Tuesday, September 30, 2008

For the Love of the Game

Standing in the center of the huddle with the clipboard in my hand my mind flashes back to a time when I was both half the age and half the height that I am now. Wearing the same red and white jersey as the kids crowded around me, I can remember the excitement and anxiety that came with the first game of the season. I can remember the way my arms used to shake and my legs would turn to rubber just before the opening tip-off. But most of all I can remember the pride that came with wearing the B.S. Cardinals’ uniform. Nearly ten years later and I find myself back on the wooden floors of Blessed Sacrament Elementary School’s basketball court now as a coach instead of a player. Though I may have out grown my size seven Air Jordans IVs, I certainly have not outgrown my love for the game or the sense of school spirit I once had for the Cardinals. Judging by the stream of sweat running down the side of my face, it is clear that I have not outgrown the tension that comes with playing in front of a home crowd either. Though we’re down ten points with only five seconds left on the clock, the crowd is still roaring and my players are more than willing to give them one last reason to cheer before the buzzer. Thinking back to the old days, I remember a play a former coach once taught me. Without any hesitation I draw it out on the clipboard and hope that the circles and squiggles that I draw will turn into the give-and-go play I myself once ran from the top of the key but judging by the confused faces on each of my players’ faces my hope runs thin. The ref’s whistle prematurely breaks our conference and with one last team cheer I send my five fastest players back out onto the court. The ref hands my power forward the ball and I can only close my eyes and pray…
Growing up, CYO basketball was life from late autumn through the winter for most of the elementary school boys and girls in my parish. I, along with most of my closest grammar school friends, played together on the same team from second to eighth grade. In those seven years, our team went from dead last in our division to first place in Westchester county and back to the bottom again. Every game we played we either won as a team or lost as a team and the friendships we formed would prove to be some of the closest I would ever form. The program itself was both funded and run by volunteers, many of whom played on the same court in the past. It seemed natural for me to volunteer as the couch of my sister’s third grade team after hanging up my sneakers only a year before. Throughout high school I watched each of my players grow both individually and as a team and I felt the bond we all shared strengthen. Though I was volunteering, I never thought of my work with the team as service. By giving back to the program that had meant so much to me as a kid, I had unknowingly embraced the concept of being a “man or woman for others” that Peter-Ham Kolvenbach, S.J. writes about in The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice in American Jesuit Higher Education. When it finally came time for me to go to college I couldn’t help but feel sad about leaving the team (and my sister) behind, but I vowed that my involvement in the program was not over. Leaving the team in the hands of another knowledgeable and competent coach (those of my mother), I made a promise to help out as much as possible and to not only attend but coach both the opening and closing games of every season; a promise that I have continued to live up to over the past weekend. Kolvenbach explains that St. Ignatius calls upon each of us to practice our faith through deeds of service as well as through our words. It is through this service that we answer our mission as Catholics. What he neglects to say is that service does not need to be one sided. Through my years as a coach I feel as though I have gained just as much from my team as they have from me.
… The clock starts the moment the ball is inbounded but time seems to have slowed to a stop. Each second seems to last an eternity as the ball is passed from one player to the next. My point guard passes to the right, sets a solid pick and rolls to the left opening up a huge gap between her and the basket. My sister, the five-foot power forward, sees the hole before it even opens and passes it blindly into the gap. Racing towards the basket the point guard reaches the ball with just enough time to catch it and lay it up. The buzzer rings out just as the ball passes through the net and the crowd bursts into life again. Walking off the court and into the locker room the team’s spirit is revived. Though the scoreboard displays an eight point deficit, the team’s confidence has grown tenfold. The speed and technicality of the last play has struck a new fear in the opposition and they can feel it. The team is eager to be back out on the floor and the electricity in the room can be felt by all. The opposing team has no idea what they are about to face. Did I forget to mention it is only half-time?

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