The boy, we’ll call him Ernie, was not a gifted athlete. Lumbering, awkward, a little disengaged. He had never experienced much success in any sport, ever. But recently his BBC basketball team won a game by the score of 24-23. This was fifth-grade recreation league basketball, mind you, filled with turnovers, missed layups, and bad defense. If a well-played game was a filet mignon, this was a sloppy joe. Not one for the time capsule. But through four quarters, the score remained close, and the final score was not decided until the final shot bounced off the rim, and against the backboard, before falling into the hands of an offensive player. Then another frantic heave, a miss, followed by the buzzer. Game over.
After Ernie’s team celebrated on the court, he joined his parents in the stands and announced, “Someday I’m going to tell my kids about that game!”
That’s what it meant to him.
And of course, that’s hilarious. Because it was a nothing game. It wasn’t travel, it wasn’t all-stars, it wasn’t even remotely distinguished basketball. The game didn’t matter to anyone — except to Ernie. And, okay, while I reflect on it, Jess too, and probably to a handful of other boys who participated. The ones who don’t make the travel teams and who aren’t all-stars.
They won’t have big games in their future. They won’t play in state-of-the art gymnasiums, or regional tournaments, or for high school championships. There will never be pretty cheerleaders in short skirts. For them, this nothing game was it.
I think it’s important for those of us involved in youth sports to keep in mind. Those kids like Ernie may not be stars, but for them every game offers up the rough, unformed makings of a lifetime memory. We have to ask ourselves: What is it they we hope they’ll remember? What will they take away from the game?
Why do we coach? We do so many of us schlep all over creation so our kids can be involved in sports? What’s the point? I’m not always sure, and I know I’ve made my share of mistakes along the way. But that game for Ernie? He felt himself swept up in it, heart beating faster, locked in mortal struggle with friends and teammates, the stuff of memory so important that he believed he’d one day share it with his unborn children.
“Did I ever tell you about the most exciting basketball game I ever played?”
“You played ball, Dad?”
“Sure I did. Come here, sit close. Let me tell about it . . .”
Ernie’s experience might not be what it’s all about, but it’s got to be a large part of it. There are so many Ernies out there, and many times they are overlooked, stuck out into the outfield, or buried in the corner, rarely touching the ball. The forgotten kids who simply aren’t very good.
I believe that as parents and coaches we need to be the person who tells those kids, “I know you can do it.” Because the seeds of their success, however seemingly insignificant to us, begins with our belief in those children. And when they do achieve that moment of glory — catch the pop-up, grab the rebound, make the key block that opens a hole for the star running back — their smiles and sense of accomplishment will make it all worthwhile.
And who knows? When this is all over, and we look back on our years involved in youth sports, maybe that smile is what we’ll remember, too. Maybe that’s the story we’ll tell our grandchildren.
About the smile on that kid’s face.