COURTING GREATNESS

`DUE to substandard dribbling, you were not accepted for the basketball team,'' the notice read.

I was 15, and I loved basketball. I loved running, passing, shooting. For weeks, I had practiced driveway dribbles. I had played games of ``horse'' with my younger brother. The palm of my hand was grooved from the endless press against the basketball. To be denied the sweaty rush of camaraderie, the push of practice, the togetherness of the team, made life seem pointless.

When my daughter Sarah tried out for the high school basketball team, the coach asked, ``Are you willing to practice two hours a day after school? Are you committed to learning the sport? Can you play cooperatively?''

``Yes,'' she answered.

The coach said nothing about skills. Desire was everything.

My daughter is on the court. Sitting in the bleachers with the other mothers, I hold my breath as Sarah passes the ball, then guards an opponent.

The mothers sit on the lower tier of the bleachers, drinking diet colas, talking, avidly watching our daughters. On the top rows, the fathers sprawl, leaving lots of open space between them. They yell instructions to the coach and to the refs. We yell instructions to our daughters.

``Defense,'' shouts a mother near me.

``Throw the ball,'' another coaches.

I am transported into the game, filled with the thrill of seeing Sarah run, tug, battle for what is hers. The glaze of indifference Sarah cultivates these days is transformed into the passion of territoriality. She wants to win.

When Sarah was 5, her kindergarten teacher took me aside.

``Sarah did very well on her developmental test,'' she said confidentially. ``But here is one area where she really needs work.''

I clenched my hands, waiting to hear that my child did not recognize the alphabet, could not count high enough, or did not properly interact with her peers.

``Throwing and catching the ball,'' the teacher said. ``She really needs to increase her gross motor skills.''

For two weeks, I dragged a reluctant Sarah outside and tossed the ball to her. Sometimes she caught it; sometimes she didn't. She threw the ball back to me. Sometimes I caught it; sometimes I didn't. A rainy spell rescued both of us from this rather dubious coaching situation.

Yet here is Sarah on the basketball court, having no problems handling the ball. At home, she floats through the household as if she were a detainee, working out her punishment. On the court, she is alert, impassioned, driven.

``When I played basketball in college, girls couldn't run all the way up and down the court. We could only dribble three times. It was very restrictive,'' Robin's mother says during the half-time break.

I shake my head. To think that mere decades ago, girls were touted as delicate creatures, not capable of racing up and down the court, of roving with the ball. It seems an impossible joke that the women of our generation were shackled with ``girls' '' rules, the rules of an inferior physical specimen. Those same ``girls'' now sitting beside me have raised their children, managed challenging careers, run businesses and households. They literally run up and down the court all day. I feel a mixture of amusement and sadness at the vision of the helpless woman that clings so stubbornly in our world.

My daughter is breaking that vision. My daughter dares to stand fast against those who are taller, stronger, more aggressive. Sarah knows that trying hard is the secret to success and that amassing the most points is merely an accounting exercise.

The last time I played on a team was at a family reunion. We put together a softball game, and I was part of the outfield. The outfield was a distracting place, full of bees and weeds. My team was not supportive when I leapt into the air in a heroic attempt to grab the ball. And missed.

Sarah's teammates say, ``Good try,'' ``Good job.'' They hug and laugh. If someone makes a wild throw and the ball escapes to the opposite side, there are no frowns, no lectures. Mistakes are a part of this game.

Half time ends, and Sarah once more is in play. I am amazed at her confidence and agility. She has emerged from a cocoon of quiet awkwardness into a whirl of managed energy. Suddenly, she has gotten the ball from her opponents and is running down the court. Thundering girls follow her, panting, waving their arms, threatening to snatch the ball. Under the pressure of grabbing hands and fierce faces, Sarah stands calmly, the ball poised to throw to a team member.

``Shoot!'' yells her coach, and she does. Although she is impossibly far away, the ball arcs obediently and whooshes through the hoop. Two points.

Sarah looks startled, then pleased.

I stand and clap. ``Yeah Sarah!'' I shout. And then, ``Yeah team!''

There is a poetry at being part of a team, part of a group working together. My daughter has flowed into the rhythm of the poem, learning to move in harmony, to listen to the openness, to appreciate others.

She is not part of what the record books term ``a winning team.'' And yet she has never lost her spirit, determination, humor, and affection for her teammates. And so, she has never lost.

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