By Matt Watson
College coaches spend hours, days and years scouting their peers, analyzing past performances and honing strategies to put themselves and their teams in the best possible position to succeed on the biggest stages. Instinct plays a large role in coaching as well, as even the most well-laid plans need adaptation in the moment. Sometimes a play just comes to you.
A play recently came to MSU Denver men’s basketball coach Michael Bahl, quite literally, in a sense you wouldn’t expect – representatives from a theatrical play reached out to Bahl to tap into his coaching experience for a basketball-themed production at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.
Bahl visited the DCPA in February to consult with an actor playing a coach in “The Great Leap,” Lauren Yee’s play about an American college basketball team playing an exhibition game in China in 1989. Veteran actor Bob Ari plays Saul Slezak, a coach serving as a father figure to a Chinese-American player.
“As I left my interview with coach Bahl, I was struck by how much Lauren Yee got it right in her play,” Ari said. “Mostly, the feeling I took away from coach Bahl was his overriding love and commitment to ‘his guys.’ This was truly inspiring and where the two men (Bahl and the fictional Slezak) most definitely meet to share a common passion.”
Bahl, whose last theatrical experience was acting out Shakespeare for class credit as a junior in high school, found plenty in common with the actor playing the coach too. Both men chose careers with a lot of late nights and traveling. After “The Great Leap” finishes its run at Denver’s Ricketson Theatre on March 11, Ari and the rest of the crew will spend five weeks performing at the Seattle Repertory Theatre.
“I have been in this business for over 40 years and married for over 30 years, and my wife was an actress. This is much like coach Bahl's circumstance as his wife is also a coach,” Ari said. His advice to Bahl is “a phone call at least twice a day” and shutting out work demands as much as possible when at home with his family.
In his first year as a head coach, Bahl said it’s been tough spending so much more time away from wife and children, especially when the Roadrunners lost their first five games of the season and Bahl’s instinct was to spend more hours in the gym and in the office.
“College basketball is not a 9-to-5 job. It’s a commitment to your craft to try to be the best and being able to have people in your life who understand that as much as they can,” said Bahl, the first MSU Denver alumnus to coach the Roadrunners. “Bob engulfs himself in his current role. It changes with him, and it changes with me too day-to-day. That’s one thing I love about this job is that it’s constantly evolving.”
After a rough first act, Bahl’s Roadrunners won seven of eight games and finished the regular season 15-13. His brief gig as an acting coach also earned him a date – he took his wife to a Sunday production of “The Great Leap,” which he gives rave reviews.
“I thought the play was great. Basketball was the vehicle they used to tell the underlying story, about a kid who rose to the challenge,” Bahl said. “Basketball is a sport, but it’s more than a sport – it’s a vehicle we use to help young men grow.”
That’s something Bahl will always be able to hang his hat on, long after the final curtain lowers on his young career.
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