These fathers and kids figured out how to make coach-player relationship work

A man and daughter pose near basketball hoop.
JSerra girls’ basketball coach Geoffrey Clayton and daughter Jailynn Clayton.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
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The nights were cold. A mattress laid on the floor, lit by a nearby lamp. A space heater did its best to ward off the chill.

Twelve years ago, Geoffrey Clayton, now the head coach at San Juan Capistrano JSerra High, slept on that mattress with 4-year-old daughter Jailynn.

Thrust into single fatherhood when Jailynn was 1 after her mother walked out, he was living off a meager assistant coach’s salary at a junior college in Fresno. He couldn’t afford an apartment. They moved into the refurbished garage at the home of one of his friend’s parents.

Clayton was depressed for years, feeling pangs of guilt. Why can’t you give her a better life? Will she be OK without a mom? Why can’t you provide?

But Jailynn, who now plays for Clayton at JSerra, was happy as long as she was with her dad. When Clayton was feeling down, she’d give him a little pat on the back.

“I would literally live on the street with him if I had to,” Jailynn said.

 JSerra High's Jailynn Clayton jumps to shoot ball
JSerra High’s Jailynn Clayton attempts a shot during practice with father, and coach, Geoffrey watching in the background.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Years later, the two share a unique mind-meld on the 8-3 Lions team. Jailynn, averaging 16 points, six assists and five rebounds a game, often predicts exactly when her dad will call a timeout.

It’s a special connection, also shared by others in the Southern California hoops landscape. But it’s not always harmonious. Teenagers want independence. To have the space to grow into their own person, without a familial influence.

That’s hard to come by when your dad’s screaming in your ear every day to get into your defensive stance.

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Caden Cantwell was ready to transfer.

He’d spent much of his freshman year at West Hills Chaminade High, playing on the junior varsity team, feeling awkward. He’d turn quiet as friends at the varsity level would complain that his dad, Bryan,didn’t give them enough playing time. He’d get uncomfortable when others in his grade would make comments about what his mother — a ninth-grade teacher at Chaminade — talked about in health class.

“Just wanting to be on my own a little bit,” Cantwell said, “I struggled with that.”

His parents convinced him to stay at Chaminade for another term. A month into his sophomore year, the mere thought of transferring never crosses Caden’s mind.

Much of the difference, he said, was finally getting to play for his dad at the varsity level. To Bryan, Caden is just “a player on the team” during practice or a game. But as soon as the two step outside the gym, they’re strictly father and son — no discussion of basketball.

“A lot of dads and moms will get in the car on the way home, tell their kids everything about the game, instead of just being a parent,” Bryan said. “Well, [Caden] had no separation, because I was also his coach.”

It’s the key equilibrium to each unique relationship — when to be dad and when to be coach.

Ray Bennett has been coaching his daughter Ryann since she was in the fourth grade, and now as a sophomore at Long Beach St. Anthony’s High. When she was younger, playing in a tournament in Las Vegas, Bennett went on a tirade. Ryann started crying. Afterward, her dad pulled her aside and gave her a simple explanation.

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“The reason your feelings are hurt is because you think Dad’s yelling at you,” Bennett told his daughter. “Dad’s not yelling at you. Your coach is yelling at you.”

A coach talks to youth basketball team
JSerra coach Geoffrey Clayton talks with team members at practice.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Most coaches use tough love to get through to players. But that can get tricky when the kid they’re screaming at about shot selection is the same one they used to push in a stroller to practice every day.

Such is the case for Joe Wyatt, who has been bringing his son JD to Woodland Hills El Camino Real High practices ever since he was old enough to walk. Now, JD’s on the varsity team as a freshman, and feels plenty of pressure from his father — who tells him to stay humble at all times, such as after a 33-point outburst in a loss to San Diego High in early December.

Wyatt knows he’s harder on JD than any other El Camino Real player. He just doesn’t want him to fail.

“In the moment, it’s tough,” JD said, “but I know in the long run it’s going to make me better.”

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Some have found ways to create bonding moments that don’t involve basketball.

During the early part of the pandemic, Cantwell would take Caden surfing, sitting on the beach and watching his son catch a few waves. Wyatt and JD would often spend days at Six Flags Magic Mountain.

Off the hardwood, though, Clayton has found it harder and harder to relate to his daughter. Jailynn is 16 now; soon, she’ll be off to college.

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“I’m just used to having her around so much,” Clayton said. “I don’t like it. I want her to be little. I want her to be young, forever.”

For many fathers, the connections they’ve created with their sons or daughters through basketball can only make that transition harder.

Even as Cantwell tries to separate fatherhood from coaching, he said it was still special to share the team’s CIF Southern Section championship with Caden last year. The Wyatts have butted heads over basketball, but JD feels sharing the sport with his dad has strengthened their relationship.

“Every dad who’s a coach, who’s coaching their son or daughter, probably had a lot of trepidation going into the process because we all know how tough coaching high school kids are,” said Santa Ana Mater Dei coach Kevin Kiernan, who previously coached daughter Camryn and now Devyn.
“I was really gratified to find out how much I really enjoyed it.”

It’ll be especially hard for Clayton — after four years of watching Jailynn blossom as a player, and having her stick with him as he bounced around Fresno trying to make ends meet.

The days of the garage are in the past. But whenever Clayton’s having a bad day, perhaps after a tough game, Jailynn will still give him a little pat on the back.

Some things never change.

JSerra girls' basketball coach Geoffrey Clayton gives a kiss to he head of daughter Jailynn  while posing for a photo.
JSerra High girls’ basketball coach Geoffrey Clayton has had a special bond with daughter Jailynn as a single father.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
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