Eight fifth-graders and one tall 45-year-old sporting a Granville Aces hoodie, athletic shorts and Steph Curry kicks form a circle in the corner of a rectangular hardwood floor. All of them, including the grown man, perform seated stretches in preparation for a Wednesday-evening practice. For each stretch, they all count to 10 in unison.

To most, the man in the circle is Matt Miller. To Bennett, one of the eight boys, he is Dad. To the other seven, he is Coach.

After the stretches conclude, everyone gets back on their feet. Coach asks for a volunteer to lead what he refers to as “Values.”

One of the boys volunteers.

“I respect my teammates, officials and opponents,” he says.

Matt and the other seven boys repeat after him.

“I will listen to and honor my coaches,” the leader continues.

They follow his lead again.

“I will cheer for my teammates and have lots of fun.”

The group echoes.

“I will always give my best effort.”

“I am proud to represent Granville.”

The “Values” were created by Matt’s brother, Mark. The team recites them before and after every practice and game. Having already played 23 games, the boys can blaze through them. 

When the “Values” before practice are finished, the boys get to work. They shoot layups, making 49 in a row and counting off each one, before moving on to jumpers. Then, they work a free throw drill, with emphasis for the guys not shooting being boxing out. After, Matt sets up an offense vs. defense drill, with the offense acting as the Lancaster Gale Force, the team’s opponent on the upcoming Saturday. The two teams had met twice before, each taking one a win, with both games being decided by a single possession.

Since the team only has eight players, the drill starts as a four-on-five, with Matt assuming the role as the fourth guy on offense. A couple reps through, I volunteer myself to even out the numbers, and I get to live vicariously through my 10-year-old self for a few minutes.

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After the scout period, Matt throws passes for a one-on-one defense drill. When that wraps up, the boys get to play three-on-three.

After that evening’s practice, the team recited their “Values” slowly. I told Matt I liked that he made them a part of the team’s routine, in an age where things like winning and talent development seem to be the primary objectives of many youth sports coaches. So, when it was time to go through them again after practice, he asked the boys to pause in between each sentence, so I had enough time to write them down.

On Saturday, I find Matt and the team packing a General Sherman Junior High hallway with walls lined in student artwork. Just like at practice, he is stretching with the team, this time in a Blue Aces basketball quarter-zip, jeans and gray sneakers. The boys are in their navy long-sleeve shooting shirts and matching game shorts.

After the stretches, he calls the team into a huddle.

“We worked a lot this week on boxing out,” he said. “Guys, getting rebounds is gonna make a huge difference in how this game goes.”

The team goes through their “Commitments,” gets a break, then heads into the gym so they can get shots up before an 11:10 tipoff.

I follow the team as they enter the gym. Matt introduces me to his parents, Dan and Nancy. Dan happens to be taking an English class at Denison, so we dive right into conversation. I join the couple on the end of the stands beside the entrance, with a view of the Granville bench directly in front of us.

Granville wins the tip and kills 67 seconds of the six-minute first quarter in one possession, but it ends with a missed three-point attempt. The patient playstyle runs quite contrary to that of Gale Force. They run a full-court press, even in the early phases of the game.

“This is way more competitive basketball than when my kids were this age,” Dan says.

Gale Force’s on-court intensity mirrors the demeanor of the man calling their shots.

After a slow offensive start for Gale Force, the Blue Aces hold a 6-2 lead at the end of the first quarter.

A 9-2 run puts Gale Force ahead 11-8 in the second quarter. Their coach is far from content, though. Dan and I are talking about the intensification of youth sports, and as if on queue, he snaps.

“Look at me. Look at me!” the coach screams at a player, putting his two fingers to his eyes after a blown assignment.

“Yeah, it’s too much,” Dan says, with a chuckle. “You won’t see Matt getting on them like that.”

All game long, every word coming from the Gale Force coach’s mouth can be heard throughout the gym. Matt, though a shorter distance from Dan, Nancy and me, keeps comments between him and his players.

The Blue Aces would end up losing the game, 28-26. The full-court press was a lot to handle, and, as Matt suggested during practice, a few Gale Force players were quite advanced athletically.

Losing isn’t such a bad thing in Matt’s mind, though, because it teaches the boys a lesson that winning cannot. Plus, from his vantage point as a coach, being the best at sports was never the goal.

“We’re not trying to raise professional athletes,” he said. “We’re trying to raise professional human beings.”

Sitting down, Matt gives the boys a pep talk after the loss. They have another game later that day. Like always, the postgame chat ends with “Values.”

Maybe, for every nutjob who takes his role coaching a bunch of boys who can’t yet grow peach fuzz more seriously than his nine-to-five job, or for every parent who claims to have raised the next LeBron James, there is a Matt Miller.

As the boys scatter in different directions toward their parents, Matt approaches me. He thanks me for writing this story, just like he did before and after Wednesday’s practice, and before the game about an hour earlier. 

He asks if I need anything else from him. I ask for a picture. He says sure, but can Bennett hop in?

Sure, I say.

As I lift my phone to eye level, Matt puts his right arm around Bennett. Matt strikes a smile.

Bennett smiles too.

Jack Nimesheim writes for TheReportingProject.org, the nonprofit news organization of Denison University’s Journalism program, which is supported by generous donations from readers. Sign up for The Reporting Project newsletter here.