Thomas McKenzie
by grace alone


Thomas McKenzie's Blog.

The Basketball Diary, part eight: Everything that has a Beginning has an End.

As far as I know, this is my last Basketball Diary post. I suggest reading them in order. They are all filed under the label "sports."

Wednesday was our last practice. We hadn't been together as a team for a week due to cancellations. How was the last practice? "Terrible" is probably the best word for it. Maybe "sloppy."

It was as if we had all stepped into a time machine and gone back eight weeks. The girls were playing like we hadn't taught them anything. They seemed to be having fun, though. I wasn't having any fun. I was thinking that we were in line for one last beat down.

On Friday, all the coaches received an e-mail from the Grand Dragon of Little Kid's Basketball, Mr. Xavier. In part, his e-mail said this:

In the gyms on Saturday all players will receive a medallion and the gym monitors have them for each team. Also, a few teams will receive a team trophy, “Honor the Game” trophy, and it was stiff competition to “win” one of these trophies. The gym monitors watched the teams and recommended the teams to me. This trophy is not a “losers” trophy by any means and for a team to win this trophy we judged areas such as sportsmanship from the coaches and players, type of players and the makeup of the team, if a team improved over the season and even the fans were factored in. I wish all teams could receive one of these trophies and I am sure many more teams deserved this trophy but only a few won this trophy this year. So many of the teams deserved this trophy and it was hard to break a team out of the pack. Thanks for understanding and congratulations to the teams that were broken out of the pack.

I have to admit, I had a flash of excitement. I thought "wouldn't it be cool if we got that trophy? The kids worked their tails off, and it would be awesome for them to get some kind of recognition." They sure weren't going to win, place, or show in their division.

But then I came to my senses. As far as I can tell, Mr. Xavier and his people hate us. There is no way they are going to give us any love. Oh, well. Story of my sports-life.

Saturday rolled around as Saturdays inevitably do. Our last game of the season was set for the elementary school gym where most of our games have been played. And we had our refs from the last game. I didn't ask them about their thoughts on racial bigotry (that's a reference to the P.S. of the last post).

For most of this game, I was feeling great. Our girls were not playing their best, but this time it was the other team committing stupid fouls. We were staying ahead, usually by three points. We were making shots and staying focused.

We also had a couple of problems. I won't name names, of course, but we had two girls who were just not playing defense. Without exaggeration, half of the points the other team scored on us came off of these two kids. And, no, my E-- was not one of the offenders. She doesn't shoot the ball, but she plays great D.

With four minutes left to go, the score was 14 to 12, and we were ahead. They scored twice in two minutes (off our defense) bringing it to 16 to 14, them. I called a time out.

No, this is not supposed to be a competitive league. But with the score this tight, and two minutes left in the game, I substituted out two players for two stronger players. Was that the wrong thing to do? At the time it seemed like the only reasonable thing to do. This is a sport, and two extra minutes of play time would be the difference between ending with a loss and ending with a win.

At the same time, these are children. If they lose the game or they win the game, isn't the important thing that they all got to fully participate? Is this competitive compromise just one more way I am making this about the parents and not about the kids? And perhaps it is easy to have such moral struggles sitting on my coach, writing on my blog. At the time, I just wanted this team to win.

So we sent the girls out. You may remember from a previous post that we found out in game three that this is perfectly legal. We were playing a team that did this to us, and when we read the rules we discovered that they were right. You can sub in during a time out, and you don't have to give the other team any information. The effect of this was that the other team did not know who they were covering, and we tied up the game in a few seconds.

The other coach called a time out. He got the refs together, and one of them came over to me. "You can't sub," he told me. I told him I can, in fact, sub. He told me he would not let me sub, and that I had to put the original girls out there.

I did what I was told. However, in the confusion of calling the girls back in, our defense (which had pretty much broken down anyway) was thrown into confusion. The girls who were having a hard time to begin with simply did not get back into the game. The other team scored, we got the ball back, lost it, and in the last seconds they scored again. In the end, we lost 20 to 16.

