[Continued from The Big Kid and Basketball Part XXII … Going Long]
Coaching young men’s basketball ended for me after the 2014 season. The team (led by ‘The Big Kid’) had a tremendous year on the court with a last second loss in the semi final game preventing us from competing for the championship.
Walking off the court that day I knew I was done with coaching (at least for the time being). Tommy was graduating, as was the core of our team. I was physically exhausted after having commuted to and from Boston from Maine for 2.5 years (rushing back to attend practices and games) and mentally exhausted after having faced my own limitations in an effort to lead and support young men for so long.
Over the next year or so I was asked by the head of the league to coach again and offered a coaching position with another school system (this time coaching young women) but in each instance I knew that the time was not right for me to pick up my whistle once more. My time was done. At least for now.
This past weekend many of the feelings I experienced while walking away from coaching arose as I stepped on the court to play basketball with my son Tommy, his friends (two of my former players), my former assistant coach, and another neighborhood young man.
For a good number of years this core group has been playing pick up basketball on Sunday mornings. The games are typically competitive. And when I was still coaching this was an opportunity to review game plans, technique, strategies, and more … and once I stopped coaching to simply play, get some exercise, have fun, and be together.
As time has passed I have realized more and more that as I have aged my ability to keep up, to compete, and to walk away at the end of our two to four hours of playing still healthy has eroded.
And as of yesterday I have decided to retire from playing the game that I love.
Now admittedly this isn’t the first time I felt like this. In fact, in July of 2015 I actually wrote a poem titled “Passing the Rock” which expressed this same feeling.
But yesterday was different. Yesterday I experienced the worst of myself and I never want to experience it again.
The first game began inauspiciously enough. We had a three on three going and Kyle, the young man who I had not coached prior but who has played with us on Sundays a couple of times in the past, was driving toward the basket.
Seeing this I came off of my man, slid over to defend the penetration, and with my right hand attempted to poke the ball away from him.
But unfortunately for me the ball ended up bouncing off of Kyle’s thigh and right back into my right index finger with a pop and a crack.
(Yes, immediately I had a sense it was broken as the knuckle disappeared and the pain shot all the way into my wrist.)
And yet, this is street ball, I am from Brockton, and I was not about to tell anyone nor stop playing.
Or as Doc says, “You are being stupid again.”
“Okay, Tom.” This was my self-talk. “Knowing you cannot shoot with your left (never could) just use three fingers on your right hand to shoot and adjust your shot accordingly. The finger is broke, you popped it back into place, it is no longer dislocated … it will just be pain. Don’t let your teams down.”
And of course, “It is what it is. Just play the game with your son et al and enjoy.”
And that is what I did for the rest of the first game and into the second. I wasn’t scoring much as Tommy, Phil, Justin and Kyle began to heat up and Pete owned the boards but the game and a half were close.
At least until …
The boys Pete and I coached since they were about 9 years old are now 19 and 20. They are big, fast, agile, and strong (in addition to being very good basketball players).
Next week I will be 50. I am no longer fast and agile. And as for big … well let’s not go there.
About midway through the second game Tommy (who this time was on the other team) drove the lane much like Kyle did earlier. And much like earlier I tried to slide over to cover the drive and ideally make a stop. But I was too slow and rather than getting in front of Tommy and in good defensive position, seeing that I was going to be late and would only cause a collision and a foul, I tried to back off.
T was driving to the hole with abandon. He was driving with a purpose. And by the look in his eye he knew no one could stop him.
Unfortunately for me, I was slow, late and in his way. And as I turned away from Tommy we collided and immediately I felt my pelvis dislocate and my back seize up.
I was hurt. Not ‘broken finger’ hurt. I was really hurt. And I was ticked off. (Not something that I am proud of.)
I was ticked off at being old. I was ticked off at being slow. I was ticked off that I was in the way. I was ticked off I was a retread on the court. I was ticked off that I am no longer a good basketball player. And I was ticked off because I was really hurt.
Was it Tommy’s fault? Absolutely not. He was playing basketball the way you should. With passion and confidence.
Did I tell anyone I was hurt? Absolutely not. I was too mad. And besides, what is telling anyone going to do?
So what did I do?
Tommy scored on that play and it was now my team’s ball. I knew I had no lateral movement but I also knew I had a ton of adrenaline masking much of the pain I would feel later so …
On the inbounds play, and with the ball in my hands, I knew I could go straight, and with Tommy playing off of me (probably because he recognized my shot was even worse than usual) I thought I could get a couple of steps on him.
I also thought (and this I am also not proud of), “I will show you kid. You think you can drive on me. My turn!”
Yes, it was now my turn to drive with abandon to the basket thinking no one can stop me.
Boy was I wrong.
As I took my first two steps off the dribble I saw Tommy stepping up to cover me. And with no lateral movement or speed to side step or spin away from T, and with my adrenaline firing, I figured I would drop my shoulder, initiate contact, put up a shot, and if luck would have it net two points for our team.
But luck was not on my side. Rather, all I did was drop my shoulder, make contact, and watch my son, the boy (who is now 19 and bigger and stronger than me), fall backwards as I bounced to the side and lost the ball out of bounds.
I watched the boy who has become a man hit the hard court … and all I could think was “what have I done?”
Tommy got up immediately (thank the good Lord) and was fine.
I was not.
Right then I knew … it was over for me. Yes, I retired from coaching a couple of years ago. And right now I was retiring from playing basketball.
I am no longer good enough and this time I almost hurt my son.
“I am so sorry, Tommy.”
Now, of course, you don’t leave a series of games whether you have a broken finger or worse (we tend say ‘rub some dirt on it’). No. You play to the end. Or at least I do. Yes. I was retiring, but I am not quitting. At least not until we are all done playing this day.
By game four or five I was essentially useless on the court but did have a good pass or two each game to maintain an ounce of pride here and there but it was actually another collision that proved to be a benefit.
I believe it was a rebound both Tommy and I were going for when Tommy bowled me over like I was a child.
“Yes! Providence! Penance!” I thought as I rolled along the baseline. “That was payback for what I did earlier,” I continued while recognizing that in reality it wasn’t and I have much to do to make up for almost hurting my son.
“Are you okay, Dad?”
“I’m good. Our ball,” was what I responded.
Looking back now what I should have said was, “No, Tommy. I am not. I almost hurt you and I am sorry. Your father is greatly flawed. Always has been and always will be. I love you. The court is now yours.”
So yes … my coaching days are over.
And now my playing days as well.
Will this retirement be a “Favre-ian” retirement …
… or like many a boxer …
… I cannot honestly say.
All I know is at this time I am retired from playing basketball.
Today I pass the rock for the last time … to a group of amazing, talented, and caring young men led by the Big Kid.
Today I extinguish one fire as a new and brighter flame burns on.
To be continued ????