Wednesday, March 08, 2006

All Hands on Deck


This was a game we knew we would win long before the opening tip. Hamilton came into the game at 0-4, and they had lost their previous game by about forty points, so I was sure we would be facing a broken team. I had a hunch what might be going on. Of all the schools on our schedule, Hamilton is the closest to us, both geographically and demographically. Only two years ago they won the city championship, but fortunes can change quickly in middle school basketball. We don't build programs; we have try-outs, do a little coaching, and the chips fall where they may.

It's nice when you win, but it sucks when you lose. When you're dealing with our particular student populations, it can be difficult to keep a losing team together. Parents begin to question every aspect of the team, players bicker about playing time, and students at your own school will constantly -- constantly -- remind you how sorry you are. It can be overwhelming even from an adult's point of view, and it can be debilitating to a thirteen-year-old boy. The easy way out? You quit.

And that's what happened to Hamilton. When I finally spoke to their coach on Wednesday night at about 5:15 (adding insult to insult, their bus had broken down, delaying their arrival at our gym by about forty minutes), he confirmed that he had had only six players in uniform the previous week and that he had had to recruit a few extra guys for our game just so he had some bodies on the bench. Not surprizingly, those extra bodies weren't very good.

I started four of my five regulars (Jesse sat out the first quarter for disciplinary reasons) and we pressed for about three minutes before it became clear that Hamilton was hopelessly outclassed. After we reached a comfortable lead of about fifteen points I began substituting liberally. Our typical rotation goes only about eight deep, which means that the bottom eight guys don't get much playing time at all, and I've felt bad about it. Our main goal has to be to win games, but I know from experience that it's difficult to show up for practice every day, preparing only to watch the game from the end of the bench.

My goal in this game, then was to get everyone significant time on the floor. I kept at least one starter in the game most of the time, just so things didn't get too sloppy, and I made a concerted effort to get everyone some points, so we all had fun. There were really just two moments that stood out. The first involved Deion, who likes to be called D-Nyce. (And that's only the second-best nickname on the team.) Deion reached out and made a steal early in the third quarter, but injured his finger in the process. When he came to the bench and showed me his finger, it looked like the letter z -- severely dislocated. As the game continued behind him, I asked him for his finger so I could fix it for him. His eyes just about jumped out of his skull, but he allowed me to snap his finger back into place and was asking to get back in the game a few minutes later.

The next moment came soon after. Midway through the fourth quarter I noticed that my three children were starting to get more than a little wiggly, and Leslie looked to be at her wit's end. I reached up into the stands and took our eight-month-old Baby Kate and paced the sidelines with her on my hip for the rest of the game. It was a wonderful end to a great regular season.