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The International Writers Magazine
: Hoop Dreams

Zen and Varsity Basketball. (A Parent’s Primer)
Jeffrey Beyl

My kid made the Varsity Basketball team this year. He’s a freshman. I was proud. The proud Father. He’d been playing Basketball at school since he was in the fourth grade. Buncha little guys, it used to be almost comical to watch. He, however, took it seriously. He went to the gym to show his stuff, a tall-ish but skinny kid trying out against bigger, older kids. Varsity, you’re either in or you’re not.

Doesn’t the story go that even Michael Jordan was cut from his varsity team? A lot of kids were turned back at the gate. He never thought they’d call his name. When they did he almost didn’t respond. He didn’t expect it, but he stepped out of the crowd of hopefuls and took his place in line. I about fainted. Varsity. He was happy, I was proud. Neither one of us realized what was in store.

Ya wanna shoot some hoop? He was this year’s rookie. Fresh, they called him. Short for Freshman. Short for Fresh Meat. "Hey Fresh, gather up those balls." "Hey, Fresh, bring those water bottles over here." "C’mon Fresh, keep up. This ain’t eighth grade basketball no more. This be the real world now. This be where the big boys play. C’mon Fresh!" The coach’s face inches away, yelling like a drill sergeant at boot camp. "C’mon Fresh, you in my world now, keep up or get outa my house." My son did push ups, sit ups, he ran suicides. He jumped up and down, and ran and ran and ran and ran. "Get movin’ Fresh, you ain’t playing no B-ball on my team if you can’t run any faster than that." This was an every day thing. Every. Single. Day. Seven days a week, three hour practice sessions. He’d be so tired when he got home he could barely make it through his homework before he crashed off to sleep. Twice a week he had six AM practice. He ran and ran. Sometimes he had to face the gym wall and jump up and down, arms in the air, a hundred, two hundred times. Try it sometime. Wall jumps, they call em’. Twice he threw up. They kept a garbage can in the middle of the gym floor in case anyone felt sick. What made me feel better about it was that he wasn’t the only one puking. But worse than the puking itself was that he, the Fresh, had to empty the can and hose it out. Fun.

Playing a team sport, especially on a Varsity team, where the team goes out, competes on behalf of and represents the school, is, to say the very least, a commitment. You better really like basketball. For the first three weeks of daily, three-hour practices, he hardly touched a ball other than gathering them all up and putting them away, the last to leave the gym. "C’mon Fresh, hurry it up. Move it!" He was on the verge of tears a few times. He was on the verge of saying, "the hell with this." A couple other kids did. They turned in their jerseys and walked. I gave him that fatherly speech, you may know the one I mean, about commitment, honor, loyalty, stepping up and being a man. But step up he did. I actually think he proved himself tougher than me. One of the other fathers said to me that varsity weeds out those kids who "really wanna play the game from those who just think they do."
Game night. Season opener. The starting line-up was mostly seniors, one junior. The Fresh was on the bench. He just knew he’d sit there the whole game, a scrub. He was kinda pissed. The game was well into the fourth quarter and they were losing. I guess the coach figured what the hell. "Hey Fresh, get in there. C’mon. Go, go, go!" This skinny, rubber-bandy kid ambled out onto the court, the hardwood, ran around, set a screen or two and no one paid any attention to him. Too new, too skinny to care about. Five seconds to go. Down by three. Someone shoots and one of our guys gets the rebound. He looks around frantically. No one open except the Fresh hangin’ back behind the three point arch, musta’ figured, what the hell and tossed him the rock. He set his feet, looked at the hole, did a kind of arm cock movement and everyone stopped. Time stopped. My heart didn’t, however, it was pounding in my chest like a bazooka. He brings the ball up and sends it off in a rainbow arch. It was beautiful. The shot clock was clicking down, one second left. The whole place knew that ball was goin’ in from the moment he let it fly. The clock hit zero a millisecond after the ball swished through. The net barely moved. Nothin’ but string music.

