Friday, December 4, 2009

The Comeback Kids

I don’t know how much more excitement my healthy heart can take. Miguel’s CYO basketball team played a game last night that turned into a second half thriller of epic youth sports proportions.

I am the team’s assistant coach. I signed up in early September to help. They released player information and the practice schedule in October, which was when I found out that I was the sole coach.

I immediately emailed the league commissioner. I told him, given that Verna had just been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, I was unable to shoulder the burden of coaching by myself. He responded that I should ask other team parents for help. So I sent out a request, and one parent, Martin, said he’d be happy to assist. He also offered his older son, Connor, who plays high school varsity basketball, as our real head coach.

We started practicing two weeks ago. We have nine sixth graders, eight of whom go to the same school and are fun and energetic kids. Martin and I thank the hoop gods for Connor because Martin and I know very little about the intricacies of basketball. Yes, I follow the game. But I could never draw Xs and Os and diagram plays or run a practice with a series of drills.

Regular season games do not begin until January, but earlier this week all the teams in our league, St. Isabella’s, started competing in a pre-tournament qualifier. We lost our first game on Monday to the defending league champions, a team that has played together for three years. We led most of the game and only lost by four points. Given that we’d only practiced three times to that point and one of our starters had never played organized basketball before, we were very happy with how well the kids played.

All Miguel said after the game was, “Dad, I need new basketball shoes.” During the game he was slipping all over the court and even fell once while dribbling. I looked down at his soles and, sure enough, they were worn past the treads. If automobile tires looked that worn they’d be highly illegal and dangerous.

Whether it was a case of nerves or his faulty soles, Miguel missed all his shots and was tentative on offense. On defense, he is what we call a beast, a swarming, aggressive, hands-in-your-face kind of guy.

All I said to him after the game was, “Miguel, you guys almost beat the defending champs.” Then I paused. “Hey, don’t be afraid to attack the hole and take the ball to the basket. Play like you do at the park. I don’t want you to be like me.”

But we bought him some new shoes on Thursday. I definitely don’t want him following in my footsteps.

Miguel is familiar with my sports past, a history filled with mediocrity and fear and retreat. I was a good basketball player in my immediate neighborhood, given that I was taller than just about everyone else, but at school or in leagues I was a frightened kid who often passed the ball away as soon as it touched my hands.

Miguel knows all too well the stories of my Jekyll and Hyde basketball career. I am the guy who once played a pick-up game outside my cousin’s home in Massachusetts and the other team refused to play a second game with me because I racked up so many points. But I am also the guy who scored 10 points in four years of JCC ball and that includes scoring eight points in one game.

So I don’t want him to go through his athletic life playing like his formerly skittish father who does regret his past docility.

A biting chill hung in the air as we arrived at the gym last night. Verna was there for her first night out in a while as was Maya. The game started at seven.

I tutor one of the players from the opposing team along with Miguel on Wednesday evenings. He told us the other day, “You’ll beat us.” He and Miguel are on the same Little League team.

At half-time, though, we were down 19-7. We did not score a single point in the second quarter. Our normally composed kids were racing recklessly down the court, throwing up ill-advised shots and making passes that were either telegraphed to an opponent or missed their teammates completely.

They came off the court at the half looking very dejected. Connor moved over to huddle with them. I came over and said, OK, yelled because the acoustics inside the St. Vincent’s gym are horrible, “We can win this game! It’s not over yet. Just play your game. Take good shots, make better passes, and get those hands up on defense. We can chip away at their lead. We can win this game!”

Four minutes later, the second half began. By the end of the 3rd quarter (each quarter is eight minutes), we were down three. Everyone contributed to the second half effort. Our defense tightened up as I kept shouting, “Hands up, hands in their faces.” Kids were more aggressive driving to the basket. Our two big men, Jacob and Kendal, snared a slew of rebounds. Martin’s other son, Patrick, drained two shots from the top of the key. Miguel sank his first basket, added another one with less than two minutes to go, hauled in a key rebound, and also stole the ball.

With under two minutes to go, we tied the score at 23. Jacob was on the line shooting two free throws. He missed the first, but made the second. We were ahead by one. The four kids on the bench whooped and hollered. All we had to do was hold them. They took the ball out, but turned it over. We didn’t score either. With 20 seconds left, they had one last chance to overtake us. But we prevented them from taking any good shots. All they got off was an off-balance air ball with four ticks on the clock.

Game over. We’d won after erasing a twelve point half-time deficit. We earned tonight off, and play tomorrow morning against the team that nipped us on Monday. Miguel was totally stoked at how he and the team played. Must’ve been the shoes.

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