In the stories so far I’ve talked a lot about death and fear and failure, and that makes sense because we spend our lives immersed in those qualities (or at least I have). But other aspects of life drive us just as hard: love, for example. And pride and desire and friendship.
I grew up admiring high school athletes. College was remote, professionals were on television only. But high school athletes were up close, personal, live, exciting. You could see them around town, wearing their letter jackets and driving cars and generally being the coolest people I had ever seen in my life. That’s who I wanted to be. It looked like fun; they were the kings of the town. And unlike most of my dreams, which I was learning were unrealistic, being a high school athlete was achievable.
It’s easy enough to succeed when your goals are set low. At my school you could get pretty far just by showing up for practice every day and remaining academically eligible. So I turned into that high school athlete myself – football, basketball, baseball. I was not the best player on any of the teams, but I was decent. I held my own, I guess you could say. And in those years I saw the hero worship from the other side. The young eyes of a town looking to me and my teammates. We weren’t always heroic. But we were what they had. We were theirs.
During basketball season the varsity coach ran a youth basketball program on Saturday mornings. Every Saturday, some teammates and I would stop by to help out. We demonstrated drills, helped to keep the kids organized, and talked with the kids (and their parents) about the game the night before or the one coming up next Tuesday. After a few practices we held a draft and divided the kids into teams that we would coach.
I lucked out and got the first pick. I chose a second-grader named Poffenberger who could steal the ball off the dribble from any other kid in the league. My friends all wanted him; I picked him first. He would be a holy terror and everyone knew it. My team was looking good already.
In the second round I took a first-grader named Amy, the only girl in the league. I had had to take Poffenberger with the first pick – you don’t turn down a chance like that – but Amy was my favorite. Not just because she was the only girl out of the hundred or so kids who showed up each week, although that was part of it, because I admired her for competing with the boys and I wanted her to do well. And not just because of her skill, although she was pretty good: she had good hands and could catch any kind of pass, and she was one of the few kids who could reliably make layups. But most of all, the primary reason I wanted her on my team, was that she was so excited to be there she was the most fun to coach: she was the first one in every line, the first one to hold the ball when I started talking, and the only one who never interrupted me.
Coaches of young kids will know how important this last one is. A gym full of bouncing basketballs and squeaking shoes is very loud. If you’re trying to shout over them, and the kids are shouting too, you have no chance to be heard. Most of the time I had to give up on the four or five kids who were wandering around and talking to each other and just focus on the six or seven who were actually listening. Amy was always in that group, nodding, taking in everything I said.
One day in the middle of our season I was telling them something basic I don’t remember now—probably that if they picked the ball up with both hands they had to pass or shoot, or that they had to move their feet on defense instead of wrapping up the offensive player in a bear hug. And a kid blurted out his comment: