By Joe Haefner
Jim is also an author of the LOSER Report.
Matthew and I strode through the chilly, snow-flecked darkness outside the soaring Gateway Church.
“Have you had fun this season?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied. “But I’m kind of nervous about our last game. I haven’t scored a basket this season and Saturday is my last game. It’s my last chance to score in a game.”
“Don’t worry,” I replied with the overconfidence of someone who’s tossed in countless points during innumerable contests, “you’re going to score Saturday, I promise.”
I intended to keep that promise because last season, Matthew’s first, he failed to score during all eight games, a fact that frustrated me to no end. During last year’s practices, despite my objections, we spent almost the entire time working on plays. The head coach more fixated on executing six different set plays than the paparazzi on the movements of Britney Spears, even though more than half our kids, including Matthew, couldn’t shoot a lay-up, pivot or rebound to save their young lives.
This season, the coaches agreed to focus on fundamentals, keep the players moving with skill-based drills and have fun scrimmaging. With the goal of taking more shots, the team pushed the ball up the court to shoot lay-ups, rather than setting up plays. As we told the players, check any basketball box score: the squad attempting more shots usually wins.
Running late, Matthew and I arrived at Saturday afternoon’s contest a couple minutes before introductions. Slapping each player five in the pre-game room, I saw the team’s “rules” written across the whiteboard
1) Have Fun
2) TA-TA-team (support and respect your teammates)
3) Fun Have (the Star Wars Yoda rule)
In addition to Matthew, Talyn, our tea drinking, skin-and-bones — he weighed about sixty-five pounds dripping wet – forward hadn’t scored a basket either. Huddling with the other coaches, we agreed today’s primary goal was somehow, someway getting them a bucket during the next thirty-six minutes.
From my perspective, if any kid didn’t score, the coaches failed to reach the program’s goal of “every child a winner.” As the head coach, their success became my responsibility. Moreover, if Matthew didn’t make a basket, that would mean he’d played two seasons without scoring. I’d promised him better than that.
Before the game, I asked the opposing coach who hadn’t scored on his squad; he pointed to Suns #32, a tall, slender kid playing the first period. Giving the other team the ball rather than staging a coin flip, I huddled our starting five, asking them avoid guarding #32 on the first possession. I figured the other team would throw him the ball under the hoop and he’d score easily. Our guys followed the plan; the other team didn’t and another kid shot instead of #32. We rebounded and the game rolled onward from that inauspicious start. I looked at the Suns coach and he shrugged a “what can I do?” response. A missed opportunity, but not the end of the world: plenty of time remained for all three guys to get a bucket.
Matthew and Talyn played the second and third periods. Our guys passed them the ball and they took multiple shots, but, alas, missed all of them. During half-time, I checked the league-mandated player rotation for the second half (a great rule requiring each kid to play a minimum of half of every game). Matthew only played one period: the 5th. That would be his last chance to make a basket; we needed to make it happen. Prior to its start, I pulled the team together, telling them to get Matthew the ball. They complied and he took four shots, missing every one.
Without timeouts, an Upward Bound Basketball coach cannot stop play to direct the team, even to help someone score. As the clock wound toward zero, a Suns player tossed up a long shot. It clanged off the backboard and the shrill buzzer ended Matthew’s Upward Bound career. He’d participated in sixteen basketball games without scoring one single basket. Matthew wouldn’t start the final period and the league’s player rotation rules prohibited substitutions, meaning — even though I wanted him on the court — he couldn’t return to the game. As a sixth grader, this was his last year playing; in other words, he would never score a basket in an Upward Bound game, ever.
Talyn, however, played during the final period. Before inbounding the ball, I emphasized how the team needed to get him a basket. The players nodded in agreement. Grabbing Talyn’s bony shoulders, I squatted to eye level, telling him that somehow, someway, he would score today. The players put their hands together and yelled “1-2-3 Talyn”! Out for the last period of his last game, my son sat quietly on the bench. I wrapped an arm around his shoulder, consoling him, rather than watching the game and yelling encouragement to our team. He seemed fine, but I knew the painful sadness of failure lurked behind his happy-go-lucky facade.
