[Continued from The Big Kid and Basketball Part VIII … am I Coaching?]
Fast forward a few years …
Over the past couple of years my daughter Haylee and her good friend Sue would join us at Tommy’s basketball practices pretty consistently. They would play on the stage, run around on the sidelines, and join in on some of the drills. Haylee eventually became our official ball girl (responsible for ensuring that our four good basketballs always arrived with us at practices and games as well as coming home with us).
At the end of another admittedly draining basketball season one evening after dinner my little Haylee said to me “Dad, do you want to go outside and shoot hoops?”
At first I thought she was kidding as she had never asked to “shoot hoops” before. But once realizing she was serious I said “sure, let’s play”. We then went out front to our basketball hoop (where Tommy and I had worked on “boxing-out”).
We begin with me with the ball feeding passes to Haylee and lo and behold she is hitting every shot, i.e., inside shots, outside jump-shots, layups. She is hitting them all. She then takes another pass, pivots, fakes, and drives and scores again. My gosh…when did she learn how to play?
“Haylee, you are amazing! When did you get so good?”
“Dad, I have been practicing with Tommy’s team for years.”
Oh my. What a great father I am. I always made sure Haylee was safe during practices and that she had fun and had opportunities to participate but truth be told I never really focused on her game.
And here we are in front of our house and … She can shoot. She can pass. She can pivot and she can move and she can drive. She is great!
“You are great Haylee. Thank you for playing with me tonight.”
“Thank you for playing with me, Daddy.”
When I got inside I shared with Doc what had just happened and how good Haylee is. We were both amazed. Haylee has always been our “baby”, our “angel”, our “porcelain doll”. Is she these things and a powerful talented athlete? Both And?
I decided to not press basketball with Haylee but rather to let her decide when or if she wanted to “shoot hoops” again. I was just thrilled she asked me once to play and seemed to enjoy it and did not want to put any pressure on her.
The next night after dinner my little Haylee said “Daddy, do you want to shoot hoops with me?”
Yes! I thought. “Sure Haylee. I would love to.”
And we were at it again and she was just as good the second time. And then over time the third time, the fourth time and so on.
“Do you think you might want to play for the school team?”
“Daddy, there is no 6th grade school team. I want to play rec ball with you as my coach!”
Oh my god. Learning how to coach boys is still very challenging. How do you coach a group of girls? Is it different than coaching boys?
“I love you Haylee. You are an amazing basketball player. Do you really enjoy it?”
“I love basketball, Daddy!”
Towards the end of the summer Coach Sampras, his son Dean, Tommy and I decided we would begin to play basketball on the Gorham Middle School outdoor courts on Sunday mornings (when the weather allows).
“Haylee, would you like to play with us on Sunday mornings?”
“Are you sure? Will she get hurt?” Doc asked me after I had already extended the invite.
“She will be fine. She is really good and besides … Tommy will always protect her.”
“Pete (Coach Sampras) 9am Sunday hoops?”
“Sounds great Tom. We (Pete and Dean) will be there.”
“Awesome! This will be great!”
“Haylee is going to play too. Watch out for her. She is really good.”
I am guessing Pete was thinking I was just being nice … little did he know.
“First two to hit are on a team!” We shot free throws to make teams just like back in my Old Colony Y (YMCA) days in Brockton.
“Okay Haylee. Your shot.”
“Great shot Haylee!” Pete said.
“I told you Pete. Watch out.”
“Wow. She is good.”
Eventually it was my shot and no swish but I did hit it.
“Haylee – you and me!”
I love watching my children smile those big smiles that truly show the joy and happiness coming from their heart. That is what Haylee shared with me this day.
“Yay Daddy! Let’s beat them.”
Okay. Easier said than done. It will be Haylee (clearly a phenom) and me against Tommy who is now a great shooter (especially three pointers), Dean (no one rebounds better), and Pete (who is about 280 and very strong and owns the inside).
“Okay. Let’s shoot for outs!” Time to shoot three pointers to decide which team will have the ball first.
Yup. Tommy hit the three pointer. Their ball.
“Haylee, we will play zone. You cover the outside and I will cover the inside.”
“You better cover her Pete when we have the ball. She is real good.”
As Pete runs by me to get in position he says “I know. I know.”
I don’t think he knows.
Dean passes the ball in to Tommy. Haylee slides over to cover T on the outside. (Note: a good zone defense should not look too dissimilar from a helping man-to-man defense). I am about 7 feet from the hoop in position to pick Tommy up if he moves inside, while also looking to defend a cross-pass to Dean and trying not to let Pete get good position underneath on me.
Tommy dribbles and shoots and misses. I grab the rebound and dribble out to the clear line (we are using the three point line to clear the ball on every possession change).