I was furious. Not at the kids, but at the stupid ref who violated the league policy. Now it was someone else's incompetence I had to deal with, not just my own.

When kids participate in a sport, everyone gets some kind of award. In this case, I was given a large envelope filled with medals to give the girls. As the game ended, I turned around to pick it up. Who was standing right there? Mr. Xavier himself.

"Hey, Tom?" he said. We had never spoken before.
"Yeah," I responded. I did not correct his use of the word "Tom," what did it matter?
"I've got a special award I want to give your team. Can we all get together out in the hall?" I told him that would be fine. I thought about telling him about the ref. I thought I should give him a piece of my mind for all the garbage I have seen over the past few weeks. I thought about it, but I said nothing.

I gathered the girls in the hall, and Mr. Xavier (whom they don't know from Adam), spoke to them. He told them that it didn't matter how many games they had won or lost. He told them that they had all tried really hard, and that they had shown a love and respect for the game. Because of that, he was awarding them the "Honor the Game" trophy.

This was the same trophy he had e-mailed us about. The one given for a high degree of sportsmanship and effort. The trophy I wanted my team to get.

Do I have a high opinion of Mr. Xavier? Not really. Do I think that he might be giving this trophy to my team because he is trying to mend some fences and keep his league's reputation intact? Yeah, probably. But, you know what, who cares? They got the recognition they deserve.

I believe my team earned that trophy. I believe they worked their tails off under some pretty messed up circumstances. These kids had been formed into a new team in an incredibly competitive league. Most of the teams they played against have been together for three years. Half of my kids had never even played basketball before. They had been under-coached by two girls who abandoned them at the first sign of trouble. Then they inherited me, the most incompetent coach ever. Then they had to deal with the most ridiculous political garbage I have ever seen (outside of church). In the midst of all of that, they played hard, improved their abilities, kept a great attitude, and had fun as a team. They are no saints, believe me. They are just little girls. They have cliques, they fight, they can be mean to each other. But today, they are my heroes.

After it was all over, we all went out for pizza. The parents had chipped in and bought me and Georgia (my "assistant") gift certificates to a restaurant. I'll take my wife out soon, I'm sure. E-- and I had to leave the party early, S-- had her last game on that same day. Her team crushed the other team by 30 points. That is, as they say, another story.

So, now we come to the end of the Basketball Diaries. As they said in the ads for the end of the Matrix trilogy, "everything that has a beginning has an end." What has this meant to me?

For one thing, it was a chance to confront some "demons." Not literal demons--I do that from time to time. But those metaphorical demons. In this case, the demons of never being comfortable with team sports. My feelings of inadequacy, my fear that I would get mocked and rejected. Was I inadequate? Sure I was. But I wasn't mocked or rejected. And others stepped in and helped. Even the "sporty" people who helped me didn't reject me. They were, all in all, quite nice. I guess I'm really not in Junior High anymore.

This experience gave me a chance to suffer. I got to engage in something I am not able to do. I normally only do what I am able to do. Not in this case. It expanded my skills, and pushed me to use the talents I have in new ways. When I preach, I want adults to walk in the power of the Gospel. Could I now teach children to bring forth their inner basketball player? I think I will stick with preaching, but I don't believe I utterly failed as a coach. In fact, I feel OK about it.

Finally, I got to be with E-- in a new context. On Saturday night I was putting her to bed. I asked her how she felt about the season being over. She told me she was sad, that she would miss it. Then she gave me a big hug and said "you're the greatest coach in the world. And the best daddy. You are the best coach-daddy and daddy-coach ever." Then she kissed me.

Yes, she is given to hyperbole. And, no, she doesn't know any better. I know I'm not the greatest daddy or the greatest coach. But, in her eyes, I am. And, frankly, that is all any man could ask for.

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