The Big Kid and Basketball … the Beginning

My son Tommy (yes a junior) was always a big kid.  In fact, one of the reasons we had moved to the community of Gorham, Maine in 2002 was because my son was a big kid.

We had moved from Massachusetts to Maine in 1999. At that time we moved to the town of Scarborough, a beautiful community on the coast, so that I could continue my career in healthcare at a local integrated delivery system.

Our home in Scarborough was beautiful, a builders home, the neighborhood so quaint and the homes so welcoming.

Oh how looks can deceive.

Bullying

Imagine the following happening to your child.  Tommy is playing with some of the neighborhood children. He is about five at the time and all the boys are going to play in a neighbor’s home.  As each child walks up to the door the mother of one of the boys allows each in until Tommy is next in line.  That is when this mother looks at Tommy and says “You are too big to come in and play. Go home!”

Devastating to anyone…never mind a 5 year old boy.

Now imagine arriving at the bus stop in the morning to find that all the mothers, fathers and children are shunning you and your child because your child is the “BIG KID”.

Follow this up with a neighborhood block party where again you and your family are shunned because your child is “TOO BIG” to play with the other children his age.

As I said, beautiful homes and yet the people … .

Needless to say this broke our hearts and my bride (Doc) and I decided we were no longer going to live where these people could inflict harm on our child.  And so yes, we moved.  We moved to Gorham, to a smaller community, to a smaller house, away from the coast but also away from these people.

Why is this important to a basketball story?

Tommy’s First Basketball Team

A number of years ago my son wanted to play basketball.  He was 8 years old at the time.  Did I mention he was a big kid?

My heart sunk. Will he be accepted? Will he be mocked? Will he get hurt physically, emotionally?

We signed Tommy up for the Gorham Recreation League basketball program for eight year olds.  Little did we know what we were getting into.

Tommy was picked to play for a coach by the name of Jim Smith. Coach Smith.

Tommy had never played organized basketball so all was new to him.  And other than our oldest daughter Samantha playing soccer one season years ago in Taunton, Massachusetts and Tommy playing a little “organized” soccer (at the age when all 20 kids run to the ball regardless) and a bit of baseball, neither Doc nor I had much experience being parents of a child playing an organized sport.

We did remember Coach Smith from those soccer days as the coach with the great energy who would run and hop and jump and provide even more energy to children who probably did not need any more.  He had a great way with children and was quite an athlete himself.

We would drop Tommy off at practice and on occasion watch the practice itself.  But moreover we would be at every game watching.  Being the introvert I was quite quiet.  Being the extrovert my bride was … well let’s just say not so much.

Did I mention that my son was a big kid?

As I watched I kept coming back to the fact that most of the boys were quicker, faster, and more agile than my son and my son was not necessarily having a great time out on the court.

And yet …

And yet, God gave my son a gift.

My son was a big kid.  And what can big kids excel at in basketball? That’s right – rebounding.  And to rebound really well one must learn to BOX OUT.  Sexy? No. Grunt work? – Perhaps.  And yet, vital to a successful team at any level.

So after viewing a few practices and a couple of games I realized that my son (the “big kid”) could be positioned to be successful… by learning how to BOX OUT.

And why was this important?

Was it important that Tommy’s team win the championship?  I don’t believe at that age they kept count of the score.  (Although I am sure the boys themselves did.)

Was it important that I felt like a winner because my 8 year old was a great ballplayer? I sure hope not.

The reason this was important was twofold: 1.) God gave Tommy a gift (a large frame), and 2.) Tommy deserved a win.  With the bullying my son endured (that he endured with more maturity than most adults could have or would have) he deserved a chance to feel good about himself and especially and specifically because he is the “big kid”.

Did I mention my son’s maturity?

Fast forward six years:

I just came from the home of Joanne Arnold, a professional trainer who has trained the likes of Ian Crocker, is a former Ms. Maine, Ms. Natural New England, and 2nd place finisher in the Ms. America bodybuilding contest, and is mentioned in John Douillard’s book “Body, Mind and Sport”.  I had brought Tommy and Haylee (my youngest child) there yesterday to work on their core as they gear up for another season of activity.  Joanne had met Tommy the day before and shared with me the following:

Your son is amazing.  To be a freshman in High School and to lack any sense of machismo is astonishing. To care more about doing things the right way rather than trying to simply ‘dominate’ is amazing.  You should be very proud.”

