Of Iowa High School Basketball, Mr. Squiers, and the Power of Encouraging Words

My last official game of basketball with Gilbert High School was on a cold winter evening in 1984. It was first round of the state tournament against United, played in the new gym in Colo, Iowa. It was the fourth quarter. Three seconds were left on the clock. We were down by one, inbounding the ball from underneath our opponent’s basket. I cut to my right, the inbounder saw me and threw a quick pass in my direction. I caught it, and turned to look at the basket. To my surprise, I was wide open. No defender near me. I could see the basket clearly. My gut instincts kicked in and I immediately went up for the shot, launched it a little prematurely, a little high. The ball sailed in the air, up and over the rim, completely missing the basket. It was an air ball. An inglorious end to organized basketball.

For several days after, I wallowed in the disappointing feeling, the shock. Basketball was my favorite sport, and now it was all over. I’m sure there are hundreds of twelfth-grade guys and gals experiencing the same disappointment these next two weeks, the culmination of the Iowa State High School Basketball tournaments in Des Moines. There is no preparing for the sudden crash, the end of the season. One sad certainty of life is that you can’t play basketball forever. Intermurals are always an option, or for the extremely talented and hard-working, college or even professional ball. But even those have an end.

What does last are the memories. I always have the thrills of the big wins to reflect on. But even more, there are the fond memories and affection I have for my high school basketball coach, Dave Squiers. I will always remember his words of inspiration, his trust in me as he sent me in. Those words and that trust were important to me then, and continue to be now. To an insecure, impressionable teenager just trying to play the part, his confidence and encouragements filled me up and positively shaped my self-image.

It started my sophomore year. We were playing at Radcliffe, down by at least 20 late in the game. I was sitting at the end of the bench when he called my name, shocked that he wanted me in. Before I knew it, there I was, in the offense running a play. I found myself with the ball on the left baseline. I was open, and I figured we had nothing to lose. So I shot. Swish.

The thrill of my first basket felt great. But it was short-lived. With seconds left, I threw an errant pass which was promptly stolen by a defender who took the ball the length of the court for an easy layup. Game over. Radcliffe had mopped the floor with us.

As the season progressed, Mr. Squiers would put me in from time to time, maybe as an experiment to see what I could do. I wasn’t bad…I’d played various forms of organized ball since I was five. My dad had sent me to a number of summer basketball camps to hone my skills, one of which was the renowned Metropolitan Area camp led by DeMatha High School coach Morgan Wootten. There I personally met Sidney Lowe and Derrick Wittenburg, members of the famous 1983 N.C. State NCAA basketball championship team coached by Jimmy V. For sure, I was not afraid to shoot. One night against Hubbard, I apparently shot a lot — so much so that my math teacher called me “Shootin’ Schillinger”.

Stop Topp

When Radcliffe came to Gilbert to play us a second time, they got off to a fast start. They had a cocky point guard named Jay Topp who was pretty good. He was blitzing us that night, penetrating and scoring at will. At halftime, Mr. Squiers dressed down the team, characteristically venting his wrath at our lackluster effort. Then he did something unusual. He offered up a challenge–“Who’s gonna guard Jay Topp?” For reasons uncertain, defying all logic, I raised my hand. I’m sure the seniors looked at me in disgust. What a presumptuous idiot I was. Nonetheless, Mr. Squiers stayed true to his challenge and put me in, guarding Jay Topp.

The first series did not go well. Topp fooled me with a juke and drove past. I scrambled to regain my footing, but I was a step behind. He drove the lane and got fouled. Two shots. I looked at coach, fully expecting him to yank me out. But for some reason, he kept me in.

That first failure made me angry. I was not going to let this bully get past me that easy. On the next series, I crouched a little lower, slid my feet a little quicker. He struggled a little, which was good. He wasn’t getting the easy looks, was having to work a little harder.

From that point on, I remember hearing Coach Squiers calling out, “work him, Glenn, work him!” each time Topp came down with the ball. Coach’s words fueled my passion, my confidence. I worked him. When he try to make a move, I cut him off, denied him the lane, made him pass. Got a turnover or two. Meanwhile our big scorers–including Ricky Squiers, the coach’s son and our team’s prolific scorer–were getting us back into the game. We got as close as two points down, but could not overcome. Nonetheless, I took it as a personal victory, was thrilled to respond to my coach’s challenge.