My throat went dry thinking how Matthew’s Monday night vision became Saturday-afternoon reality. I’d broken my promise to him, failed as his coach and, more importantly, failed as his father. Although mostly uninterested in sports, Matthew, at our insistence, had played three youth soccer seasons while in elementary school without scoring a goal. He “retired from soccer” — his description — at age nine. Now he’d participated in two seasons of Upward basketball without one hoop. Clenching fists, I grew angry with myself for not doing more to help him succeed. One dern basket to reward all the kid’s effort, was that too much to ask for?
On the court, Talyn caught a pass and shot the ball right into the basket. The team high-fived him as he raced down the court, beaming with happiness. At least Talyn scored, I thought, taking some solace in that victory before looking at my son sitting on the bench. Trying to get my head beyond my failure with Matthew and back into the game, I strode past Markus, another of our players; he reached out a hand to stop me.
“Coach,” Markus said. “Can’t Matthew go back in and score? This is his last game. We all get to play again next year. He ought to get a chance to score.”
“I wish I could put him in,” I replied. “But the rules don’t allow it.”
Play continued and our squad took a one point lead on Logan’s slashing drive with ninety seconds left. Running up and down the court, #32 from the Suns still hadn’t hit a bucket, despite several pointblank shots this period. In a minute and a half, the game would be over and neither #32 nor Matthew would have scored all season. That awful fact turned my stomach: didn’t it run completely counter to the philosophy of every child a winner? But the game’s substitution and player rotation rules existed for good reasons too. I’d learned to play sports by the rules untold years ago and needed to set a positive example for our players by following them now. Or did I?
Watching the ball bounce out of bounds, I realized adults needed to demonstrate to children how to exercise judgment following rules. Striding onto the court, I stopped play, motioning to the other coach and referees. If I had anything to say about it, #32 would score today. Pulling our guys together, I asked them to avoid guarding #32 and to even rebound for him if he missed. They agreed.
Then, listening to the wisdom of a child, I followed Markus’ suggestion and broke Upward’s substitution rules. Asking Thomas, who played a fantastic game (knocking the ball away from a player twice his height several times), to take a seat, I sent Matthew back onto the court. No one, the Suns coaches, Upward coordinators nor the referees said a word in opposition. We all silently agreed to break the rules in favor of a more important principle: every child a winner. After all, how could any kid have fun and feel like a winner if he failed to score for an entire season, let alone two?
Inbounding, the other team passed to #32, he caught the ball, squared up to the basket and tossed in a shot; the parents cheered. Ticking game clock closing Matthew’s narrow window of opportunity, the team passed him the ball at the top of the circle. He dribbled down the open lane toward the hoop. This it it, I thought, he will score. But, unfortunately, an aggressive Suns player left his man to block Matthew’s shot, knocking the ball out of bounds. The referees called it our ball out. Echoing me, the Suns coach motioned his guy to back off and guard his own man.
With forty seconds left, we inbounded to Matthew. The orange ball left his fingers, kissed the backboard and swished through the net. Never in my long basketball career had one basket been more important, never. Throwing arms over his head, Matthew floated on a wave of pure joy down the court. The rest of the team, including the players on the bench, cheered. The Bobcats stopped the Suns from scoring on their final possession, garnering a one-point second-half victory via Matthew’s first basket.
During the post-game stars presentation, the coaches awarded Talyn and Matthew gray stars for best offense. Sticking out smooth, eleven-year-old palms, they smiled proudly as players, coaches and parents clapped. On the drive home, I asked Matthew and Talyn what they enjoyed most about the season.
“When I scored the basket today,” Talyn said. “I felt sky high. I felt like I could do anything. That was the best moment of all.”
Matthew thought for a minute and commented in a soft voice, “Me too. After that last quarter I didn’t think I would ever score a basket, but I got in there and I did it.”
Saturday’s victory wasn’t about the scoreboard, it was about our players “doing it” by following the team’s rules: have fun, support and respect your teammates, and fun have. Our team’s unselfishness enabled both Talyn and Matthew to score and created the opportunity for Suns player #32 to get a bucket. The rules we’d opened the first practice with nine weeks ago taught our players about more than just basketball. And they’d been used by the team to teach me something important today. I had thought teaching the kids was my job, but, in reality, my real job was to learn from the wisdom of children.