And referencing back to those damaged people in Scarborough and their bullying of my son…

How often do you hear stories of bullies having been abused in the past?

Is my son a bully? My gosh, my son is a hero. When his friend was being bullied on a school bus by two of the toughest children in the school my son stood up to each until they each backed down and then above that the next day he reconnected with the two children who were bullying and made sure they were okay too.

When his sisters are hurting, or our puppy is sick, or Doc or I are upset or arguing (yes, on occasion we argue) who is the first to show how much he cares? You get one guess.

When I am heading off to work or to the gym or to the store, no matter what he is doing who will jump up and run over and give me a big hug?  When it is bed time or when he wakes up in the morning who always comes over for a kiss on the cheek and/or a hug?  Yes, the “big kid” … my son Tommy.

Tommy has become the definition of empathic.  Perhaps he should become a doctor and lead the charge to bring empathy back into healing?  (That is another story for another day.)

So back to eight year olds playing basketball and boxing out.

As I said, it was now time for Tommy to get a win.  It was time to put to good use God’s gift to Tommy (his body).

One day after school and shortly after the start of the basketball season Tommy and I went outside to the street where we have our own basketball hoop.  We passed, we dribbled, we shot and while we did so I described Larry Bird.  I talked about how Larry, who was one of my favorite Celtic players, but not as good as Tommy Heinsohn of course, would during the off season each year go home to French Lick, IN and learn another skill to add to his repertoire. (I don’t believe I used the term repertoire at that time though with my 8 year old son.)  I shared how Larry Bird was not blessed with great speed, vertical leaping ability, or quickness, and yet he is considered one of the best ever to play the game because he got the most out of the gifts God had provided to him.  I mentioned how Larry would learn and do whatever he needed to in an effort to position his team to win.

We then talked about Charles Barkley.  I shared that God had blessed Charles with a large frame.  I then described how Charles Barkley played. How he was nicknamed the “bread truck” and how he used his body to “box out” and get rebounds and help his team win.

I then showed Tommy how to get in position to box out, how he “owned” the semi-circle of space between him and the hoop,  and the basic mechanics of boxing out.  Together we saw how much easier it was to get the ball after a missed shot when we boxed out the correct way and I showed Tommy how his gift from God, his body, was so incredibly perfect for this important aspect of the game of basketball.

We did this for an hour or so and then did it again a couple of afternoons later. Each time with me reminding Tommy that God gave him a gift and all we were doing was using God’s gift to him to honor God, achieve a goal, and have some fun.

The Friday evening before Tommy’s next game (which happened to be at 8am on Saturday morning) I could barely sleep.  (Tommy slept soundly).  I was so anxious.  Was I doing the right thing? Did I put too much pressure on my son? Did I teach the box out correctly? Will Coach Smith be upset that I taught Tommy this move?  Most importantly am I doing the right thing for the right reason and will Tommy be happy?

So, it is shortly after 8am and Tommy takes his turn on the court.  The quicker boys are flying up and down the court.  They are laughing and joking and throwing up shot after shot and Tommy is struggling to keep up.  Doc is cheering him on and I am biting my tongue trying to keep quiet so that I do not impede what Coach Smith is doing.

And then it happens.  Tommy is running near the sidelines and just loud enough so that only he can hear I say “Tommy, remember your special gift from God, box out.”

Tommy looked up at me and I saw a very small but definitely noticeable twinkle in his eye and just a hint of a smile.  “Box out” I whispered again.

Tommy’s team is on offense.  Tommy positions himself in the paint and I see him get in box out position.  (Sure glad at this age they do not call “3-seconds”!)  He backs himself into one of the quicker and more aggressive boys on the other team and makes contact.  He then remains attached to this boy like glue.  Not necessarily a natural thing to do for a shy 8 year old boy.  Tommy’s teammates dribble left. They dribble right.  They dribble to the baseline and then back out to almost the half court line.  (Ever notice how much dribbling takes place in 8 year old boys’ basketball?)  And then a boy finally takes a shot…

Tommy is in good box out position.  The quick aggressive boy cannot get around Tommy. The ball hits the rim, and then the backboard.  And then…you guessed it…Tommy has boxed out well and gets the rebound.  Now of course being a 39 year old man at the time I respond with stoic resolve. Well, actually I am practically crying on the sidelines as my boy, the “big kid”, grabs his first rebound, pivots, and passes the ball to a teammate.

Okay, beginners luck right?

