I love sports because my Dad took me to games and taught me to play. He instilled in me the belief that I could do anything, be anyone.
I owe him for my career as a sports broadcaster on ESPN. If you have a Dad like mine and are looking for a way to repay him for the sports passion he passed on to you, here is the perfect gift idea -- fantasy sports camps.
It gives me chills every time I turn on to Naismith Drive. You must travel this road in Lawrence, Kan., to reach one of basketball's most storied gyms, Phog Allen Fieldhouse. I have covered many games here as reporter for ESPN. But today, I will be in a different role, assistant coach at the Bill Self Basketball Fantasy Camp. I am the only woman, with 48 men, participating. I am given a bag of coaching gear complete with whistle. Coach Self has won eight straight Big 12 Championships and is one of four coaches in NCAA Division I history to have led three different teams to the Elite Eight. I have accepted this fantasy camp invitation to learn from one of the best coaches in the country. I hope it will make me be better at my job. But, in the end, I learn much more.
Campers who belong to the "Captain's Club" arrive early for the privilege of playing against a star-studded roster of former Kansas players. Many campers in this club are regulars on the fantasy camp circuit, like Ric Elias, who was a passenger on U.S. Airways Flight 1549 when it went down in the Hudson River and was famously landed by Captain Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger.
Elias says the crash changed his outlook on life.
These camps help him do both. Elias' first fantasy camp, Michael Jordan Camp, changed his life. Showing up at 254 pounds, Elias struggled but the camp invigorated him. Now, a trim Elias, plays basketball year round.
These men are serious about hoops. They come from all walks of life. Some are millionaires, stock traders, investment bankers. They take the floor against Big 12 Player of the Year, Thomas Robinson, Tyshawn Taylor and Wayne Simien, among others. One of my favorite campers is Lou Klemp, a 74-year-old from Leavenworth, Kan., with a sweet one-handed running shot that would earn him the nickname, "Sweet" Lou. Klemp explains his unique shot was perfected in 1968 while stationed in Japan.
Robinson joked: "I wish I had learned that shot before now, I might be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft."
Klemp plays basketball at 6 a.m. five days a week. He says it keeps him young.
The head coach of our team, Jim Stoll, is a former college assistant and he gives me a list of participants, who are divided up in to six evaluation teams. The campers must run through drills then play eight-minute games for the coaches so we can decide who to draft.
These are successful men, who have paid to be here but if they could see what I am writing by their names: "out of shape, won't defend, won't rebound, bad feet, doesn't listen to instructions." I spare no punches. We are trying to put together a winning team.
Next is the draft. I am in a room with 10 other coaches including Bill Self. I am nervous to speak up, but not for long. Self starts talking trash and I rise to the challenge. We are coaching Team Manning. We draw the draft's first pick. Coach Stoll and I confer and take Ryan Kruse, an athletic, 6-foot-3 rebounder. Self starts in about how I blew the top pick, but I stand my ground and the draft continues. Our final pick is a 67-year-old mineral and gas company owner from Oklahoma City, Bill Dutcher. Stoll is great, letting me choose seven of our eight players.
Game 1 is a whirlwind with rules and substitution patterns to make sure everyone plays. The game is heated, including a flagrant foul and near scuffle. I get too competitive, sprinting to the scorer's table to make sure they record the sixth foul on an opponent and yell, "He is out, fouled out!"
We win, 62-49 over Team Hinrich. I have botched a few things -- having water ready during breaks, keeping track of our fouls, but Stoll is encourages me. The games are fierce and physical and afterward the line for the Kansas athletic trainers is long. It may be fantasy camp but the pain is real.
Dinner at Bill and Cindy Self's home is a blast, but I find myself still coaching, secretly taking account of who is injured, limping, drinking too much. This will all be on my scouting report for tomorrow. I stay up until 1 a.m. putting it together, going over the stats from the previous games so I know who we have to guard, leave open, box out.
The guys are sore and it shows. We come out slow in our first game but squeak out a win. Dutcher is clutch. He prides himself on going from the last pick to a starter by the end of camp.
"I am really in this one-on-one battle against Father Time," Dutcher said. "I discovered these fantasy camps make a really nice venue to play that out."
Dutcher starts every game.
We trailed all of Game 2 until Michael Ferdman, our point guard, swished a 3-pointer with three seconds left to give us a 47-45 win.
Our record is 3-0. We are getting some respect from the other campers. Self stops talking trash.
Next, we sit down with Self for an in-depth film session, breaking down a Missouri-Kansas game from this year, play by play. Self has the clicker and stops the tape to tell us what play or defense Kansas was running, who was supposed to do what, when. Then we see what actually happens. It is fascinating. So many details go unnoticed -- a wrong defensive switch or player out of position changes the entire play. Self remembers it all months later.
That night, Bill Self presents the, "Phog Allen Coach of the Camp" award. I am stunned when he announces my name.
"When she interviews me at half time, I didn't think she knew much about basketball," Self joked. "But she really does. Great job."
I am thrilled. I get a beautiful trophy. I have worked hard and the guys listened to me, treated me like a real coach. This is the most fun I have had in years.
Our team is the top seed for the next day's semifinal round, but I have to be at our ESPN studio in Bristol for the WNBA draft. It is difficult to leave my team. While I am in on the plane we lose a thriller in overtime to Team Chamberlain. The guys are sweet, saying it wasn't the same without me.
What I learned surprises me. It is not just X's and O's. All of us bonded in a short time over our passion for the game. It felt like being a kid again. The competition is high, the camaraderie is real. It motivated all of us in some way. For some, it is to get in shape, others to play more. Mine is to come back next year as a player.
There are people who sit on the sidelines and watch. But just like my Dad taught me, real players get in the game.
To get your Dad or husband in the game visit www.Procamps.com.