Eight years ago, when I adopted my son, Alyosha, at age 7, his athletic prowess quickly became apparent to me. In basketball, baseball, and especially soccer, his abilities were superbly natural in a way that stood in stark contrast to my own. (When I was a kid, I tended to be the one each team tried to foist upon the other for service in the far, far outfield.)
Thus it was that I've always taken a healthy degree of pride in watching my son's ballgames and basking in the compliments other parents showered upon me as they admired the skill of his play. I never thought that I would have an athletic son, but there he was, kicking up dust as he made beelines for the goal.
Although I'm not particularly skilled, I know how to play these ballgames and have always used the basketball hoop in our backyard as a venue for keeping the lines of communication open with Alyosha, especially in these heady and unpredictable teenage years. Even when he is in his deepest funk, wondering why parents can't be invisible, all I have to do is suggest, "How about shooting some hoops?" and - bam! - he's up off the sofa and out the door, eager to, in his words, "put it to me."
When Alyosha was little, my main concern was that neither his pride nor his person got hurt as I pursued and loomed over the munchkin with my 6-foot, 3-inch frame. I had to be careful to let him get his share of the shots, and to feign surprise and let him dribble under my legs as he two-handed the ball to the basket and I helped to tip it in, declaiming, "Now, how did that happen?"
In between shots and moves, he'd tell me about school and about his friends, and little by little I'd put together a picture of how his life was going.
In short, we created a medium for communication that took on more and more importance as the years passed. At age 8, he had a teacher he didn't like; at 12, there was a daunting class; at 14, the challenge of the transition to high school.
Through it all, the basketball court was our salon for one-to-one, father-to-son chats, a safe zone where even the solemn and emotional could be spoken of in snippets between long shots. Alyosha, for his part, was never aware that we were having "a talk," which he would have rejected out of hand, had I presented it as such.
Over the years, I was always in control of the play - despite my son's speed and his growing ability to handle the ball. I possessed the advantages of height and an accurate long shot. This made it incumbent upon me to allow him a fair share of wins, which of course greased the wheels of our "hoop talks."
Last summer, when Alyosha was 14, we were playing basketball right in the middle of a sun shower. As I broke for the net and went up with the ball, he executed a stupendous leap and just brushed the ball with his hand as I pushed it into the basket.
For some reason this caught me up short, and I stood there, breathing deeply, staring at him. "You know," I told him, "by next year you're going to be stuffing me." I couldn't have paid him a higher compliment. He smiled broadly, as if he already knew that tomorrow did, indeed, belong to him.
And so we find ourselves now in our eighth year of backyard play and conversation. As we pursue our one-on-one games, I feel the burn in my muscles as I push to keep up with my son. I huff along, taking long shots where I can - the last refuge of the winded.
During yesterday's game, I saw an opening and went for it, finessing the ball around my son and seizing it for my all-or-nothing leap to the basket. I went up and - bang! Alyosha knocked the ball cleanly from my hand, leaving me standing there, staring at my palms.
"Did you do that?" I asked him, awash in a mixture of shock and admiration.
Alyosha walked up to me, his eyes almost level with mine. "What's on your mind, Dad?" he asked. "C'mon, you can tell me. I shoulda never been able to stuff you like that."
I could only smile. "Yes, you should have," I told him. "It's time."
In the wake of my son's long-anticipated coup, we continue to play ball, and talk, and cheer each other on. The irony now is that it is Alyosha who lets me win once in a while, yet another sign that, slowly but surely and sometimes in leaps and bounds, he is growing up.