For the Love of the Game
Coach Steve Gaw is perhaps the nicest man you will ever meet. A huge smile, a mild-mannered charm, and a giant heart. He barely ever raised his voice above a whisper but his players would run through a brick wall for him. He always had your back.
Coach Pat Williams vacillated between a mumble and a scream. He had an intense demeanor, but he had the ability to motivate and engender loyalty through his relentless passion. There was no greater friend and advocate when he was in your corner.
These two opposite personalities teamed up in the 1980s to set the gold standard for coaching youth basketball in the Washington, DC area.
But this is not simply a story about basketball. Or wins and losses. Or even coaching fundamentals.
This is a story of a loyalty. This is a story of mutual admiration. This is a story of instilling confidence and camaraderie in those awkward years between adolescence and adulthood.
But more than anything, this is a story of selflessly giving back to the community for the love of the game.
Growing Up in the Neighborhood
Both Steve and Pat grew up on the Washington, DC side of the Chevy Chase community. It was a tight-knit neighborhood where packs of kids roamed the tree-lined streets, playing Kick the Can and Monster Tag. And after the games, these same packs would descend upon the local package store, Broad Branch Market, for candy and soda. There were no helicopter parents in sight.
But pick-up sports defined the youth culture at that time. Flagpole Field at Lafayette School was the favorite gathering spot for football. Just next door was the baseball field where these same kids gathered for marathon games. And just around the corner was a brick wall with square box painted as a strike zone. This is where stickball legends were born.
One sport, however, rose above all the rest. Pick-up basketball ruled the day.
Chevy Chase Playground featured intense games frequented by future stars Austin Carr and Adrian Dantley. Bo Wright ran the Chevy Chase Community Center which hosted more epic hoops battles throughout the winter and summer. And local legendary coach Red Auerbach would organize world-class summer league games with incredible NBA and collegiate talent.
But the epicenter of the fierce pick-up basketball games was once again at Lafayette School. Two things were certain on these courts. There would always be a hotly contested game. And there would be at least one player with the last name Sullivan on the court at all times.
Both Pat and Steve would spend 8-10 hours a day battling on these courts in the summer. They learned to hone their competitive spirit (If you won, you stayed and played. And everyone wanted to play!) They learned to settle their own arguments (one way or another). And they learned that there was nothing better than a teammate who had your back.
The bond was formed on these courts.
And it would be a bond that would last a lifetime.
The Golden Years
As both men grew up, they continued to stay close to the community. Steve Gaw coached everything. Cub Scout football, CYO baseball (with his brother Pete) and of course, basketball. In 1980, Steve Gaw was offered the job of Athletic Director at Blessed Sacrament School. It was a big deal with huge shoes to fill from previous legendary ADs. Coach Jim Fegan. Paul “Reds” Hunter. Mike Callahan. Kevin Ruanne. Jane Body. James Hodgson. Mike Greaney.
Steve Gaw understood the history of Blessed Sacrament athletics and was up for the challenge.
Part of the responsibility of the AD in those days was to coach the 8th grade boys “A” basketball team. The pressure was on to continue the rich tradition.
At the same time, Pat Williams had been coaching all levels of youth basketball. He was fresh out of college and didn’t have a son or daughter to coach. Both Pat and Steve were doing it for the love of the game.
One day, in an impromptu meeting at McDonalds Raw Bar, Pat hatched a plan with Steve Gaw. He asked if they could coach the 8th-grade boys team together. It would be just like old times.
As Steve Gaw remembered:
“It was like ‘Coach K’ asking you to coach with him. Pat knew more about the game than anyone in the area.”
Pat shot back:
”Steve Gaw is like family. Patient, kind, and giving. He provided the opportunity for just about every coach in the area and never asked for anything in return. How could you not love coaching with him?”
Built on mutual admiration, this idea had legs!
For the next 6 years, Steve and Pat were the Yin and Yang of Blessed Sacrament basketball. They poured everything into coaching and their whole world revolved the team. They conducted grueling practices 3 days a week. Steve’s dog, Musket, watched over every practice and Pat’s fiancée, Sheila Shea, kept the stats at every game. They held weeknight “strategy sessions” at the Chevy Chase Lounge and analyzed the game at “Rib-It” just about every Saturday afternoon. They were constantly trying to form better players, better teammates and better men.
But it was not without its challenges. They faced clashes in philosophy from certain parishioners and occasional feedback from the school administration. But all the while, Pastor Monsignor Duffy had their back. He knew he had something special with these coaches and he wanted the students and players to savor this great experience.
What was so special about it? There were two principles that guided the success of the Blessed Sacrament teams in that era.
