The Rincon Valley Christian boys basketball team was playing recently — coach Darren Nelson believes it was a home game against St. Vincent — when one of the Eagles got the ball via a rebound or steal and started dribbling the length of the floor. This kid was one of Rincon Valley's best players, but not a particularly good ball handler.
As the boy ran past the RVC bench, Nelson was faced with a classic decision: to call, or not call, a timeout. The coach refrained. The player lost the ball out of bounds.
"We ended up winning," Nelson said. "But if I could have gone back and changed one thing in that game, that's one time I could have called one and didn't."
For most basketball fans, timeouts are downtime — a chance to catch your breath, let your mind wander from the action or engage in a little conversation. For coaches they are a means to reroute momentum, update strategy or send a pointed message, and are held in the same regard that a shipwrecked man might treat his last few bottles of water.
"Kids need guidance, and they also need motivation," said Cardinal Newman girls coach Monica Mertle, who played collegiately at St. Mary's and UC Davis. "For that reason, timeouts are really critical to the game, and how you use them is critical."
Logistics of the timeout
The spatial layout of a timeout tends to follow a classic form: the five players who are in the game at that time seated on the bench (or on the chairs that form "the bench") and looking toward the court, the coach facing them while squatting or sitting, the rest of the players and assistants fanned out behind the coach.
Sonoma Valley girls coach Sil Coccia wishes he could set up chairs on the court, like they do during lengthy TV timeouts in college.
He has to light into his players occasionally, and would rather do it out of the earshot of parents. Alas, high school timeouts aren't long enough.
As it is, you find variations in the form.
"We stand during out timeouts," Mertle said. "I find it's a way to keep the girls focused, instead of sitting and losing track of what's going on."
"One of my assistants will grab a chair for me, facing the players," Nelson said. "He'll hand me a clipboard and pen, ready to go. That's where having good assistant coaches makes a difference."
Nelson will sometimes turn over control of the timeout if one of those assistants has something specific to impart. Bill Heath, who coaches the Ukiah boys, said he runs defensive timeouts, while assistant Von Pena runs offensive timeouts. Because of the time constraints, the message tends to be to the point.
"If it's a 30-second timeout, I tell 'em one thing," Cardinal Newman boys coach Tom Bonfigli said. "If it's a full, I'll tell 'em maybe two or three, that's it. Sometimes a team tries to do too much, or there are too many people talking."