Monday, February 12, 2007

Basketball Jones

“Got to have a jones for this, a jones for that, but this running with Joneses, boy, just ain’t where it’s at.”
-- Boz Scaggs

Well, they were running, all right. It was more than a full day of basketball at Highview Middle School on Saturday. Ben and his mighty Red Scourges played a tripleheader, losing all three and cementing last place in the tournament and the league.

We arrived at Highview at 8:15 on Saturday morning, preparing for the opener against the St. Anthony Blue squad. Ben and his compadres gave the Blues a good run in an earlier game, losing 40-36 in what was the tightest game of the season. This time, the Blues got off to an early lead and didn’t look back, handing our scourges a 52-31 defeat. Ben played his usual solid game, playing generally good defense and passing and picking with great abandon. He did not score, as he was only able to attempt one shot.

We then waited until 10:40 to play the second game, this time against the eventual champion, the St. Anthony White team. The Whites are an exceptionally well-coached team with about 10 good, unspectacular players on the team. Because of the schedule, the game was the first of the day for the Whites, so they were fresh against our undermanned Scourges. Still, the Scourges held their own for a time, remaining tied throughout the first quarter. But you could see that our kids were gassed (only 7 players showed up) and eventually the Whites wore our kids down, winning 49-16. Ben did not even get a chance to shoot in the game this time and rarely saw the ball.

We had a decision to make at that point – do we stay or do we go? The final game was scheduled for 3:30, this time against the Maroon team, who were twice vanquished in the other bracket. The kids wanted to stay, so we reluctantly ate the terrifying “lunch special” available from the concession stand – hot dog, chips and pop for $2. While not a very satisfying repast, it did take care of the kids. We then went to watch the passion play/game between the Forces of Good and the Forces of Evil.

Who were the Forces of Good? That would be the Purple Team (referred to previously as the Purple Haze), a good team coached by a really good guy, whose son (an equally good guy) is the star of the team and is a former teammate of Ben’s; while the Forces of Evil were the dreaded Yellow Team (a/k/a Yellow Rain), the merciless squad that had handed our charges a 70-6 thrashing earlier in the year. The Haze got off to a good start as the Rain, missing one of their two rapacious point guards, was unable to set up the full court press that was so effective against our gallant youngsters. The guard who was available (coincidentally, also a former teammate of Ben’s) played valiantly but was clearly gassed at times during the game. Meanwhile, the Haze, which had improved steadily throughout the year, continued to make key baskets and defensive stops, forcing the Rain to play a half-court game. It went down to the wire, but the Forces of Good prevailed, 40-37, setting up a championship match between the Purple and St. Anthony White. St. Anthony White prevailed, by the way.

Okay, are you getting confused? Good – so were we at this point. By this time, it was getting close to game time for the final game. The Maroon team had twice vanquished our boys, both times by comfortable margins. Ben has a lot of friends on the Maroon team – kids he’s known for years from Bel Air and even pre-school, so we were familiar with the opposition. We were now down to six kids for the finale and we saw a very unimpressive performance, unfortunately, with the Maroons whipping Ben & co. 50-20. One bright spot for Ben, though – after Ben did not see the ball much during the game, I (in my role as assistant coach) called out to our kids to “get some of the other kids involved – let them have a shot.” I meant Ben and another kid. Well, amazingly, the ball came to Ben with about one minute remaining. Ben stood open, about even with the foul line but to the right, and he fired. The ball bounced high off the back rim, kissed the top of the backboard, then dropped through. Ben was on the board with the last points of the season.

So what do we learn from all this?

It’s asking a lot to have a bunch of 10-12 year olds play three games of basketball in one day. The kids were very tired and the level of play really declined as the day went on.

One of the hardest things to teach these kids is how to play unselfishly. Of the nine boys we had on our squad, about 3-4 were good ball handlers. These kids tended to dominate the games. Ben is a not a confident dribbler, but he keeps his head up and is very unselfish. As a result, he was the kid who ended up setting a lot of picks and having to stay back to stop the fast break, while the ball handlers tended to bull toward the basket without paying much attention. Ben is, like his dad, not a great athlete, but he understands his limitations and plays good fundamental basketball. Every coach Ben has had has praised him for these traits. We are pleased and proud that he has them – such behaviors will benefit him greatly later in life.

Coaching at this level is highly variable, but everyone who does it seriously deserves a lot of respect. Ben’s head coach is an excellent human being – he understands the game and spent a lot of time teaching a group of inexperienced kids some very basic fundamentals. It was painful at times, especially since some of the kids lacked the maturity to understand the team concept, but despite all the losing, his coach never once lost his cool and consistently treated all the kids with dignity and respect. As Ben (and now Maria) have pursued youth sports, I have, in the main, seen dedicated and sincere individuals who really care about teaching kids how to play the game the right way. Ben has benefited from the experience and I think Maria will, too.

Finally, I have benefited from the experience, too. I have mostly been a loudmouthed, enthusiastic assistant on these teams – while I know the games well, I have no coaching experience and my own youthful athletic exploits were largely confined to wiffle ball games with the neighborhood kids. You hear a lot of horror stories about over-competitive parents and spoiled, tired kids in youth sports; I don’t doubt that many of these stories are true, especially at the traveling team level. But what I’ve seen is kids being treated with respect, learning from adults who are caring and decent. I have had to fight a lifelong battle against cynicism, but I’m not cynical at all about these experiences; the youth sports programs our kids participate in have been worthwhile.


Anonymous said...

You bring me back 20 years with this post. Lots of mixed memories (winning a game on a put back against Glenwood; losing a game and getting left on the bench in crunch time). People often idealize youth as a time of innocence and fun. It was a pretty tough slog as far as I recall.

Mark said...

Hey anonymous,

Indeed, it can be a slog. There is no doubt about that. As long as the kids are enjoying it, I don't object. The horrifying tales come from the traveling leagues, where kids end up playing multiple games every weekend and are on almost a daily schedule of practice/game/practice. It takes a tremendous time commitment to do that and willingness to forego most other family activities for the sport in question. That has to be a slog.