By Gregory Keer
Game 8 of the Little Jammers basketball season is due to tip off in 20 minutes. Already exhausted after a full-court game of “catch the screaming toddler” at home, I herd my team of 4- to 6-year-old Bruins for warm-ups on the grass outside the gym. Because Jacob (age 2) wants to escape to the sandbox to eat a granular breakfast, I have to hold him while leading a series of jumping jacks, stretches, and defensive drills. My son Benjamin (5) clowns around, giddily clashing with my authority. Help is nowhere in sight, since my wife Wendy is at a conference and my talented co-coach Lee is moonlighting at Little League.
Inside, the claustrophobic gym is deafeningly loud. Players’ family members crowd the skimpy sidelines like fans at a U2 concert, camcorders at the ready. As the kids shoot lay-ups, my friend Ronnie takes Jacob off my hands and two dads, Rick and Brian, jump in to help direct our rag-tag team of hoopsters.
The whistle blows and we’re off. Our team is skilled for their age, but the other squad looks as if they’ve taken steroids. They shoot and rebound over our smaller guys, and I’m not helping much as I run up and down the court, shouting directions to my kids as if they’re NCAA champs. I get so involved in the coaching that I find myself in the free-throw lane, coaxing our center, Grant, to box out for a rebound. While Grant stares at me as if I’m speaking Greek, the referee has to ask me to go to my corner of the court, where Jacob runs to me for attention. Preoccupied by the game, I hurry him back to Ronnie.
Five minutes elapse and a fresh unit comes in. I set them up in their numbered positions (the court is marked off in boxes for each player’s area). Benjamin is in this group, which adds more pressure because, well, he’s my son. As the action kicks in, he keeps his hands up in perfect defensive stance — while he’s playing offense. Benjamin watches a pass go right by him, but man, he looks great as a rebound bounces off his well-positioned hands and into the more aggressive arms of the opponent. Benjamin runs down, with NBA style and a world-class smile, but he just can’t hear me as I yell for him to “play the ball!” Perhaps it’s because Jacob is yelling, “Benjamin! Benjamin!” before scrambling into the middle of the fray, crying for me to hold him.
With Jacob on one arm, I continue coaching my gutty little Bruins, which doesn’t get much easier. At various stages of the game, David dribbles in circles around the court, ignoring the calls of teammates and parents, let alone me. Elizabeth seems frozen in one spot as the game rushes by. Charlie plays scared after I threaten to send him to the bench for shooting from half-court three times in a row. Olivia gets slammed in the face by an errant pass. And Nicky, trying to make sense of my directions, makes a textbook pass — to me.
When the game finally ends, I am proud of our team. They eventually adjusted to the larger opponents and played them about even. Best of all, no one cried because of my crazy coaching.
Still, as I walk out of the gym with my sons, I can’t resist asking Benjamin, “Why didn’t you shoot the ball, today?”
He says, “I don’t want to shoot the ball, Daddy. I’m not going to make it anyway.
This hits me hard. The last thing I want is for my kid to feel he can’t at least try to do something. But I recognize that we’ve had this conversation before, about soccer, after he would play a whole game without a shot on goal. The reality is that Benjamin doesn’t have the motivation to dive for a ball when someone else wants it more. He doesn’t burn to score when he can make a teammate happy to get the shot. My son is a lover, not a fighter and, as a coach, this drives me nuts.
Despite my efforts to be a compassionate parent, once I step on the court, I want my kid to be the best competitor. But this is my problem. I need to help my 5-year-old son be the best athlete he wants to be. In this way, coaching is a concentrated lesson in parenting, an experiment in learning patience with my child’s progress and a reminder to find joy in small victories.
The victories do come. During the ensuing games, I manage to lessen my need to push my son (and other kids on the team) and enjoy the improvements he makes in his skills. After all, it’s the father-child bond that got me into coaching in the first place.
After the final game, I tell Benjamin, “I’m sad the season is over.”
“That’s OK,” he says. “You can still coach me at home.”
With these words, no amount of baskets or goals can make me happier.