Monday, February 22, 2016

Love the Game

Love comes and goes, doesn't it?  You don't always love the things you once did, but if it's true and deep-rooted, it stays a part of you.

I started playing basketball in fourth grade-I was eight.  I wasn't good.  I didn't even know what I was doing.  But my friends were playing and I wanted to play, too.  And then I played again in fifth grade, and sixth.  I can't tell you who my coaches were, or if I even scored a basket.  I pretty much only remember one girl from an opposing team who, when she had the ball, ensured her team was victorious.  

In seventh grade, we had to try-out for the basketball team.  We were faced with the fact that not everyone would play on the team.  There were a couple weeks of tryouts and then the team was announced.  I, at the height of 5'0" tall, and with an awkward two-handed, chest-pass-looking free throw did not make the team.  I was heartbroken and embarrassed.  I had come to play.  When asked, I reluctantly agreed to be the team manager.  I fetched water bottles for players and recorded shots during the game.  It was a tough pill to swallow, but being a part of the team as a manager was better than not being a part of it at all.  

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In eighth grade, I tried again.  I'm not sure I had improved since the previous year, but I had grown nine inches.  That's right-I was 5'9" tall by the time tryouts were held, and I made the team. I remember sitting on the bench.  A lot.  And I remember being taken out of games because I couldn't make lay-ups and I didn't rebound.  But I was on the team.

During the summer between junior high school and high school, I played basketball in my driveway; I played HORSE with my dad and I'd play one-on-one with anyone who came by. By this time I had nearly perfected my two-handed, chest-pass-looking free throw.  

When it came to tryout for the freshman basketball team, I showed up...with seven other players.  Where was everyone?  It seemed that in junior high school, basketball was the only Fall girls' sport offered, so everyone wanted to play. By ninth grade, girls could play tennis or run cross country, along with many more options for after school activities.  So there we were-a freshman girls' basketball team of eight.  There wasn't a lot of time on the bench that year for me, or anyone else.  I had no choice but to improve, and I did.  I was told that if I was serious about wanting to be a better player, I should consider attending a shooting camp that summer to be taught the correct way to shoot. I jumped at the chance, and convinced my parents to pay for my week away from home.  That week probably changed the path of my life.  I was in the gym practicing for hours and hours and in my free time, I hunted down my favorite coaches and asked them to give me a little extra help.  I learned the correct way to shoot and wanted to be good.  When I came home from camp, I continued to practice.  I'd even practice in the dark, until my mom yelled at me that I had to come in for the night because the neighbors were surely sick of hearing that damn ball bounce. 

After a successful tenth grade year on the junior varsity team, I was asked to move up to the varsity team for the playoffs.  I didn't really expect to play, but I was honored just to share the bench with some of the girls I looked up to.  Then, somehow, in a playoff game, against a team that had five players heading off to play college hoops, I was called to go in.  It was only for a couple of minutes but I'll never forget it.  And I knew I wanted more.

I continued to improve throughout my junior year on the varsity team.  Every day after practice, my dad would stay and work on post moves with me or rebound for me until the coach would kick us out.  I'd go home for dinner and then head to the YMCA to play full court with the men who played there.  At school, I'd skip lunch and head to the gym to shoot free throws until I could make ten in a row consistently.  I was pretty good, but I wasn't good.  I had made the All-conference team that year and I joined a travel team with many of the best players in the area.  I couldn't get enough.

The summer between my junior and senior years, I went to a couple of camps, hoping to be recruited to play in college.  Surely with my consistent 12 or so points per game and my left-handed hook shot, someone would want me to play for them, right?  Well, it didn't happen.  I had a great senior year, once again earning All-conference honors, but without the offer of a basketball scholarship, I applied for college at Michigan State University and got in.  

Every year, the varsity players were assigned to coach and referee those fourth, fifth and sixth grade teams I had played on when I was younger.  The girls were uncoordinated and unfocused and was I this terrible when I was their age?  But then I told myself, that just like me, they wanted to play.  Everyone has to start somewhere, right?  We, as seniors, were there to teach them, to encourage them, and to convey our passion to these little girls.  And I had a blast.

Then, one day as I was shooting in the gym, I noticed a man watching me.  I figured if he wanted to watch me, I'd put on a show.  I think I made 20 three-pointers in a row before I missed one, and he wanted to talk to me.  What's your name? Why don't I know you?  Where are you playing next year?  I introduced myself and explained that shooting three pointers was not my role on this team and that I wasn't playing next year-just heading off to college.  And then he said, "No, you're not.  You're coming to play for me."  And I did.  