He sat on the bench through most of the overtime play. They all pat him on the back a few times but it was time for the seniors to take over again. Let’s win this thing. It was close. Too close. Five seconds to go. Down by two and one of our guys gets the rebound. Coach calls a twenty second time out. He wants to win this first game of the season. "Hey Fresh, think you can do it again?" He shrugs his shoulders but ambles out, seeming cool as a cucumber, but scared and the opposing team knew it. No way could that punk do it again. Inbound the ball and he hangs back behind the arch again, two seconds, no one is looking at him. No one but our Point guard and he throws him the ball. Time stopped twice that night. Down by two, two seconds left and, no way could that punk do it again. But he does. A three-ball from downtown. Nothin’ but net. The place exploded. The coach about shit his pants. The opposing coach probably did. It was the best thing I’ve seen in my life. Less than one minute of actual playing time and he not only tied it up to go into OT, he shot the game winner. One of the other guys, the Center, came up to me and told me that my son was his new hero. The coach came up to me and told me "He’s got range. He’s a shooter." The proud Dad. My kid was on top of the world. The next day he threw up after running suicides at practice. "C’mon Fresh. Keep up. This is my house. This ain’t elementary school. C’mon."

Basketball nowadays is just as important to these kids as Rock and Roll music was to me when I was their age. They know the players names, their stats, they pay attention to what shoe, known as kicks, a player is wearing the way I paid attention to what guitar Eric Clapton was playing. They penetrate. There’s double doubles, and triple doubles and triple teams and windmill dunks. They’ve got their own jargon; Throw it down. Attack the rack. Crash the boards. Give and go. Pick and roll. If a player is good they say "He got hops", or "He got game." Parents, from the stands, yell, "Box out! Hands up!" Coaches, yelling from the sidelines, "Post up!" There’s the Full court press, the Zone defense. The Point Guard, otherwise known as the Floor general, drives the lane or threads the needle. He can Pump Fake and if he’s good at it, he’s an Ankle Breaker. The basket itself is known as the Hole, the Bucket, the Rack. There’s the Turn Around Jumper, or Turn Around J, the Cross Over, the Fade Away. The bank shot is to Kiss it off the Glass. There’s the Lay up, the Finger roll, the Sky hook, the Tear drop.

But in between all of that is practice. They run. They do push ups and sit ups. They run some more. They run plays and shoot free throws over and over and over. When one of the guys misses a free throw, they run another suicide. Let me tell you about suicides; They line up at one end of the court, sprint to the free throw line, drop and do ten push ups, leap back to their feet and sprint back to the starting line. Then, without hesitation, they sprint to the three point line, drop and do fifteen sit ups, and back to the starting line. Then sprint to the half court line, drop and do twenty more push ups and back to the starting line. They do this again at the three point line and free throw line and base line at the far end of the court, alternating push ups and sit ups each time in increasing sets of five, then they sprint back to the start and do a hundred wall jumps. The last man in has to do another one by himself while the others line up to shoot free throws again and whenever a guy misses, they all have to run another suicide. No wonder they throw up. Oh, by the way, those six AM practices; for every minute they’re late, they owe the coach another suicide. Don’t get stuck at any red lights.
Shooting Guard, Point Guard, Small Forward, Power Forward, Center. No one wants to be a bench player. This year’s Fresh, was a bench player. But he showed that, indeed, he had range. He showed that well into the fourth quarter of a game with bigger, stronger seniors pushing him around, he could still keep his cool, keep up and out run them (thanks to all those suicides) and step back across the arch, make his little arm cock movement, and drain it from downtown. He became the team’s outside shooter. He was like Steve Kerr of the Chicago Bulls. He was a starting player for about half of the season’s games. He was named Player of the Game five times, outscoring all of his teammates. The team made it to the State Playoffs for the first time in the school’s history and the Fresh was the high scorer. They didn’t come home with a championship but they did return as heroes and the Fresh earned the coach’s award for Most Outstanding Underclassman. When the coach announced his name he said "My first impression of this next young man was that he was just a skinny kid. But he quickly showed that he was up to it. He is the future of this team." A couple of the other fathers, ones whose kids, seniors, weren’t walking up to the podium to receive an award, were elbowing me. The proud Dad. I was on the verge of tears.

It always happens, at the end of the season, especially if it was even slightly successful, everyone looks back on all the running, the sweating, the suicides, the yelling and screaming and threatening, as though it were all worth it. They love the coach. But when they were hauling their exhausted butts up and down the length of the court running those suicides, they hated him. That is part of sports and they accept it. The coaches accept it. The parents have learned to accept it.
Dribble, fast break, slam it, jam it. The paint, the key, the back door. Field goal. Scrimmage.

