The Big Kid and Basketball Part XVII … Above the Fray

[Continued from The Big Kid and Basketball Part XVI … the Point Guard]

Each team each and every year was comprised of special young men.  Not all easy. Not all basketball superstars. But each one special and each one contributing, learning and teaching one another and of course … me.

We had Mickey T. who simply wanted to be part of this community of young men. A basketball phenom? No. But over time he became the best “rip it” player on the court.

As a reminder, to ensure you secure the ball after a rebound or an interception (or any loose ball for that matter) it is important to not only grab the ball with your hands and arms but to use your full body to “rip” the ball away from the other team.

Mickey T. off the court is very quiet (perhaps another Introvert?), easy going, and mild mannered. On the court he became the player I could most count on to rip the ball from the other team. (As well as to secure key rebounds, make a clutch pass, and to score on occasion.) A player we were blessed to have in our midst. A player we needed on our team.

There are many players like this each year. Each who taught me. Each I will never forget. Many I pray for each day.

Abel is one of these players.

During Tommy’s Junior year in High School, as like every other year I coached, we had a player assessment to begin the next Gorham recreational basketball league season.  And as always I stood alone analyzing each player.  There were some younger players with amazing skills. There was a Junior who had a big ego and a big game. There was a Senior with a scruffy beard that had some game but more so what caught my attention most was his non-stop hustle during each and every drill. And there were my core players whose parents insisted remain on this team if at all possible and who beyond question are all key parts of our community.

As I strolled around the gym looking for kids with heart the head of the rec department approached me.

“Tom, please add the name Abel to your list of potential players. He is a senior. He could not be here for the assessment. I hear he is a pretty good player.”

“Okay.” I responded as I jotted A-B-E-L down on the back of my paper.

During the actual drafting phase Coach Sampras and I were able to re-acquire the bulk of our core team as well as pick up the Senior with the scruffy beard, Julian.  Intentionally I opted to not draft the Junior with the big game and big ego. His talent was unquestionable. And it was a hard choice to allow another team to draft him. But it was also the right decision.

By the end of the draft there were only a couple of player names left on the list, including Abel.

“Tom, would you be willing to take Abel on your team. He has had I rough time of it and I believe your team would be a good fit for him.”

“Sure”, I responded to the rec leader. “I am happy to add Abel to the team. We only have one other Senior (Julian) so the additional [hopefully] leadership will be a bonus.”

“Great. And with that you have your teams. Please contact all your players and let them know. As always they will be anxious to hear from you.”

And then after everyone else had filed out of the draft room the rec leader approached me once again.

“Tom, it is important that Abel is on your team. He really has had a tough time of it. In fact, he often sleeps at his father’s business rather than at home in his own bed. I am sorry to ask you. But it is important for him.”

Little did I know how important Abel joining our team would be for us … for me.

A few days later …

“Come on dad…we are going to be late.”

Here we go again.

Clearly it must be the night of our first practice.

It is 6:30pm and our practice begins at 7:00.

“Let’s go dad!”

It takes less than 5 minutes to get there.

“Dad, where are you?  Come on…I don’t want to be late! Come on!”

Okay, Tommy. Okay.

We arrive at practice. Coach Sampras is already there as is most of the boys.

And so is John the custodian who has become a good friend of the team over the years.

“Tom, coffee is all made for you. Stay as late as you want. Let me know anything you need.”

“Thanks, John. Great to see you again. We will be here every Tuesday and Friday night for practice just like last year.”

“I’ll be here. And your coffee will always be ready for you.”

God brings people into your life for specific reasons. Over the years John has become a true friend and confidant for me. He has a good heart and a kind soul.  He too became part of our team. Our community. Our family.

“Hey, Coach. Ready to get back at it?”

“Absolutely, Coach.”

“Excellent, Pete. Let’s do something great!”

And then …

“Bring it in! Hold those basketballs!”

Nothing quite like the mandarin of bouncing basketballs stopping all at once as the squeal of sneakers heightens and young men race to embrace a new season. A new beginning.

“I’m Coach Dahlborg. This is Coach Sampras. I am thrilled to have you all on this team. Many of you are returning. Some are new. I selected each of you for specific reasons. You are each meant to be on this team.”

Then a deep breath and …

“A few lessons for you. Lesson one: You play the game my way or you don’t play. Lesson two: When Coach Sampras or I talk to you, you look us directly in the eyes. Lesson three: This is a team game. You will improve your game. And as you do our team will improve.”

“Understood?”

“Yes, Coach!”

“Great, now starting with Tommy”, its hard to be the coaches son, “I want you to introduce yourselves.”

And one by one each did. Name. Sometimes position. Usually a big smile and / or laugh.

“Alright. Three lines! Let’s go! Weave!”

