Valley Voices

Kara Smith: A tribute to Coach Sharkey

Peter Sharkey is an exceptional man who changed the way people think about basketball in the Valley, motivating many young people to change their lives for the better.

He retires this month from Hoover High School, where he taught and coached for 32 years. It is an end of an era for those of us who were lucky enough to be taught by him. Hundreds of his friends, colleagues and former students will be gathering at a party to wish him well on Saturday.

Basketball players in Fresno know that Coach Sharkey teaches the fundamentals like no other: setting a screen at the perfect angle, planting the inside foot for a jump shot, putting just the right amount of inverted spin on a bounce pass to the block. These lessons were so meticulously broken down for us that I appreciate every movement on a basketball court, and I will always have a deep love for the game.

The way Coach relayed these lessons changed not only the way we played, but the people we are.

He had no tolerance for lateness and somehow had the power to make 16-year-olds punctual. Even more astonishing, he made us see the value of a positive attitude: Negative words or body language could get you thrown out of the gym.

For Coach Sharkey, the game of basketball is about many things, generosity being one.

“Any chump can shoot the ball, but to make great passes, that is truly a gift,” Coach still says today. He taught us to believe in making our teammates look good, inspiring them with our hard work, playing better than we thought we could, for the benefit of our team.

As selfless as he encouraged us to be on the court, he set the same example on the sideline. He never did a victory dance or pumped his fist when things went our way. He always spoke to the referees with respect and humor. He expected us to carry ourselves in the same way.

No matter how tired you were, you never leaned on your knees.

No matter how mad you were, you never rolled your eyes (“You only think it’s the referee’s fault. If we had done it correctly, it wouldn’t have been left to him.”)

If you lost, you still walked off the court with your head up and thought about what you could have done better.

Coach never gave us a lecture on respect for authority. It was a thread woven through our every encounter. My senior year, I once raised my hand while he was speaking at practice. He allowed me to interrupt, and I suggested a possible new twist to the offense. He paused, the gym fell silent, and he replied: “Kara, when you turn 21, you can buy me a beer and we can discuss the game of basketball. Until then, keep your mouth shut.”

Coach held our youthful egos in check even after he led the team to win the league title. The principal offered to buy the team new uniforms, but he declined. He insisted we could still wear our physical education shorts with our outdated T-shirt-style jerseys (while every other team in the league had lycra tank tops and matching shorts). He told us new uniforms certainly weren’t going to improve our game.

The only thing that would improve our basketball skills was made clear with most every word and action: hard work.

Coach Sharkey would often tell us that he could not make us into better basketball players. He showed us the technical aspects of the game, but if we wanted to be great, we would have to get up before school and dribble in the predawn dark. While our friends were sitting by the pool, a great player chooses to be shooting jump shots. A great player has an urgency to play basketball more than anything else.

Hard work, to Coach, encompassed not only the passion to be there, but the mental fortitude to do it right when no one was watching. A hundred lazy lay-ups will get you nowhere. But 20 perfect lay-ups, done while sprinting to retrieve your own rebound, and then back to top of the key, well, that was a step in the right direction.

One adage that he repeated to his players more than any other was: “You are the best coach you will ever have.” He would say: If you want to be a great piano player, taking lessons is only a small part it. Practicing the piano to the best of your ability, in every free moment, is what will really make you great. Time is not to be wasted if you have a dream to pursue. Life is not to be wasted.

Coach Sharkey made me realize that true character is formed in the passionate pursuit of a goal. He showed us that hard work and crucial moral choices go along with that pursuit. Essentially, he made children into adults.

Coach Sharkey made us into better basketball players and gave us a true love for the game. But he also shaped us into better people, and that will stay with each of us forever.

Kara Scambray Smith enjoys periodically coaching basketball and teaching while being a full-time mom. You can send your comments or well wishes for Peter Sharkey to: sharkeyretirementparty@outlook.com

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