Six Minutes Left

Photo by Markus Spiske on

    “There’s still six minutes left in the game, why is he passing up on his shots?” I sat on the edge of the bleachers, hands shaking, stomach half way up my throat, as my fifteen year old son John fell back onto defense. 

     Mind you, I wasn’t always a neurotic sports parent. When my three boys were young we eschewed organized sports altogether in favor of the arts, and the enrichment of body and soul through Tae Kwon Doe. Seeing one’s progeny excel in any domain, however, is seductively intoxicating. And so, as John became interested in team sports in 3rd and 4th grade, and ran for 50 yard touchdown after 50 yard touchdown in pee-wee football, and was one of the miraculous few who could both shoot and crossover dribble in basketball, I was sucked in. 

     My participation read like a laundry list of parental over-involvement: assistant coach third grade football, head coach fourth grade football and basketball, head coach AYSO 5th, 6th, 7th grade soccer, assistant coach 5th grade select team soccer, assistant coach national tournament team, head coach 6th and 7th grade select teams, head coach 5th, 6th ,7th grade indoor select team, coach 4th, 5th, 6th grade basketball. During this time my own dormant passion for soccer rekindled and I took to the fields of battle once again—better to give my kids insights on the nuances of the game. 

    John excelled in everything he tried. Even a one season stint as a little league pitcher ended with an 8 and 0 record and countless strike-outs. But as he approached adolescence dark clouds began to gather. 

     Funny how the ghosts of high school can come back to haunt— so far away in time and stature. I was a late bloomer—a real late, late bloomer. At the beginning of freshman year I was five feet tall and tipped the scales at 105 lbs. Overnight the boys of the class had become adults (the girls had done so a year or two earlier). My classmates were crashing through walls of 240 pound lineman, and going out on dates. I was still playing with hot-wheels and throwing rocks at trees. It took until junior year for any coach to take me seriously, longer still for the opposite sex to do so. For a kid who lived for sports (and girls) high school was a less than palatable experience. 

     Determined to save my son the same indignation, I became his relentless personal trainer; and nag. I pushed him hard every free moment I had. He had to eat more, run more, lift more, shoot more, read more (of the great works of Pele, Jordan, and Bird). Never satisfied with his games I critiqued every moment of every contest, and angered at every sub-Herculean effort. For I knew it was coming. It was in the genes. He was young in his class (a summer baby), skinny, and well behind in physical development. Despite his natural athleticism—far, far superior to my own) he too would have to face the oft moronic world of high school coaching that so greatly favored the hormonally advanced. 

     Perhaps I should have “red-shirted” him as was done with great regularity in our neck of the woods—that is enter a child a year or two late into kindergarten to allow athletic maturation prior to high school (heck, rumor had it that every child at Mount Carmel was red-shirted 2 to 3 years for the benefit of its football team). Oh well, too late, we would have to make things up with brains, skill, and preternatural hustle. 

     The first blow came from an unexpected source. After excelling on the school’s 7th grade basketball team as one of those plucky guards with an incessant in your face defense and a deadly outside shot, his basketball career abruptly was iced by his new 8th grade coach. A portly and jolly man, he apparently saw no basketball aptitude in John. In the blink of an eye, John went from star to scrub. Game time became limited to the hapless melee of the last minutes of a 30 point blow-out. There seemed to be no plausible explanation. True, the coach’s son was vying for the same position on the team, but I wouldn’t, couldn’t believe that nepotism would/could have anything to do with it. 

     Still it was only one season. My son’s brilliance would shine through—especially with 9 more months of intensive paternally-guided training. Besides next year’s coach liked my son and actively voiced disbelief at his position in the depth chart. 

     Well, as fate would have it, some local parents purportedly made a stink about the existing 9th grade coach (of 20 years). Apparently he had the temerity to play as many kids as possible in each game; and worse yet, to bench the self-inflated “head-cases” who acted out, or got out of line. This style of coaching would rob some of the pre-selected luminaries valuable playing time. The school caved, and John’s 8th grade coach became his 9th grade coach. 

     Still the kid was a natural athlete. He was doing great in soccer, and in summer basketball camp the Varsity coaches told him: “gee John, we never realized what a great player you are.” 