Both Julian and Abel pick up the weave quickly. And Julian continued to show here in practice what I saw during the assessment. “Yes!”

And then I focused on Abel. About five foot six or seven. Hair cut very short. Athletic build.

“Let’s see what you got, Abel. You got game?”

No verbal response. Just a smirk. And then … a double crossover, 360 degree spin, and then with the grace of Samantha on the stage for her final dance recital, a switch from his strong right hand to his left for a Walt Frazier-esque layup.

“Yup, he’s got game. It’s obvious. He’s got game. Now does he have heart? And can he lead?” I ponder.

“Abel, bring it in.”

“Yeah, Coach.” He responds with that ever-present smirk.

“Nice move. Play the point?”

“Yes, Coach.” More smirks.

Tommy has become a very good point guard. He is a great Three. Finding a point guard and moving T back to the three would be amazing.

“We’ll see. Go prove to me that the point is yours.”

“Yes, Coach.” Another smirk.

This is going to be fun.

“Bring it in! Very nice first practice. Tommy?”

“Gorham on three!” He yells.

“1 – 2 – 3 … GORHAM!!” The team yells and then packs to head out for the evening.

“Well, Coach, we’ve got another point guard.”

“We sure do, Tom. We sure do.”

“Tommy, you ready to go back to the Three and show off your scoring touch?”

“Oh, yes, Dad. Oh yeah.”

“We will need you at the point too, so be sure you know the One and the Three.”

“You got it.”

It was an amazing season. With many challenges on and off the court.

“Abel, you missed a practice. You will not be playing the next game.”

“Yes. Coach.” A smaller smirk.

“Abel. Why did you miss the game on Saturday?”

“I was sick, Coach.”

“You need to call me and let me know prior to the game. These boys were counting on you. The team is counting on you. No call next time (if there is a next time time) and you will not play in the following game either. Understood?”

“Yes, Coach.” No smirk.

“We need you, Abel. But you must be here for this team heart and soul or you will not remain on this team. Understood?”

“Yes, Coach.”

Later that night after practice.

“Doc, Abel is a special kid. He has that “IT” factor that they say JFK had. He is a true leader in the sense that people will follow him. Good or bad path they will follow his lead.”

“I understand he is having a real tough time at home.”

“I know. I don’t want to lose him. I don’t mean from the team. I don’t want to lose him to the bad path. He is a good kid. It is so hard to be tough on him knowing how rough he has it.”

“I think he needs that discipline … that adult figure that cares enough about him to discipline him.”

“Thank you, Doc. I needed to hear that. This is very hard.”

A number of weeks later it is our second playoff game and we are competing with a strong and chippy team from Windham on their home court. We are up by seven late in the second half and the team is playing well. And Abel is leading them.

Tommy has dropped ten. Mickey T. has another six. Abel has seventeen while also passing the rock and getting everyone involved. There are contributions from all over.

“A steal! Abel has stolen the ball with three minutes to go!”

I am doing play by play in my own head.

“That’s it, Abel. Go!” I call out.

With his great speed Abel is over half court in no time with all but one defender trailing far behind. As he reaches the elbow he crosses over from left to right juking the last line of defense and begins to go up with his patented Frazier when the defender who was clearly beaten makes a hard foul and knocks Abel to the floor and into the wall behind the hoop.

A whistle.

“Foul. Number 8, Green. Two shots!” The ref calls out.

But while the ref is explaining the call and why two shots and not two shots and the ball for a flagrant, I see Abel in the face of the defender who committed the hard foul and then pointing up at the score board.

“Time out! Time out!” I yell to the ref over the noise of the crowd. “Bring it in, boys. Everyone else up off the bench. Bring it in!”

“Abel, are you okay?”

“Yes, Coach.” No smirk.

“Good. Now listen to me and listen good. We are up. It is late in the game. Do not lose your composure.”

“He was mouthing off to me. So I simply pointed up to the scoreboard and reminded him of who was winning.”

God I wanted to laugh. Yup … thirty years ago (who am I kidding) last week I would have done the same thing.

“I understand. Now listen to me. Everyone. Listen. Up! We need all of you if we are going to win this game. We do not lose control. We play smart. We play together. We stay above the fray. Do you understand?”

“YES, COACH!”

And then as half of the team heads back onto the court and the other half back to the bench I pull Abel aside.

“Abel, look at me, do you understand?”

“Yes, Coach.” No smirk.

“We need you. Go hit your free throws and lead us to victory.”

A smile.

Abel hit his two free throws and made two more steals. He dished the rock. He scored another four points and we increased our lead and we won this playoff game.

“Great game, Team!”

And then after folks began to depart.

“Abel, ABOVE THE FRAY. Got it?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“I am proud of you.”

TO BE CONTINUED …

Next “The Big Kid and Basketball Part XVIII … Most Assuredly a Win

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