The first was an emphasis on defense. Steve and Pat wanted scrappers. They would offer far more praise for taking a charge or diving on the floor than for scoring a basket. The ultimate manifest of this philosophy was their patented “UCLA” press. “UCLA” was a simple 2-2-1 full court trapping press that suffocated opposing offenses. Nobody wanted to face that pressure. Especially with the scrappy players going all out to impress their coaches.
The second principle was built on comradery. There was an emphasis on respect. At an age when cliques and splinter groups dominated, the players were taught to be teammates first. And that went beyond basketball. They attended Mass together (with their own team “chaplain”), they went to team meals together, and they celebrated victories together. For many of the boys, this was their first introduction to a true team experience.
Impacting the Soul
When asked about the success of the teams in those days, Pat Williams was quick to shrug it off:
“How do you measure success? We wanted to be competitive. Obviously. But we wanted to help turn these boys into men. We wanted them to eventually give back to the community”
Steve Gaw added:
“We stressed heart and desire. Boys at that age know when you’re faking it. We had to have a genuine love for what we were doing. We wanted to impact the souls of all our players”.
How do you impact the soul?
You demonstrate, through action, not words, how much you care!
In those rambunctious years, boys that age are bound to get in trouble (Some more than others). Most of the kids came from good families and the parents were hands on. But, sometimes, the boys needed to hear another voice beyond the family. Pat and Steve filled that empty space between big brother and parent. They would listen. They would offer advice. They would go to bat on their boy’s behalf with the school administration. They constantly had the back of their players. And the players knew it.
The players also appreciated the sacrifice. They knew neither coach had a son on the team. Yet the coaches still put in countless hours. They pursued every practice and game as if it were the most important thing in their lives. The coaches thought nothing of it. But years later, their players would gush about how important that was to them.
And years later, the influence of Steve Gaw and Pat Williams lived on in many of their former players:
Some had yellowed, hand-written notes, squirreled away for nearly 30 years, that Pat and Steve had written them.
Some used the image of Steve Gaw jumping off the bench shouting “UCLA!”, to motivate their own players.
Some recalled the inspirational quotes Pat Williams would impart (“What are the last 4 letters in “American? That’s right!”)
Some spoke of modeling their lives off the genuine kindness and quiet leadership of Steve Gaw.
So many players remembered those years as the most formative of their lives.
That is about more than basketball. That is impacting the soul!
The End of An Era
The early 80s was a unique time. Station wagons dominated the roads. Seat belts were less than optional. Players rode their bikes (or skateboards!) to practice. Parents largely stayed out of the coaching.
And as the 80s started to fade, Steve and Pat found their lives changing. Steve got married to his wife, Rebecca. Pat and Sheila started having kids. And Steve, the old school coach, noticed more and more players were getting driven to practice and fewer and fewer had paper routes. The era was coming to an end.
Steve could no longer dedicate the time he felt the boys deserved. Pat was looking at coaching his own kids. And so, the two coaches and good friends went their separate ways.
Pat went on to coach for another 26 years. He coached all of his kids, in multiple sports and won several basketball championships with Holy Redeemer Parish. He was inducted into the Catholic Business Network Youth Coaches Hall of Fame in 2016. And, in the full circle of life, his youngest daughter, Maddy, took over for him when the old coach stepped down last year. The next generation is already learning the power of giving back.
Steve hung up his whistle when he started having kids. But that didn’t stop him from teaching his daughters how to throw “no-look” passes in the driveway. And it didn’t stop him from continuing to influence a generation of Blessed Sacrament students and players. Years later, many of Steve’s former players credit him for inspiring them to be coaches and leaders. Now that is what coaching is all about. That is making a difference in this world!
What Does it Mean for Us?
The coaching partnership of Steve Gaw and Pat Williams is long over but their legacy lives on. Upon reflection, what can these coaches teach us about own lives? What can they teach us about resiliency?
Demonstrating genuine care through tireless actions can impact the soul of an entire community.
Always having someone’s back can inspire confidence for a lifetime.
Creating an environment of unity creates bonds that will never be broken.
Giving back to the community is a sacred privilege.
And building a partnership based on mutual admiration can change lives.
Steve Gaw and Pat Williams hadn’t seen in each other for over a year when they met up for this interview. But they hugged liked old brothers and immediately started telling war stories from their childhood years.
Time stands still for family. And time stands still when you have shared a lifetime of mutual experiences and mutual respect.
Thank you, coaches, for molding an entire generation of students and athletes into future leaders.
And thank you to all the coaches who do it for the love of the game!