It was a scholarship to our local junior college, but I didn't care.  I knew many of the girls from high school teams in the area, and I was excited to be given this opportunity.  Two more years of basketball?  With free college attached?  SOLD.  Even though I was one of the tallest women on the team, my role wasn't being a post player like in high school; I was given the green light to shoot three-pointers.  In fact, much of our offense was centered around getting me an open shot.  It seemed that all those years of practice were finally paying off.  My second year of junior college was even more successful.  Aside from our team having a really great season, I had made 144 three point baskets, and was voted onto the All-Conference, All-Regional and Junior College All-American teams.  Even with all of my success, I hadn't received any offers to play at a higher level after my second year of college.  

But then, there was a small glimmer of hope.  My coach had attended the NCAA Women's Basketball tournament and through his connections, he met a Division II coach who needed a three point shooter.  Ding, ding, ding!  Turns out, he had just what she was looking for.  My parents, grandma and I planned our trip.  A long trip to West Virginia, down winding roads with sharp drop-offs on either side.  A trip where several times along these roads I was asked if I was sure I wanted to live so far away.  I urged them to not get carried away and to see how things would go once we got to the college.  When we arrived, I was introduced to the team and shown around campus and then we headed to the gym.  You would think that after sitting in a car for eight hours, I'd be exhausted, but I had come to play.  It's safe to say that I rose to the occasion on that afternoon.  I played very well and I couldn't miss any shot I took.  After the game, the coach asked if I could stay for a night and get to know the girls a little bit better, but I told her that since we had driven this far, we had another college to go check out.  This one was in Maryland, and happened to be in the same conference as this West Virginia school.  Upon hearing this, the coach offered me a full scholarship on the spot. I was flattered, but wasn't sure about the whole West Virginia thing, so we said our goodbyes and I promised to be in touch and we drove East.  The Maryland college, it turns out, was, in my eyes, cold and loud and unwelcoming, and I couldn't wait to get out of there.  When I called the coach from West Virginia and told her I was going to accept her offer, I think she was a little surprised but excited.  I told my reluctant parents that I had made my decision and we made plans for me to move to West Virginia.  

In contrast to my junior college team, where everyone was starting from the same point, when I came onto the team in West Virginia, most of the girls had already played on the team for two years together.  I had to earn my place, and I intended to.  My junior year was successful for me personally-I had earned Second Team All-Conference honors-and our team had made it into the Division II National Tournament.  My fourth and final year of basketball went by in a flash.  It seemed just as I was getting comfortable on the team, my college playing days were over.  West Virginia was amazing and I met some incredible people.

Shortly after graduation, I met Jason through mutual friends.  I had my degree but I couldn't really find a job in my field, so his mom set me up substitute teaching in the district where she worked. I actually loved the job and got to know all of the students in a short amount of time.  The following year, the Junior Varsity Girls' Basketball position opened up, as well as a long-term substitute teaching position at the high school.  I applied for both of them and was hired.  My team was comprised of mostly ninth graders, with a few tenth graders.  As it turned out, most of those girls had never been given a solid base to build up from.  I had expected to jump right in with plays and defenses and full court presses, but we had to back up a few steps and start at the beginning.  It was a huge learning experience for me as well as the team that year, but I loved everything about it.  I would sing them silly songs to make the time pass faster while they did wall sits , and I'd braid their hair before games, but they knew when it was time to work, and they WORKED.  I showed them that even if you can't be the best shooting team and score a ton of points, you can always work your butt off and everyone can play defense.  It's all about heart and how badly you want it.  

After that, basketball was put on the back burner for awhile.  I got married and started having babies and before I knew it, years had passed.  And then my kids started playing sports.  I volunteered to coach whenever I could.  A lot of parents don't have the time or the knowledge or the desire, but when I wasn't coaching, I always wished I was.  I have coached boys' basketball, and girls' basketball, and even cheerleading.  

This year, when I took Owen to his first basketball practice, where the boys were separated into teams, I hadn't intended on coaching.  But when the hour of practice was over and still no dad from his team had offered to coach, I walked up and asked if they allowed moms to coach at this level.  I'm sure many 4th, 5th, and 6th grade boys don't really think it's cool to have their moms coaching their teams, but Owen said he was okay with it.  And that was that.  I had eleven boys staring at me as their coach, wondering what, exactly, I had to offer them.  I quickly assured them that I wouldn't be there as a MOM.  I was there to teach them not only how to play the game, but about sportsmanship and respect and determination.  Sunday was our last game.  I had been given seven weeks with these boys.  Eleven boys who were there because they had come to play.  And on Sunday, they showed me they could.  They boxed out and rebounded and threw bounce passes and ran full court fast breaks and hit crucial three-pointers when we needed them.  On Sunday, they rose to the occasion.  And I might have been on the sidelines as their coach, but I was cheering every single one of them on as a proud parent, because when I coach, those kids become MY kids. I don't know a better way to teach someone to love a sport, than to show them how much I love it, too.

What do you love?

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