“At this point, I look … and there are all those little moments where your life could go this way or that way,” said Brian Wolfe, who doesn’t fit the stereotype of the larger-than-life basketball coach.
The soft-spoken and slight coach has made his personal mission to help shape young lives one shot at a time.
In his 10th season in the Waldorf school system, Wolfe has coached more than 500 middle and high school basketball games and was named Coach of the Year by the Waldorf league for coaching the Sacramento Waldorf High School varsity girls’ team. He is also the games teacher and basketball coach at Davis Waldorf.
Eleven years ago, fresh out of college and going nowhere, Wolfe heard that a small, private school needed a basketball coach.
“I showed up for the first day of practice at Cedar Springs (Waldorf and) found my way to the office, introduced myself, and said I was looking for the gym,” Wolfe said. “And they walked me down the hill and said, ‘See, when all the cars pull away that’s your gym.’ There were two little hoops on either side of the parking lot.”
Most Waldorf schools have a no-cut policy for sports and often even have to scrounge for players to fill out a team roster.
Yet, for Wolfe, this is the true test of a coach. “It’s real coaching to take a team of kids who aren’t basketball players and see how far they can go.”
“How far” turned out to be an undefeated season. And then his life changed.
“That group of parents said, ‘We’ve planned out your life for you. You’re going to Rudolf Steiner College (in Fair Oaks) next year and you’re going to become a Waldorf teacher,’ ” he said. “I was working in a warehouse at The Sacramento Bee, working night shifts, going nowhere with no plan. And so I went.”
That decision changed both the course of Wolfe’s life and the meaning of sports to a decade of middle and high school students. From there, he assisted the head coach at Sacramento Waldorf for two years before taking a position as games teacher at Davis Waldorf, which was without a basketball team when he arrived.
A seventh-grade teacher at Davis Waldorf told him, “We need you to start a basketball program. We want in on all this excitement you have around basketball.”
Wolfe’s excitement remains nearly a decade later.
“I love the game of basketball and how you can learn all of life’s lessons on a basketball team,” said Wolfe, who now coaches the Davis Waldorf seventh- and eight-grade boys squad along with the Sacramento girls varsity team.
Sacramento Waldorf varsity girls captain Zoe Latzer is familiar with those lessons.
“We were talking about how if you want the ball you have to go out and get it. I’ve really taken that into my life,” said the senior. “If I want something, I have to put in effort and really go for it. There was a lot of doubt on our team. He’s taught us to act like we were the best and to try for things rather than doubting ourselves.”
Wolfe is familiar with overcoming doubt.
“I was so shy in high school. I don’t know what it would have been like if I couldn’t play basketball,” he said. “My confidence in high school came from basketball. And basketball came back into my life when I was working at the warehouse. Again, I had no confidence, I was totally unsure, and basketball came back and gave me a direction.”
Da Vinci ninth-grader Simon Ford played for the Davis Waldorf for three years.
“The one of his many lessons that I still use today is to play your game instead of reacting to the game of others,” noted Ford in an email interview. “This has taught to be assertive, yet respectful and always speak up when I see something that might be wrong.”
Mike Bradshaw, whose son Collin played with Ford, said, “Collin would always tell me he (Wolfe) knew how to play the team game. It was never an individual game.”
Ford recalled one such memory from their eighth-grade season.
“It was 3.5 seconds left in the game, all tied up,” Ford said. “Coach Wolfe called a timeout and wrote on his white board. … Our plan was to screen Max Koehler’s man and feed him the ball in the corner … With only a slight pause he pulled up a three and sunk it. We exploded and nearly knocked him into the stands.
“Not only did everyone play their best, but I will never forget the feeling of playing with my nine best friends and the best coach anyone could ask for.”
Koehler, who now plays for the Sacramento Waldorf varsity, agreed: “We had a good time. We were all good friends. We were such a good team.”
Bradshaw added: “It gave them an identity. They were basketball players on the Wolfepack. To this day they see themselves as part of the Wolfepack. It went way beyond basketball, and Brian was the leader of that culture. It was about being friends and growing up.”
Growing up poses challenges, on and off the basketball court. While boys may have to be taught to focus more on the team than individual glory, girls may battle societal expectations.
Wolfe told of a former player who had struggled in school.
“She ran, and she fouled girls, and dove for the ball, and when the game was over, she was in tears. And it was tears of joy,” he said. “(Her teacher) asked her, ‘Why are you crying?’ She said something like, ‘That’s the first time in my life where I can be myself and not get in trouble.’ ”
Helping kids find themselves is Wolfe’s goal.
“With the basketball team, even with players that aren’t basketball players, they have that immediate sense of pride, and it happens right away,” he said.
Bradshaw added: “It’s easy to see (talent) in some kids, but in others it’s harder, but he’s really good at bringing that out.”
Wolfe learned to dig for that talent in childhood.
“I couldn’t run because of asthma,” he said. “So I just stood in the driveway shooting baskets. All I did was stand and shoot. We lived on a big hill with poison oak at the bottom. So if I missed, the ball rolled into the poison oak. That’s how I developed my game.”
Wolfe worked to ensure his students have a place to hone their own skills.
“I always tell people, my favorite place on planet Earth is just a big slab of concrete behind the middle school at Davis Waldorf,” he said. “If basketball can give any of those kids one of those small life-changing moments, that’s why I do it.”