Now down the defensive end.  Tommy gets in the paint again.  He finds an offensive player (again with more quickness and agility and this time more height too).  Tommy proceeds to get between this boy and the basket, he bends his knees, and he backs into this boy and starts to move this boy backwards.  Tommy creates a 4 foot half arc of space between himself and the hoop.  A shot from the other team.  A miss.  Tommy grabs the rebound. Pivots hard. Makes an outlet pass to a teammate and they are off.  So, of course again I am calmly watching this happen.  (Actually no, I am practically weeping again. Real men weep at basketball games don’t they?)

Tommy ends up with 8 rebounds for the game.  Yes, I counted.  And better yet, he smiles as he shares with me and Doc how he boxed out and got rebounds and helped his team win.

His team win?  I don’t know.  Again, I cannot even recall if the score was kept for the game.  But there definitely was a win this day.  My son got his win.  My son the “big kid” got his win.

The ride home we talked about how he boxed out and got rebounds.  Walking into the house we talked about the number of rebounds.  At lunch we relived the first rebound.  The second rebound.  The third rebound.  We told Tommy how very proud of him we are.  Not for the rebounds but for helping his team do well.  And throughout these conversations I kept saying to God … “thank YOU”.

That afternoon Tommy asked me to play basketball with him.  We went outside and we did not discuss boxing out.  Mostly we were just quiet passing to one another and taking shots.  Does life get any better?

“Box out, rip it, clear out”

A few days later we went back outside to play again and I shared with Tommy my father’s old saying: “box out, rip it, clear out”.  My father to this day remains a great basketball player.  Me on the other hand, I was perfect for teaching boxing out and rebounding to Tommy.  No one misses shots more often than I do so there are plenty of rebounding opportunities for my son.

So back to “box out, rip it, clear out”.

What does it mean?  Essentially it serves as a reminder.  Everyone on the court wants the ball.  Everyone.  To actually achieve the goal of getting the ball one must be in good position – box out.  Then one must be prepared to grab the ball and rip it away from others who also want that ball – rip it.  And then one must ensure that no one can grab that ball away from you once you have it in hand – clear out.  Watch old films of Dave Cowens from the Boston Celtics.  No one did it better.  (Don’t tell Tommy Heinsohn I said that.)

So I would shoot the ball, I would repeat “box out, rip it, clear out”, I would miss, and Tommy would box out, rip it and clear out.  Over and over we did this.  And we laughed.  We laughed at how poor a shooter I am.  We laughed at the silliness of me repeating over and over “box out, rip it, clear out”, and we laughed because we were father and son just playing and having fun together outside in the sun.  To answer my own question: yes, life can’t get any better.

Okay, it is the next Saturday morning and Tommy has another game.  The stands are packed.  Yes, for 8 year old Saturday morning recreational basketball.  Not being comfortable in crowds I spot a folding chair on the sidelines and leave Doc and my two daughters to take the seat all by myself.  (Have I mentioned that I am an extreme introvert?)

The game begins and Tommy is starting.  He is running and smiling as he charges down the court behind the other nine players to get on defense but with all of the dribbling he has plenty of time to get in his favorite box out position.  Shot goes up and misses.  Tommy boxes out another boy, rips the rebound down, clears out so no one can take it away and passes to his speedy teammate.  All the while I am repeating to myself (hopefully just in my own head) “box out, rip it, clear out, box out, rip it, clear out, box out, rip it, clear out”.  This goes on for the remainder of the game and Tommy walks away with 13 rebounds and even better…walks over to me on the sideline with a smile from ear to ear.  “I did it dad! I boxed out, I ripped it and I cleared out!  I did it!”  Are you proud of me?

Am I proud of him?  My god.  Am I proud of my son for boxing out? Am I proud of my son for ripping the ball? Am I proud of my son for clearing out?  What is the right answer to share with an 8 year old?  What is the right answer to share with myself?

I want to say: “Tommy I am so proud of you for the person you are.  I am so proud of how you have shown a maturity and heart in your very young life that many adults could never understand. I want to hold my boy and let him know that I am so proud of him and it has nothing to do with basketball.  I want him to know that me being proud of him is so very minor.  Him loving himself and knowing he is blessed and loved by God that is far more important.  I am so proud of my boy. My boy the lion.  And it has nothing to do with basketball.”

TO BE CONTINUED …

Next “The Big Kid and Basketball Part II … A Reputation

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