Dean and Tommy come out to defend me. Pete remains underneath for rebounds. I dribble right and drive between the two defenders until I arrive at Pete. I pass the ball behind my back to Haylee wide-open about 10 feet from the hoop.
“You have got to cover her Pete.”
“I know. I know.”
Now he knows.
Their ball. Dean passes the ball in to Pete. Pete drives hard to the hoop. He sees Haylee and me both dropping down to stop him. He stops and hits Tommy in the corner. BANG!
“That’s a three pointer, T. Nice shot!”
“Our ball Haylee. Do you want to pass it in or do you want me to do it?”
“I’ll pass it in Daddy”, she says with a huge smile.
I lean into Dean and then break away toward Haylee. She hits me at the top of the key. She runs to her spot. I see Pete slide over to cover her.
He learns quickly.
I drive hard to the right around Dean. Haylee does a V-cut toward the hoop and then back to her spot. I am slightly stunned but have enough time to get her the ball just as she turns to me while in her spot.
She shoots (without even being told).
SWISHHH! 4 to 3 we are winning. “Great shot Haylee!” Pete yells.
Haylee smiles that big beautiful smile of hers.
“Haylee…where did you learn to do a V-cut?”
“Oh Daddy, I learned that at your practices.”
My gosh, was I blind. She learned so much and I missed it. Great father I am. Great coach I am.
Tommy passes the ball in to Pete. Haylee covers the outside man, Dean. Pete lowers his shoulder and like a Mack Truck drives toward the hoop. I slide away from Tommy and into the path of the Mack. Boom! Shoulder into my chest. I fall back. Pete takes a shot from 2 feet. He misses. I am recovering to get back in the play. Pete gets his own rebound, shoots again and scores.
5 to 4 we are losing.
“Let’s get ‘em Haylee” I say with a smile.
“Okay Daddy!” She smiles back.
I pass the ball in to Haylee. She drives with her right hand to the right side of the court. Pete and Tommy close on her. She then crosses-over and drives with her left hand to the other side of the court.
“Haylee can cross-over dribble?” I say to myself. “Haylee can dribble with little effort with her opposite hand?” I continue. Where have I been?
Her move is phenomenal and provides her with just enough space to get off her third shot.
SWISHHH! 6 to 5 we are winning. “Wow Haylee!” Tommy screams.
“Haylee”, I begin, “a cross-over move and then dribbling with your left hand? That is great!”
“Thank you Daddy. You taught us at Tommy’s practices.”
How should I feel? I taught “us”. I was doing my best to teach the boys. I had no idea I was teaching my little angel.
The game continues. Dean passes over to Tommy. Pete boxes me out. Haylee slide steps in front of T. T Drives past her on the baseline to the hoop. (I hate when baseline is given up). I come over to cover him. Tommy jumps and manipulates his body so that his lower body is facing the baseline and his shoulders, arms and head are facing the rim.
SWISHHH! 7 to 6 they are now winning. “Great move, T!” I call out to Tommy. “How did you twist like that?”
“I have been working on my core downstairs three days a week.”
“Wow. Your hard work is really paying off” I tell him.
The game goes back and forth with Haylee scoring ten of our 18 points. For the other team Tommy has scored 7, Pete 4 and Dean 6. We are at 18 to 17. A three pointer for them will win it. They have the ball.
“Okay Haylee.” I whisper. “We cannot give up a three. You will need to stay in front of Tommy and not let him get a three point shot off. Don’t give him a good look. We can live with a two but not a three.”
I hug Haylee and then position myself so that it looks like I will cover Tommy. Dean is passing the ball in.
I notice Pete cuts away from the hoop toward the three point line half-way to the corner.
“Uh oh!” I yell. “Screen!”
Pete has set a screen for Tommy. Both Haylee and I are screened for a brief moment. Dean fires the ball like Pedro Martinez throwing his two-seam fastball towards Tommy (who has run through the screen perfectly ensuring no room between him and Pete so that I cannot fight through) and is now wide-open in the corner for his patented three-pointer to win it. At the last second I get my hand up and the ball deflects off of my pinkie just past Tommy and out of bounds.
“Great play! Great pass!” I say to the other team while gasping for air as I walk off the court (very slowly while taking deep breaths) to retrieve the ball.
“Haylee. They almost had us on that one. We need to be looking for the screen.”
“No worries Daddy. We got this one!”
How my little girl has grown up.
Their ball again. This time Pete is passing the ball in. Dean stays up top past the three point line. This time Tommy drops deep into the corner. Clearly they are spreading us out.
I whisper to Haylee, “I will take Tommy man-to-man this time. Stay up tight on Dean. If they get the two that is still okay.”
Pete looks for Tommy in the corner but I am there. Tommy starts to move toward Pete while continuing to remain behind the 3 point line.
