For once, Amir Coffey’s shot is on the money.
The 18-year-old Hopkins basketball star makes a giddy glance at his father, a former Gophers center and Timberwolves forward. Richard Coffey throws his hands in the air. “Are you kidding me?” the elder Coffey howls, rolling his eyes past the second hole at the Theodore Wirth par-3 course in Minneapolis. “This joker right here is so lucky right now.”
The golf course is the only athletic venue in which Dad still expects to beat Son, and in the next hour that dominance isn’t threatened. Amir’s swing disappears quicker than ice cream in July.
On the court, however, Dad’s time has come and gone. Amir can take him now, aside from a few crafty post moves Richard will dust off on occasion. Away from the golf course, Amir’s shot has nothing to do with luck. He was thrust into training sessions along with his sisters from the moment he began walking. The hard work, for all the Coffey kids, has paid off. Sydney, the oldest, and Nia have good chances to play professionally after college. Amir has more than a dozen scholarship offers — the Gophers included — and is the state’s top recruit for the 2016 class.
He's also ranked No. 35 among ESPN's Top 100 high school seniors.
At 6-7, Amir has grown into a slick, skilled player, his graceful style much different from Richard’s bullish play. He has fully recovered from a left knee injury that wiped out all but three games of his junior season. He has a chance, his father knows, to surpass all of his talented kin.
But not on this July day. Amir will have rare moments to celebrate this afternoon, but he makes the most of one on Wirth’s No. 2. He struts the green and pulls his ball from the cup — a birdie 2 after that long putt — as Richard shakes his head and settles for a 3.
Walking toward the third hole, Amir turns to his father and grins widely.
“Hey,” he says, moments before Dad runs up the score so bad they stop keeping track. “I beat you on that hole.”
A basketball family
In the early 2000s, mornings came early at the Coffey house. Dinner came late. And friends hoping to find Sydney, Nia or Amir? They had to go to one of the nearby gyms.
Richard would load them in the jeep and drive from their Brooklyn Park home to Hopkins, Life Time Fitness or the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis Park. Whenever there was time, wherever there was room. Sheba Coffey, the kids’ mother, sometimes would come and rebound, or just send them off with bagged lunches.
“Some kids might go and spend three or four hours,” said Sheba, who played basketball and ran track in high school. “For them? No, like, take a pillow. Because you’re going to be there all day.”
For Richard — who spent three years as a U.S. Army paratrooper before starting for four years for the Gophers, playing one season with the Timberwolves and six overseas — basketball was what he knew, his main avenue for fathering. The couple divorced in 2014, but Sheba, who works for the Anoka-Hennepin school district and in marketing for the Timberwolves, always shared this devotion.
Sydney, now a senior and all-conference candidate at Marist, has had uncanny hand-eye coordination since birth. Nia, an All-Big Ten forward at Northwestern, placed second in the 100- and 200-meter races at the National Junior Olympics when she was 8. Amir, as a toddler, would dribble between two Little Tyke hoops in the unfinished basement, heaving up shots. When Richard’s friends came over, a high-pitched voice would chirp, “You wanna play 1-on-1?”
Basketball took front seat to most things: sleepovers, prom and sometimes friends altogether.
“It wasn’t normal,” Sydney said. “Your friends are texting you about a party or a sleepover and it’s like, ‘No, I can’t because I have to work out.’
“I didn’t understand it then, but I do now.”
The intensity made for fierce workouts. It also made for some talented ballplayers. Nia, a junior, is eyeing the WNBA after her Wildcats career, and Sydney is considering playing overseas. Amir, the Gophers’ most immediate recruiting priority, has catapulted into the national top-50 rankings for his class, despite an ACL injury that occurred when he landed awkwardly off a rebound in an early December game. Trained as a guard by his father, Amir has the size and skill that now scream superstar potential.
The three siblings now praise their dad’s foresight, but the process was sanded many times to become smooth. Richard remembers when Sydney — about 6 at the time — first told her dad she wanted to play. “Are you sure?” he asked her.
Their training session was a reflection of the way Richard competed: aggressive, physical. When they were done, Richard patted his daughter on the head and they went home.
“I was really proud of myself,” Richard said. “I thought it went really well.”
At home moments later, Sheba emerged from their daughter’s room and told him: “She never wants to go with you to the gym ever again.”
