Thursday, January 16, 2014

Just a Little Line-Jumping

I coached at my junior high for 13 years, and if there's one thing I learned in all that time it's this: when the End Times arrive, and all of our souls are sent to Heaven for Judgment Day, anyone who has ever coached B-team girls' basketball will move automatically to the front of the line. Junior high teachers, in general, will ascend in the carpool lane, but those coaches? Double sixes, buddy. Collect your eternal reward and understand that it was all worth it.

Seriously... saints, healers, people who give up their seats on the subway, three-legged dogs... you can all just wait your turn. Jesus knows the patient and virtuous when He sees 'em.

This is the first year in my entire career that I have not coached. After all, as I told my new principal last year, nobody gets their school out of AYP troubles with lay-ups and free throws. So, I stepped off the court and decided to devote myself to my classroom. All year long, people have asked me if I missed it. All year long, I couldn't decide if I truly did. I don't miss the 70 hour work weeks or the 6:30 AM practices. I don't miss keeping books and waiting on buses and hosting tournaments. I don't miss overly-enthusiastic parents yelling from the stands -- at me to play their kid (yes, I know she is unique and special), at their kid (no, they simply cannot box out), or at the refs (believe it or not, they DO know that they should "call it both ways").

Believe me. There are lots of things I don't miss.

Last week, I kept the scoreboard at the 8th grade girls' game. The A-game was exciting, fast-paced, push-and-pull. It was hard to keep my mouth shut, but I left them in good hands, and although they lost, I know that they'll be okay the next time around. I was sad to have missed out on their talent, but I did not feel the pang of regret that I feared I might.

And then, came the B-team.

When I first started coaching, my friends would come to my games, not to watch the kids but to watch me on the sideline as I, their most competitive friend, tore at my hair, pinched the bridge of my nose, watched kids shoot at the wrong basket on multiple occasions, and released a torrent of expletives into the back of my hand.

For the record, no one can hear you scream in your hand. Also, no one is ever really sure which basket is theirs. Ever.

As I watched those girls play, I was reminded of some of my most notable B-team adventures, including a tournament game whereupon I had 5 players total, and we won 9-6 in double overtime.

NINE. TO SIX. DOUBLE OVERTIME. For real, that's seven baskets (plus a free throw) in 42 minutes. At the end of the first overtime, when it was 6-6, the tournament hosts and the opposing coach wanted to just end the game, but I was all, "I did not just survive that mess for a tie. No way. SOMEBODY is going to win this freakin' game."  And then we did. My girls went on to dub it as their "Miracle Game".  I saw one of them at her high school last year. She is still talking about that game 5 years later.

B-team basketball is not for the faint of heart. The closest approximation I can make for it is to attempt to drive a bumper car, blindfolded, while holding an egg, without cracking it or your own skull. It is 32 minutes of collisions and near-misses and close calls. It is a series of wrong turns and panicked throws and unforced errors and at least two dozen switches of the possession arrow. It's more than enough to lead a coach to buy stock in hair dye and blood pressure meds.

It is also all heart and hustle and Hail Mary's. It's celebration and nervous energy and second chances. What I realized in my many journeys, navigating the wilds of B-team athletics, is that there are few people willing to work harder. There are few kids who find more joy in a steal or a rebound or, God forbid, a made free throw. There are few moments I have found more frustrating or funny.

But there are also few moments where I have found myself as a better or more patient teacher.

I've coached many incredible athletes who have gone on to set scoring records and secure scholarships and, yes, even win national titles. Yet their smiles are not always the first I remember in my heart; their one shining moment simply cannot hold a candle to scoring the winning basket in a miracle game. 

And tonight, as I watched those same girls play their guts out, I looked over to the bench. There were hot tears and hurt feelings and the pains of coming so close. I watched the coaches lean in to explain, to console, to teach, and I felt a little ding in my heart.

I checked the time. I listened to the parents yell a little more, and I wondered:

Do I miss it? Not really.

But do I miss them? Absolutely.

Was it worth it? Without a doubt.

Even if I didn't get my line-jump in Heaven.

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