Dave Flick might never have found his way to coaching basketball if it weren’t for how he was born.
He didn’t exit the womb as the perfect basketball specimen, although he is now 6 feet 8 inches tall. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Flick was instead dead for eight minutes.
Complications during Flick and his twin brother’s birth led to Flick being strangled by his umbilical cord. As a result of the lack of oxygen to his brain, the 32-year-old coach has cerebral palsy, a condition “caused by abnormalities in parts of the brain that control muscle movements,” as defined by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. His muscles contract involuntarily.
He walks with an uneven gait, an act made possible only by hypermobility in his joints, another condition dating to his birth.
His medical history doesn’t end there. He’s had 20 operations, mostly orthopedic to help his mobility. He’s had his Achilles’ tendon in each foot lengthened three times. Flick and his brother — who doesn’t have cerebral palsy — are immunosuppressed, making them more susceptible to illness and infections.
Sickness always hits in the winter. Flick didn’t spend a Christmas outside a hospital until he was 10, and didn’t learn to walk until 8.
No one looked at him and thought he’d be a basketball coach.
“Basically, until I hit puberty it was kind of watching a fawn walk,” Flick said. “I fell a lot. As a result, I’ve had 15 concussions.”
Despite the world seemingly telling him otherwise, Flick was always drawn to sports. His grandfather was a huge Detroit Tigers fan. He tried out for the fifth grade basketball team, but was cut due to coaches’ concerns about the possibility of suffering an injury.
He gave basketball another go in ninth grade, when during tryouts some kids would bounce the ball off his head and dribble through his legs just because he couldn’t fight back.
But he could shoot a basketball, and that was something.
“It was good, it was therapeutic,” Flick said. “It was something I could do.”
During high school, he knew playing anything other than pickup was likely out of the picture. But Flick knew he wanted to be around sports in some capacity.
He got his chance when he was 21, ironically thanks to a health issue that threatened to limit his mobility even further.
During Flick’s senior year of college, he had an operation to insert a screw into one of his feet to give it a proper arch. Unfortunately, the screw wasn’t correctly sterilized, and Flick, already vulnerable to infection, nearly lost his leg.
He dropped out of college temporarily while recovering, and found himself aimless and bored. A good friend suggested he help out with the basketball team he coached.
Eleven years later, after stops in Michigan, Kentucky and Kansas, Flick now has his first head-coaching job in girls basketball with a Tolleson program that won four state titles in the past six years under since-departed coach Todd Nelson.
Flick is ready for the challenge.
“This program hasn’t accomplished anything at the Division I level,” he said. “We’re no different than all the other teams that haven’t won. Yes, this was a very successful program at the Division II level, but we’ve got to earn it at the high level.”
That he’s never played competitively makes him different, but no less prepared. First-year Tolleson Athletic Director Chad Doyle said Flick’s lack of on-court experience didn’t matter to him during the hiring process. Any doubts the players had evaporated quickly when Flick organized the program’s summer league in June.
Senior guard Belema Ogbanga woke up to that fact when Flick sank a few threes in her face while stepping into a scrimmage during an open gym. Fellow senior Shaylin Heredia took Flick seriously when he benched her during a summer league game.
“Honestly, I didn’t know he didn’t play basketball at all,” point guard Julie Mireles said. “I thought he would have played, because he knows what he’s doing.”
If anything, Flick’s knowledge of the game is expanded by never having seen the court. He’s studied coaches who never played, such as former University of Detroit and current ESPN broadcaster Dick Vitale.
He’s no slave to a system, having never played in one. He sees the whole court, because that’s all he’s ever looked at.
“I know I see the game differently, because my expectation isn’t, ‘Well, I was a player, so if I can do it, you can do it,'” Flick said. “No, I’m a pickup player. If I can do it and you can’t, you’re screwed. I know I coach it differently, because I look at it differently.”
“His knowledge base goes well beyond just his ability to play the game,” added Doyle. “You look at great players even in the NBA, and they haven’t panned out as great coaches.”
Flick doesn’t often discuss his handicap. He prefers to wait for people to ask him about it. Very few have, and most fear coming across as rude.
Doyle has heard only the Cliffs Notes version of Flick’s medical history because of a conversation they had about what’s required to drive school vehicles. None of Flick’s players knows, most assuming he was in a car accident.
At this point, they don’t even notice his diminished mobility.
“It’s just him,” Mireles said. “It’s Coach Flick.”
Flick doesn’t mind if people ask — in fact, he prefers it to awkward silence and curious gazes. He’s very open about his condition, echoing what his mother tells parents in similar situations.
“This is not a death sentence for your kid, whether it’s cerebral palsy, a head injury, epilepsy,” said Flick, who has dealt with all three. “If you get them through it, you’re going to be OK.”
Still, Flick won’t be able to do this forever. Just in the past three years, he’s noticed his body needs more time to recover from the rigors of coaching. Tolleson’s five games in seven days during the week of Thanksgiving nearly killed him, he said.
His goal is to coach until he’s 40. He’d love to go longer, but he’s a realist. “I know that point is coming,” Flick said. “I’d like to make it to 40, and I believe I will.”
Whenever that day comes, it will be a sad day for Tolleson. Flick’s had the head coaching job for only a few months, and Doyle already knows he made the right decision.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s very difficult to find quality coaches, and it’s difficult to find individuals that want to coach for the love of the kids and the game and the ability to build a program,” Doyle said. “They don’t get paid a whole lot. I wish I could pay my coaches a lot more that what the district has allotted for us to pay them.
“When you’re talking high school coaches, you’re talking about individuals like David who just flat love it and want to be around a sport constantly. I’m hopeful, honestly, and I believe that he’s going to be around for a while.”