It wasn’t the last protest. But over time, Richard learned as much about parenting as the kids did about hoops. Nia liked him to amp her up, get in her face. Sydney shut down at such outbursts. Amir, meanwhile, wanted to analyze the game on his own and talk when he was ready.
“We laugh about it now,” Nia said. “Like, ‘Oh gosh, can you believe what Dad made us do back in the day?’ We’re so thankful now because it’s why we are where we are.”
A wanted recruit
Amir runs full speed at a set of cones spaced in a zigzag pattern, stops, plants his left foot and propels himself in the opposite direction.
“Get that foot out there,” a voice shouts.
“That’s what I like about him,” Richard says of Tony Wilson, an independent trainer who works with Amir at Grace Church in Eden Prairie. “He sees the little things. If you don’t train your body to make that big step, in games when you need to, you’re going to make a smaller step.”
The goal is for Amir to transition from a promising player — he averaged 14.3 points his sophomore year — to the dominance hinted at in two 30-point, eight-rebound games before he was hurt last season. Amir was cleared to play last week, and the injury hasn’t scared off the likes of Michigan State, Baylor, Michigan and more.
“He’s not just getting back as far as I’m going to be a good high school player again,” Hopkins coach Ken Novak Jr. said. “He’s getting back to saying, ‘I’ve got to be one of the best players in the United States.’ ”
“He has the tendency to be very analytical in games. He’s a good thinker,” Novak added. “But sometimes he’s going to have to think less and just go more, and not be afraid to fail.”
Richard, a motivational speaker, now lets Wilson drive Amir’s training. The father’s bellowing laugh echoes through the gym more often than his demands, but the 49-year-old does, however, still make time for a lesson.
In one session’s free moments, Richard — in plaid shorts and a pair of white Chuck Taylors — grabs a ball and posts up his son, who is an inch taller than his 6-6 dad.
Swish. Amir sighs. Richard hoots and grabs his own rebound. He posts up Amir again, scoring a second time, then a third and a fourth.
“That’s easy money, baby!” he yells. “Can’t stop the old man!”
This scene will be brought up by Dad at least a half-dozen times that week — at the dinner table, the first thing in the morning — despite Richard later acknowledging he hasn’t been able to beat his son for a long time.
“If I was playing serious, you wouldn’t have beat me,” Amir says an hour later. “You scored one time.”
“One time?!” comes the response. “Son, four times in a row!”
A decision looms
The VHS tapes were well-worn. Amir would watch those old Gophers games and study No. 33 throwing elbows into opponents or overpowering defenders.
Watch this, Richard used to say just before his younger self knocked an opponent over.
“But that was not who I was,” said the quicker, more slender Amir.
“I didn’t understand it in the beginning, because I thought there was one way to play and that was the way I played,” Richard said. “But then I realized with his basketball IQ and his talent level, that he was very skillful and that his approach to the game was a lot different. Actually, his approach to the game is better.”
The son teaches the father, the father teaches the son. More of the latter, of course, when the two get off the court and on the course.
Amir stares ahead at the sixth hole. He chokes up on his club and glances at his father. Richard knows, now, that questioning look is an invitation for instruction.
“Don’t twist your body all the way around,” he says. “You’ve got to open up your swing.”
With the biggest decision of Amir’s life looming, Richard continues to coach, not command. He tells Amir to carefully judge every program, and to make the choice for only himself — not for the Gophers fans that plead daily with Richard and Sheba, not for the parents who would love to drive 15 minutes to watch Amir play college games.
“He’s my dad,” Amir said. “He’s always been my trainer. I trust him with everything. At the end of the day, if I have questions, I’ll still go to my dad.”
When school starts, the pair will be back in the gym together, shooting jump shots before class. Amir will be honing his handle and growing as a scorer, his skill set constantly evolving past Richard’s in the game that is their common thread.
But in another way, the two seem identical. No matter the venue, Father will always try to school Son. Son will always try to school Father. Jokes will be made and taunts launched. And the loser will be reminded of his fate at every breakfast and dinner until the next showdown.
On the way out to the Theodore Wirth parking lot, Amir whips around.
“Those first two holes, though,” he says, flashing teeth at Richard. “Did I have you a little bit scared?”