Hoop Dreams

My son Evan had his first basketball game yesterday. He is 7, and in second grade, and this is the first time he has tried something sports-related, other than normal farting around with the Old Man with a ball or frisbee. It is a school team, comprised mostly of third graders, so he is a young guy on the team. The experience has really stuck to me — I have been thinking about it a lot over the course of the last 24 hours. It connected with me in a way I did not expect.

There is a difference in the sports experience between my two boys. When older brother Ryan went through his sports phase — soccer, track, basketball — I went to many, if not most, of games and meets. I always watched him with a mixture of excitement, pride, admiration, and if I am honest, a vicarious thrill from time to time. Ryan has natural athletic gifts, and was always able to make a solid contribution to his team’s efforts.

Ryan ultimately moved away from sports, for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that he is not a naturally competitive person. He has a Surfer Dude kind of temperament, which did not mesh well with the fierce competitiveness of team sports, and I think this was one on the bigger reasons he walked away. As a father, I was content with his decision, even though I know he could have a lot more if he’d had the desire to do so. He has since poured this energy into drumming and music, which is just fine. He is really good at it.

Yesterday, when we got to the gymnasium, it was bustling with activity. It was at a church gym in Richfield, and there was going to be a number of games played there that day. It was a new experience for Evan, and I think it overwhelmed him a bit. He was very anxious and a bit scared — a room full of people, four teams warming up (two games going on simultaneously), lots of ruckus and noise. It intimidated him and he said he did not want to do it. I gave him a pep talk and squeeze and told it would be ok and he just needed to go have fun. And so off he went to join his teammates.

As parents, we have had a different experience with Evan than with Ryan. Physically, Evan has a harder time than his brother, and we suspected basketball was going to be a tough thing for him. Team basketball certainly was hard for me when I was young, and it was even hard for his brother too, despite Ryan’s physical gifts. But, Evan wanted to try it.

After a few minutes on the bench to start, he entered the game, and I held my breath. As I watched him move around the floor, it was hard to to keep from squirming in my seat. As we suspected, he was indeed having a difficult time understanding what he should be doing, where he should be on the floor, getting the basic fundamentals. He appeared to be lost most of the time, even though he had very high energy, running hard, bouncing up and down, cheering and celebrating when one of his teammates did something good.

As a parent watching the action, I recalled the movie Parenthood, where Steve Martin played a dad who coached his young son on a baseball team, and his son struggled with the most basic elements of the game, much to the chagrin of his teammates. The dad was encouraging and cringing at the same time. He was anxious and worried, loving and protective. I felt the same way.

In the movie, there is also the muttering and grumbling of parents in the stands — the most negative element of youth sports — about the talent levels of the various kids, and how Steve Martin’s son was “ruining” things for the other kids. There was a slight whiff of this in the stands yesterday. Perhaps is was my protectiveness of my son that put me on the defensive. It was present —  a subtle undercurrent — and oh so classically Minnesota passive-aggressive. Maybe I was imagining things?

As I reflected on what I was seeing, I found myself feeling relieved when Evan took a seat on the bench, that the pressure was off. But was it off for him or off for me? I had pangs of guilt for feeling this way, yet could not help my natural reaction. Geez, I am not stupid. I know the point is not about winning, or even that he does well. It is about the lessons that can be learned from team sports — cooperation, teamwork, selflessness, shared goals.

As a young boy, I struggled with team sports too. As I got older, I fought through some of this, and became a satisfactory contributor in some sports — baseball, hockey, volleyball — but never basketball. There is something about the movement of the game, the sense of space and motion, that knowing where you were supposed to be, that inherent sense of knowing what do. I could shoot a little. I could rebound a little. I could run a little. But I could never put it all together. I became functional in many sports through rote and hard work, but basketball was not one of them.

So, after a moment of clarity, I realized that the cringeworthiness I experienced yesterday was not about Evan, and it never was. I was seeing a reflection of me, while watching him. It was those uncomfortable memories of my own youth that made me squirm in my seat. I was having vicarious experiences with Evan too, just like his big brother, but for very different reasons. It was a hard deal, seeing my boy wrestle with the same stuff as his dear ol’ Dad. Except, as it turns out, it wasn’t hard deal for Evan at all, just me.

Before the game, Evan wanted to be sure we were all going to see his game — the whole family. He wanted all of us to see him play, and he wanted us to all go out afterwards to have lunch, together. He picked the place — Subway (thank god we have a choice now besides McDonalds). It was important for him for us to have this time together, for all of us to share in the experience as a family.

After the game ended, Evan was sitting on the bench, all pink-cheeked and sweaty, and I asked him how felt. He said he felt good and that he had a lot of fun. The coach had done a great job of getting all the kids engaged, and making each boy feel like he contributed something to his team. So despite all my consternation, and Evan’s own acknowledgement that “I’m not very good at basketball,” my boy was happy, content, and at peace with the events of the day.

Sitting at Subway a while later, the four of us ate and chatted.  I think all of us being together was the part Evan enjoyed the most.  As I talked to him, I had this feeling of admiration and pride wash over me. My young man had reminded me of several important things: The real, intended value of youth sports, what it means to to part of a team (and a family), and how amazing of a person he is, in such a quiet and understated way.  He seemed to get it in a way that I had forgotten, at least temporarily.