someone, while offensive at the surface, is actually inviting the guy to insult or prank back, after which they’re almost instantly friends. It’s almost like taking the fast track to becoming friends, very much like this scene from Remember The Titans.

I don’t think I’ve ever met a guy who has consciously taken on this role with the group of guys I’ve been with, but the ones that fit that ‘icebreaker’ role is almost always welcome due to their ability to chill people down. Make no mistake, the MONUMENTAL egos one will meet on sports teams are some of the most self – praising, self – promoting, definitive ASSHOLES you’ll ever have the bad luck to meet. In retrospect I see all that chest – beating as attempts to bolster one’s self image, often necessary when you constantly need to prove your value in a team filled with athletes, but when you’re in your teens or early twenties you don’t have the privilege of experience, and so you often react negatively. The result is fights. Snickering, bickering, an innocent or otherwise remark taken in a negative context and boom, you got a fight. And since you’re in each others faces almost daily, there is almost always constant fighting for some teams. In the locker rooms, in the bus to the games and of course, most especially, in practice. Fighting, elbowing, tripping and every imaginable type of insulting done in between.

Now although I paint a grim picture of what it is to be in a team, whatever benefits one gets from this far outshine the faults. For no matter how awful the fights, once guys get that out their system true friendships start to blossom. And believe me, you are friends for life. There are guys out there whom I will never say no to, and whom I’d like to believe who’d do the same for me, because of all the head butting we went through back in the day. This is prototypical I know, of how guys are described all over the world. After they fight the become friends for life. But previous to that they wanted to tear each others’ heads off. I believe in this so much I swear the world would be a better place if everyone would go through that.

This is why Mark Titus’ had a place in the Buckeye’s roster. His job was not on the court, but in the locker room, bus, plane, and everywhere else the team is. His method is to quicken the process by poking guys with a stick via his ribbing and pranks, in the hope of a positive response via getting a ribbing and prank back, which is often the case for most normal, laid back guys. During the course of which you get some truly hilarious moments.

Unfortunately there are guys who don’t play along by resisting his attempts, in particular now Philadelphia Sixer guard Evan Turner. While becoming a #2 overall pick in 2010 NBA Draft & 2010 college basketball National Player of The Year, Titus describes a guy with an uncontrollable temper who imagined ‘everyone was against him’. There are a lot of guys who find motivation by angst and negativity (I suspect Michael Jordan is like that, plus a few rappers who sing of nothing but), and it seems this guy is that way.

Titus probably did his best according to his account, but from Turner’s quote on the Amazon page for the book I gather they still don’t text each other greetings very often.
“You want me to give you a quote? I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. You’ve been riding my coattails for years, so of course you want to put my name on your book to sell more copies.”

What I remember most

While Titus is hardly the kind of guy you’d think worthy of being called a gentleman, the one thing that I most remember about the book is how he handled a situation with an African American teammate. Titus got into a situation where this guy (I forgot the name) allowed him to call him ‘nigger’ because he found the way how Titus says it hilarious. For perspective, this is essentially being given what all US white guys a free pass to say one of the most hated, most vile words in US racial history.

He turns down the offer as a response. Sure, he jokes later in the book how he would occasionally sneak it in conversations with the guy just to check if he’d notice, but for the most part refusing to accept the ‘free pass’ as it were, speaks volumes of his character and his ability to see beyond an opportunity to make a few jokes.

This is akin to, say, politely refusing an equally polite request to share a meal with someone you know doesn’t have enough for himself. I know that’s not a great comparison so just multiply how bad the situation is by a thousand to get a grip of what I mean.

Incidentally, it also shone light on the number one reason why I’d never migrate to the States – the racial undertones and subsequently, the necessary tip – toeing one has to do to get along over there. While the problems we face here seem insurmountable, they’re nothing compared to having to apply diplomacy in almost everything you see, hear or do over there, where even the most eloquent amongst them are still persecuted no matter what they do given how high society’s sensitivity is to race issues.

To Conclude

To say Titus is a great writer is to say his idol Bill Simmons is a great writer, which they are not. What makes Bill Simmons good is his encyclopedic knowledge of the 3 major US sports and the NBA in particular plus his well formed opinions because of.

What makes Titus’ book interesting is his stint as player and writer with, consequently, an insiders look into the team. Add to that his wit and honesty, and this is an interesting book, sports follower or not.

What I wonder though, are two things. One, I wouldn’t know how well I’d have handled being benched for so much for so long. While he wasn’t anywhere near Greg Oden’s ability, he at least could still contribute somehow. He was a good shooter and took pride in his rebounding, and being benched so much must surely have hurt him as it would’ve hurt me. I don’t think it’s being a coward if I had just decided to quit the team and take College more seriously, which he could’ve done being a Math Major. If there was anything in the book that justified being the team benchwarmer and clown for 4 years I didn’t get it. Then again he was in College, and I remember the giddy happy feeling it was to be in College, so maybe that fact alone helped. I’d totally understand if there were lots of chicks of course, but he didn’t mention any either. I’m wondering if he kept that out.

The second thing I’d want to know is ‘What now?’ – His Wikipedia page doesn’t say much other than a brief, rather sad attempt with the Harlem Globetrotters (which he talked about in the book) and the book itself, but then what? He’s a contributor on Bill Simmon’s Grantland, but that’s all I got. If he’s not that good a writer and has no hope of turning pro, where next?

Lest you say I’m too hard on him, I’m actually rooting for the guy, which is why I’d like to know. I kind of wanna see him suddenly decide to go back and take College seriously and end up writing the Math to figure out warp space travel or fusion energy or something far out like that. That would be really cool.