When it Clicks

A child’s introduction to sports is, hopefully, a celebration of joyous ineptitude.

The first sport most American kids play is soccer. Across the nation, millions of bunched up, laughing munchkins chase the ball like bees swarming around honey. Other than the smiles on their faces, there’s not a lot of evidence of why anyone would ever call it “The Beautiful Game.”

Baseball and football follow suit. In the former, America’s pastime, we get to spend endless hours in our enigmatic Reno Spring weather, sweating or freezing, watching the limits of human cruelty, as our children ignore their targets and relentlessly batter the poor tees, humbly offering up their threaded leather gloves. In the latter, America’s national sport, our (reasonable) fear of C.T.E. prompts us to change the game even more, removing its actual fundamentals, blocking and tackling, and replacing
them with “flags.” Just when I thought there was no way the game’s ties to our military could get any more overt.

My son’s latest foray into team sports was basketball, and I expected similar, well, hijinks. Given the physical challenges of the game—shooting a ball effectively into the sky, doing anything while running—1st and 2nd graders were bound to deliver some serious amusement.

They did! With rules in place to encourage ball movement, defenders effectively (and sometimes literally) had their hands in their pockets. The white lines surrounding the court, marking out of bounds, turned out to be (Captain Barbosa voice) “more like guidelines.” Given the number of steps taken with the ball firmly in hand, double dribbles were actually an improvement. There were no Harlem Globetrotters; every game was the Washington Generals vs. the Washington Generals, a joyous exercise in hapless futility.

Until it wasn’t.

Somewhere around game 10, somehow, my son finally found his place. Something changed for him, and with it, the sport, forever.

It clicked.

Gone was the chicken with its head cut off, running around, one of ten confused, blue and white pawns. All at once, even if most of the league still wasn’t, he was playing something like real basketball. Now he was getting separation from those covering him, actually working to open up the key. Sure they were high-arched, but he was making smart passes to open teammates, setting up good, clean shots, regardless of the number that actually went in. His defense went from standing near an opponent to
being latched on the poor kid like a barnacle. The league gave kids the ball back after turnovers, so they could try again, but it doesn’t change the number of times an opponent fumbled the ball, butchered a pass, or threw up a blind airball, after panicking at his relentless onslaught.

He suddenly had a super power, court vision, and he used it. Half a dozen times, he ran to and bailed out a trapped teammate, saw a parting in the seas, and took that lane to the hoop for an easy layup.

Maybe one went in? I couldn’t possibly care less. They were smart, high percentage, fundamentally sound and logical Good Basketball plays.

He could see the game.

As we exited the gym, I couldn’t contain myself. I tried—and failed—to hold off until we got to the car, so he could hear me over the din of the eight-team exodus. Once there, I gushed like a fanboy, suddenly the living embodiment of every stereotype of the proud papa.

I went on for the whole drive. I’m pretty sure he didn’t understand a third of the basketball lingo that fell out of my babbling mouth. He didn’t care. He was glowing, and asked me to go through it all again for my parents when we met for dinner. I was all too happy to oblige.

P.S. Please allow me a grateful, special shoutout to the Boys & Girls Club. In my son’s seven seasons of team sports, this in their youth basketball program was the individual most positive and supportive one I have experienced. Coaches were friendly and enthusiastic. Parents cheered when their team did well, and when the other team did well. I didn’t see a single example of a parent acting like any of the ugly types of Bad Sports Dad, which are, unfortunately, far too common.

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