Pretty much on his own, Louis O’Neal, who assists Howard Wood in coaching East Hampton High School’s girls varsity basketball team, oversaw a camp at the high school for 50 third through eighth graders (most of them girls) last week.
It was the first time O’Neal, who played on state-championship teams when he went to Bridgehampton High School some 30 years ago, had had the camp here, and at the end of it, while pretty much exhausted, he was pleased.
“It was a long week, but a hopeful week — I saw a lot of potential, and there were glimpses of improvement,” O’Neal said during a conversation at The Star Friday afternoon. “No doubt they’ll keep working in the open gyms, which we’re starting this week, Mondays and Wednesdays. . . . A lot of them were satisfied and said they’d come back next year. It cost $75 — $15 a day — so it was affordable, accessible to everyone.”
“As a coach,” he added, “you have to make sacrifices if you’re trying to build a program. I put aside my work so I could give back to the kids who want to become better at playing the game.”
Last year, Wood and O’Neal entered varsity and junior varsity girls teams in a summer league, but it didn’t happen this summer, for various reasons. Meanwhile, open gym should suffice.
“You can work on your dribbling on your own, but you’ve got to play. And while they’re in there, Howard and I can see what they need help on. If they’re weak in dribbling, we can give them a drill, the same for shooting. We can also help them with understanding the game.”
The varsity, he said, could well win a league championship this winter, in which case, it would apparently be the first championship banner in girls basketball to make it onto the gym’s wall.
As an example of what he’s looking for in a young basketball player, O’Neal mentioned Jackie Messemer, who, as a freshman, played a guard position on the junior varsity last winter. “I like her enthusiasm — I’ve very high on her because of her work ethic and her willingness to learn. She has all the attributes you’d want to see in a young girl who wants to play. She has that desire and passion to be good. She comes to you for information. It’s not to mock the other girls, but she has that knack.”
O’Neal said he was also particularly impressed by Kevin Fee, a seventh grader who attended the camp with his three brothers. “He’s a go-getter. I was very impressed with his understanding of the game. He’s a good ball-handler, a good shooter, he has good court awareness. Very energetic and athletic. He shoots the 3 like a junior varsity player.”
The days, which lasted from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., included dribbling, passing, shooting, and rebounding drills, and scrimmages. “I also tried to get them to understand game strategy,” said the coach, adding that “they took well to the drills, though they were more interested in scrimmaging, which I can understand. I had them work on left-handed layups, crossover dribbling, screen-and-roll . . . I think I covered some important things they need to learn.”
“We had five-on-five and three-on-three scrimmages,” he continued. “I played in them, to make sure the girls knew how it should be done. We emphasized getting into triple threat positions — turn and fake, look to pass, look to shoot, look to dribble. We did a lot of screening on and off the ball. We worked on spacing, all the stuff that we do with the varsity. . . . Hopefully, we’ll get the younger ones familiarized with these things, which they can work on by themselves, or in open gym, or in camps, and by the time they get to the varsity they’ll be up to speed.”
Nothing would come without work, said O’Neal, who was a three-sport athlete himself in high school (cross-country, basketball, and baseball) and who believes that athletic variety is fine. “You shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket. . . . Look at Ross Gload [the National League’s top pinch-hitter]. He played three sports here — soccer, basketball, and baseball. Golf just won county and Long Island championships with kids who played other sports.”
“Varying the sports you play cuts down on the wear and tear on the body, and it gives you the thirst to come back. If you love basketball and you go and do something else, you’re ready when the season comes around to play again. So, if a girl who plays basketball loves lacrosse and plays it in the spring, I respect that. Maybe it could be her ticket to college. But, when basketball is in season, you don’t want them doing something else. That’s not respectful. They should be dedicated to the basketball program when it’s basketball season. Then, when it’s over, go play lacrosse, or do track. I welcome that.”
The championship Bridgehampton boys basketball teams on which he played with other three-sport athletes were largely the result of open gyms and pickup play, said O’Neal. “It got so I knew what Carl [Johnson, Bridgehampton’s coach at present] wanted to do. He knew what my brother Sam wanted to do. We were never taught to screen without the ball — we worked on it by playing. We want the girls to do this too.”
“Next summer we’ll get back into a league, but in the meantime open gym should have the same effect. This year we could put a banner in the gym — if we come to work and buy in to playing together. We lost four games last year, and two of them we shouldn’t have lost. But to win a banner, everyone will have to bond and pull together and sacrifice for the team. That’s how it was when I played. Very seldom will one person win the game for you.”