A standing room only crowd filled the sidelines in the waning moments of a tie game Sunday inside this old, but fabled middle school gymnasium. The assistant coach leaned into the court, pointing and screaming, ‘He can’t stay with you…school him,’ then slowly if not melodically barking, ‘Every time…Ev-ree-time!’ as Peter rambled through the paint enroute to a delicate finger-role layup. ‘And one! the assistant shouted as the ball circled the rim, eventually dropping through the white net. The ref didn’t blow the whistle but Peter’s two points put the home team up a pair with less than a minute to go. The pink shirt team, my team, managed to quickly run a give and go for Courtney, and then pick off a lazy mid-court pass and convert an 8-foot baseline J to take the lead with 25 seconds left. Peter then sprinted up past me on the sidelines. I was kneeling, biting my nails, telling Noah to ‘get back.’ On the other bench, the assistant coach, Peter’s father, jumped up and down, ‘TIMEOUT. TIMEOUT!’ Fans could hear the dad from the huddle. ‘This is your game. They can’t stop you. Get our best players in the game. Let’s finish this.’ In our timeout I probably said something that no one could hear. I only remember little Courtney smiling. Her bucket was her first points of the season.
The 9-year-old, 4th grade basketball game was much quieter at one time. Back in 1980, there was this comical collection of kids wearing jeans and umbros, pony tails and bowl cuts, and Larry Bird Converses, where the tallest kid in the elementary gym, Walter Boderka, swatted the jump ball so far it bounced all the way through the auditorium stage and under the curtain where the school’s art teacher stored her ‘art cart’. These games tipped after school, not during Sunday church. They featured a scorekeeper from the 5th grade, and a referee from middle school. There were two coaches but in both cases they were also players. 9 year old kids in one moment dribbling the ball, the next telling Bobby and Andrea to go in at guard and forward. There were no timeouts – just 4 quarters when kids would huddle to figure out plays or positions or how to guard the fast kid with the great shot. The kid coaches would pull out a wrinkled piece of paper from their jacket to call out the players for the next quarter: Andrea, Donnie, Jon, Becky and Jennifer. You’re in. They would leave themselves out for at least half the game. Four quarters would last 40 minutes and games would end sometime around 430.
We’d all be home in time to play Space Invaders before dinner.
Youth sports went terribly wrong somewhere along the way. It became a culture where assistant coaches can act like buffoons, where head coaches design offenses rather than teach old fashion go-behinds, and where the goal is to ‘get it done’ not get home to tell mom and dad about the game.
The home team did finish that Sunday game, scoring an amazing 3-point play in the waning seconds, shaking the building and holding off our team to win 32-30. The assistant coach smiled gleefully during the post game handshake. My son was the one who couldn’t stay with his son. Peter, for all his great plays, didn’t seem all that happy. After the game, Tommy and I went to Luke’s Donut for a cinnamon cruller. Losing never tasted so good.