    Thank-goodness…the nightmare was over… his gifts were recognized…he now could reach his potential and experience all the enrichment that team sports had to offer.  

     But it was not to be. 9th grade basketball became a nightmarish repeat of the 8thgrade season, John, only touching the ball in warm-ups. 

     Aware of the rumors that the coaches could give a darn about the opinions of parents, I urged John to challenge the coach himself. To demand an explanation of his lot, and for advice on how to overcome it. But he’s a nice kid. Unable to follow up on a host of fatuous platitudes with the scathing cross-examination of a trial lawyer, John accepted his lot and began to consider quitting the team. 

     I, in an epiphany about misguided parenting, was overwhelmed by crushing ambivalence. If he quit basketball I could make up for so much wasted father-son time. We could go hiking and play guitar together, and tinker in the barn and go fishing together. I could cease being the task-master and be a fun dad again. Like when he was 9 and we used to wrestle or play one on one for hours on end. But alas, he was fifteen now. He hurt me when we wrestled. He beat me with embarrassing ease one on one, and he seemed to enjoy time with his friends more than with me. 

     So I went to his old 7th grade coaches and asked their advice. These were a couple of regular guys who yearly establish a junior-high basketball juggernaut while still managing to play rosters of 20-30 kids. The kids loved them and I trusted their judgment, no matter how much they may have had been tainted by the local system. They talked my son into sticking it out, at least for the season. They reinvigorated some of his lost passion for the game and, they probably said a word to his coach. For in the next game- with me unable to attend out of shear terror, he got to play. He came home bubbling with joy at going 3 for 3 from behind the arc. 

     And so here I was at the following contest, stomach in knots, watching him warm up. With the coach’s son and three other “starters” down with the flu, John actually got a starting nod and came out of the blocks on fire. 14 of the team’s first 16 points were his. He passed accurately and shot with growing confidence. He made several steals and tied-up his opponents for jump balls half a dozen times. He began to move about the court with a grace that I remembered from years back. Some parts of his game were rusty, but play acted as a lubricant and he relaxed into a pattern that drew and pleased the eye. 

     All the time, up in the bleachers, the old man sat like a tightened spring, silently screaming at the coach “in your face” every time a basket dropped or he forced a turn-over. Yes the reformed parental sports maniac had fallen off the wagon. All my thoughts of an exegesis on the role and reason for scholastic athletics—how we American had lost our compass; how sports should be more inclusive in this ever more sedentary society; how the lessons of team building, cooperation, shared effort, resilience in the face of adversity should be the point, not winning at all costs— had evaporated in the joy of seeing John back in action. John was in damn-it, and he was making a mockery of his detractors… 

     Leading the team with 24 points, he entered the fourth quarter. I pleaded with the gods for him to run up his box score. To my horror though, he started passing up on shots. I counted at least three open threes, and several wide-open driving lanes that he ignored. The lump in my throat grew and I began to tremble. I probably ever barked a couple of plaintive appeals to shoot…but to no avail. 

    “There’s still six minutes left in the game, why is he passing up his shots?” I blurted to my wife. She, a basketball novice, but being far more sensitive to her environment, had the answer in an instant: “He’s trying to give the ball to Kevin.” “Give” mind you, not “pass” or “feed.”

    And, of course, that was what he was doing. Kevin, a forward and a victim of the same type of treatment as my son, only worse, now stood at the low post muscling off his defender, and John was persistently zipping passes into him. When Kevin converted and the team retreated to defense, a grinning John gave Kevin a quick fist-bump then resumed his attack on the ball. 

    With four minutes left in the game my son took a seat on the bench. It was only later that I learned that this action was voluntary. He, had requested to be taken out of the game. Not for injury or fatigue, but so one of the lowliest of the scrubs could get some minutes on the floor.

     Later that night I thumped his shoulder in the usual father-son, no-hug, good-night ritual, and I told him how much I loved and admired him—not for his play but for his actions towards his teammates. I told him that in those simple acts, he exhibited more class, and humanity, than had been shown by many of the adults around him—his father included.

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