Dean breaks for the hoop and Pete throws him the ball just over the reach of Haylee. Dean puts it up off the backboard but it has a little too much force and bounces off the rim and away. I had run to box out Pete as I saw him crashing the boards. We collide with the Mack Truck again winning the battle against this Prius. The ball bounces past the three of us back to Haylee at the foul line. Haylee grabs it and just as she spins toward the clear-line Tommy charges in and knocks the ball away. Dean beats me to the ball while Tommy has repositioned himself in the corner. Dean makes a two handed pass out to Tommy who is now wide open again for the three.
Tommy receives the ball as Haylee is running over to him. With her hands up and near this face he shoots one of those “Robert Parish-esque” rainbow shots. And as in slow motion we all turn and watch the ball leave Tommy’s fingers, ascend into the air with a slight backspin, pass in front of the sun like a magical eclipse, continue to travel through the blue sky, and then begin its descent slowly toward the hoop.
While this is happening I am thinking how much I love my son. How he has grown and matured in his game. How he is such a tremendous shooter. And how I really want him to miss this one time. (Don’t tell him I said that.)
The ball appears to actually hit inside the hoop the way you see on TV when a pro makes that perfect shot and the net actually pops, but somehow this time it is different. At what appears to be the very last second the ball jumps back up, hits the side of the rim, then the other, and then seems to be pulled straight up and out of the hoop and away to the far side of the court.
We all continue to look at the rim and then finally at the ball and watch as it rolls out of bounds.
Amazing. Perhaps this is Haylee’s chance for her win?
“That was incredible Tommy. Great setup. Great release. Great shot. Thought you had us. Wow.”
“Thanks Dad. I thought I had it too.”
As I go and get the ball (again very slowly as I try to catch my breath) I tell Haylee that her sliding over to pick up Tommy made just enough of a difference on that play. “Nice job.” I say.
Okay. Still 18 to 17. Our ball. I am tired. We need to win soon.
“What do you want to do Haylee?”
“I want to shoot.” She says with confidence. Just like her Pa (my Dad).
“Okay. You inbound the ball to me and then get open in your spot.”
Pete sets up down low. Dean is defending the inbounds pass. Tommy is fronting me daring Haylee to try to pass the ball past the Condor-arms of Dean and over Tommy’s head.
Remembering Haylee’s V-cut from earlier I cut down to the post and use Pete as a screen to get a step on Tommy. Haylee fakes a pass to an imaginary player to her right as I come up on her left. Dean goes for the fake which gives Haylee a split-second to make a solid bounce pass to me. I grab it and pivot hard to the hoop.
Both Dean and Tommy close in on me…
Haven’t they learned? Don’t they know who the real athlete is on this team?
…as Haylee runs to her spot.
Pete reverses and tries to slide up to cover Haylee.
He has learned.
I look to Haylee and then split the double-team and drive to the hoop with both Dean and Tommy chasing me. Pete sees me driving and leaves Haylee to stop the penetration. “Perfect!” I think “Haylee will be wide open.” But then out of the corner of my eye I see Dean and Tommy (who both must have been thinking the same as me) leave my trail to go and double Haylee.
“Uh oh!” flashes through my mind until I see Haylee fake a quick V-cut to the far corner and then double-back around her two pursuers and against their momentum so that she is now trailing me. I immediately give an up-fake to Pete, leave an over-the-head drop-pass for Haylee and circle around to box Pete out for any rebound. Haylee grabs and shoots the ball in one quick motion (Ray Allen anyone?) just as Dean and Tommy reach her.
The ball goes up just over the fingertips of Dean. The ball hits the backboard and goes through the hoop. A perfect Sam Jones bank shot.
“Haylee you did it!” I yell.
“Haylee! Great shot!” Pete says.
Tommy and Dean in unison say, “That was great Haylee! 20 to 17. You win. Great game.”
“Thanks Mr. Sampras. Great game Tommy. Great game Dean.” she says.
“What a game Haylee! You scored 12 of our points! You got the winning basket! You rock!” I am so happy for her.
“Thank you Daddy. You played great too.”
Awwwwww … “Thanks Haylee.”
“Let’s shoot for teams for the next game.” And off we went…
Most Sunday mornings (weather permitting) the five of us (sometimes more) would get together at the Gorham Middle School to play basketball. And each Sunday Tommy, Dean and Haylee would get better and better. Pete would too, especially on the inside. Me? I judged my efforts by how much ice I needed on my knees each afternoon. The more ice, the harder I played, the better I felt. Yes, I know. Doc says a little crazy.
More importantly though I was witnessing these children coming together to play, to learn, to grow, to have fun, to support one another, and doing so because they truly love to do so. Doing so because they truly love.
Remember when I said “does life get any better?” It just did.
TO BE CONTINUED …