I think I had earned Coach Squiers trust by then, but that did not keep me from doing some boneheaded things later that season and into the next. I remember one game, we were down and playing terribly, not running our offense, running around like a bunch of scared chickens. Coach caught me as I was walking near the bench and rather vociferously called out to me, “what are you running?!?!” I was confused by the question. It exposed a weakness. As much as I loved basketball, and as skilled as I was, there was one thing I was not…I was not a great floor leader. I did not always know what I was doing, was often just going through the motions. So I’m sure my answer, an honest, “I don’t know!“, did nothing to calm his spirit. I still laugh at myself about that.

The Power of Suggestion

After my junior year, a lot of my teammates graduated. I think there was a silent expectation that I would pick up my game, become more of a scorer. But I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant. I scored 10 in a loss to Alden. Though I was disappointed at our loss, I thought 10 points was pretty good, was happy with myself. The second game went about the same way. I scored a few, but we lost again.

I was shooting around at practice the day before our next game when coach came up to me and said something like, “I expect 30 points from you tomorrow, Schillinger.”

It’s funny we don’t realize how powerful our words can be. A little encouragement here, a little kind word there can be all the difference in a young person’s life. Words from others can completely form and change the way we look at ourselves. They can inspire, encourage, and motivate us to do things we didn’t think we could ever do. That next game, I cut loose, shooting more than I ever had. My total at the end speaks to the power of encouraging words from someone we respect. When I looked at the ledger, I had 30 points.

We weren’t very good that year, going 9-11. Yet that season was remarkable for Gilbert High School because it was the first year we beat our bitter rivals up the road on Highway 69. We beat mighty Roland-Story. Gilbert had had some great teams before us. They won many conference championships, made it to substate my brother’s freshman year. But in all of those years and with all those great teams, we could never beat Roland-Story. They had our number. But in our game, we got off to a fast start, built a big lead, and held on for dear life, winning 71-68. When the final second ticked down, I sprinted up the court, fist raised high, fans screaming. It was awesome.

Green Light

Then came that fateful final game against United. United was a high school a few miles west of us. We didn’t like those guys–they were big, hairy, and mean-looking. Their ring leader was a guy named Audie Burnett. Audie had long, curly, black hair, like an evil character out of the Bible. The game didn’t go so well. Steve Bangs, one of our big studs, got into early foul trouble. United’s full court press stymied us, creating lots of miscues and bad passes. They bullied us around and led, 50-35 late in the third quarter. In a huddle, Mr. Squiers looked at me. I was drooped over, hands on knees. I must have looked terrible because he asked if I was OK. Then he told me to do something strange–he wanted me to stop passing, just break the press and bring the ball up myself.

The confidence he placed in me was like a green light. Coach basically was telling me to do whatever I could to get us back in the game. What did we have to lose? We were down by 15.

The first time I tried to dribble my way out of that press, I turned the ball over. I looked at the bench, fully expecting coach to change his mind and go back to the press-breaker offense. He just sat there, silent. Keep going.

I’m pretty sure that was the first year the Iowa High School Athletics Association adapted the three-point line. In those last, desperate minutes of the United game, I took maximum advantage of that line, lofting three-pointer after three-pointer. Amazingly, many found their mark and before long, we had narrowed the margin to one point. Three seconds left. We’re inbounding under United’s basket. You know the rest.

Words to Remember

We lost that game, and my career in organized basketball came to an end. But the memories, the victories, and the encouraging words of Coach Squiers stay with me to this day.

Folks, let us always remember the incredible power we possess with our very own tongue. With a kind and thoughtful word, we can uplift the weary soul, shape an impressionable mind, inspire others to do more than they thought possible. We can also do harm with our words if we are not careful. As Paul says,

“Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” — Ephesians 4:29

Let us be intentional with our words, looking for opportunities to drop them in at just the right time, like “apples of gold in settings of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). Let us intentionally cite the good things about others, especially our loved ones. Speak words of kindness. Speak them intentionally, with conviction.

Post Script

Dave Squiers had an illustrious career coaching boys basketball in the state of Iowa. He coached 36 years, accumulating an amazing 472 wins. He is one of the kindest men you could ever know. He has a wonderful family. I will forever treasure the special bond we share, tied up in Gilbert High School basketball history. God bless you and your family, Mr. Squiers.

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