It's how long you play the game

My youngest son, the promising athlete, is entering that perilous territory I know too well; being good at sports but possibly not good enough.

Good enough for what, you ask? Excellent question. Typically the answer is predictable: whether a young athlete is "good enough" to achieve professional glory, or at least go on to play at the college or high school level. Alas, at 14, my son is facing what others might consider his athletic demise.

There will be considerable sadness attached to the waning of his promise. For at all earlier checkpoints - 8, 10, and 12 years old - he was the budding superstar, skilled and fluid and victorious in any competition involving a ball. Whenever he came to bat, kicked on goal, or drove for a layup, people on the sideline took note.

But lately his talents are being eclipsed by bigger, stronger, more determined kids - often with far more determined parents.

The time has come for me to have that difficult heart to heart - The Big Sports Talk, the one we parents assiduously avoid since it amounts to heresy - or treason! - in our sports-as-metaphor-for-success culture.

The heresy is this: There's more than one way to have a successful athletic career. And I know this because I - yes, I, whose name will never be uttered, much less shouted, by John Madden or Dick Vitale - have enjoyed just such an illustrious career. A capsule summary:

• I never made the cut for any school sports teams beyond grammar school (and I may even be exaggerating a tad on the grammar school claim).

• I, nonetheless, doggedly practiced basketball in anticipation of a growth spurt that never occurred. Yet I came to love the sport.

• I played avidly on intramural and rec league teams. I have no recall of win-loss records, but decades later count many close friendships resulting directly from those games.

• At 40, I had the privilege to play on an island off the coast of Belize with inept teenagers who, learning I was raised in Chicago, made the quick connection between my game - so impressive to them - and Michael Jordan. Who was I to argue?

• Even at 50-something, I enjoy flashes of competence - a neat drive to the hoop, artfully lofted over a gimpy real estate broker - that lift my spirits for many days afterward.

Hall of Fame achievements? Maybe not. But this isn't the standard bloated-ego, "I coulda been a contendah!" account. What I am saying is far more boastful than that.

I'm saying that I have had - am having! - as deeply satisfying a career as any player could hope for. On my best days, I would rate my level of fulfillment right up there alongside the storied careers of Kobe or Shaq.

Go to the videotape? Not necessary. I know the pleasure I get from playing the game, even when I'm playing poorly, and that's all the evidence I need.

Basketball has not earned me a nickel. It has not upgraded my educational or professional opportunities. But for over four decades it has been a deep, reliable, and replenishing stream, making me richer in ways money can't begin to buy.

That, I want to tell my son, constitutes a successful athletic career. That, not the ranting of ex-jock announcers preaching the popular gospel of sports as a blueprint for supremacy, is the true name of the game.

If only I can turn down the volume enough so he can listen.

Bob Katz writes frequently on education and sports.

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