My kid made the varsity basketball team this year. He did alright. Next year he won’t be anyone’s fresh meat anymore and he’ll taunt and trash talk the new rookies. That also is part of sports. He’ll still run suicides and sweat and puke and miss a shot and force his teammates to run another. The coaches want these kids to get to the point where they just do it. Don’t think about it. Just do it. Shoot the ball and know that it will go in. Shoot the ball and know that it will fall through. Sometimes a player will shoot the ball, turn around to run back and play defense before the ball even goes through the hoop. He knows it’s in. It’s a Zen thing. My son played Shooting Guard. He will probably continue in that position next year. When the Point Guard throws him the rock, he should catch it, pull up and let it fly. No hesitation. That takes skill. That takes practice and more practice and more practice. That takes running suicides and working with a ball handling coach and a physical trainer during the summer. That takes every day practice, six AM practices, and more. It takes commitment.

A high school basketball game is a real happening. This is where the guys all get to strut their stuff. Their compatriots are watching. Their enemies are watching. Young girls in low cut jeans, all belly buttons and skinny legs, are watching. Younger kids, who want to be just like them, are watching. It’s a happening. They wear their jerseys with pride, like a Marine in his Dress Blues. They wear arm bands, wrist bands, leg bands, head bands. They wish they were old enough to wear tattoos. They swagger. They walk around like peacocks. They all, every one of them, cop an attitude. They don’t smile. They scowl. They all look angry. They’re going into battle. They avoid us parents. Oh, they may call to us to get them a drink but even then it’s like "Eh. Get me a Gatorade." So obediently we go out into the hall and put a dollar in the machine and press the appropriate button. But for God’s sake, don’t walk out onto the gym floor to hand it to him. Its way cooler if you throw it to him so he can casually catch it one handed and tip his head ever so slightly as thanks, then, scowl, its back to the boys, the brethren.
Brothers in arms.

It’s a battlefield out on the hardwood. It’s combat. These kids play with intensity and determination. They walk out onto the court, sizing up the enemy team, like a matador walking out onto the sand, sizing up the bull. The pass their eyes over each other, up and down, smirking, as if to imply that the other team’s jerseys aren’t cool. They’re telling each other, silently, that not only do they plan on destroying them, but they look goofy too. This is the first volley, the mental games. It’s funny to watch. They’re kids, after all, fifteen years old. But when the whistle is blown and the jump ball is secured, they charge into one another like the Union and Confederate troops charging into one another on the fields of Gettysburg. I honestly believe that these kids play harder than the big boys in the NBA. I really do. It’s scary. I wouldn’t want to be down there in the midst of that fracas. It’s difficult to watch sometimes. That’s my boy down there being pushed around, being shoved, and bumped and slapped and knocked to the floor. Oh, that bugs me. When a bigger senior knocks him down and coldly walks away, leaving him laying there grimacing in pain as he grabs for his knee. I’m a Dad. I want to leap down there and knock that kid on his…..but wait; it’s only a game after all. Isn’t it? One of his comrades will lend him a hand and pull him to his feet. He’ll dust himself off and gamely walk back out into the fray. There are girls watching. Can’t be a wimp.

It’s a happening. It’s war. But it’s fun. It’s a performance. These kids are on a stage just like the ones who play piano in school recitals. Varsity basketball games are crowded and boisterous, the people in the stands yelling and cheering and booing. It’s an exhibition, an engagement. When your kid has the ball, all eyes are on him. He has to perform. The act doesn’t end until you get your kid home. It usually doesn’t even end then. Even if they lose the game, they act like, hey, big deal, we coulda’ won that one, if that ref hadn’t given us all those bad calls. It’s all his fault, the ref. I’m not sure how I feel about the ref. I hate him and feel sorry for him at the same time. The poor ref. Now, there’s a thankless job. No matter what call he makes someone’s going to yell at him. "Aw, C’mon ref, where’s the foul?" Wait a minute. Did I just say, poor ref? This is the guy who has made bad calls against my son, too. I take it back.Personal foul. Team foul. Loose ball foul. Technical foul. Flagrant foul. There are all kinds of fouls. Some never even called. Defensive, offensive, traveling, charging, over-under. Goal tending. Reaching. It goes on. Penalty.

My kid made the varsity basketball team this year. Youngest varsity player in the history of his school. They made the State tournament for the first time in the school’s history. It wasn’t all him. It was a team effort. It was hard work. Hard work for me? Well, yeah, I had to drive him around and pick him up. But it was hard work for him. For them. Truly hard work. But damn it was fun. Now that the season is over I’m not sure what I’m going to do. There is a big empty spot in my daily schedule. He has Spring AAU League and Summer League and this summer he’s set to work out with a physical trainer and ball handling coach. But. Well, I can’t wait for next season.
I can’t wait.
© Jeffrey Beyl
Seattle, Washington

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