Peewee basketball: entertaining chaos

When 5-year-olds play basketball, any play is possible – even a touchdown.

Luis Alvarez/AP/FILE
A little lift is all you need: Pro basketball player Alonzo Mourning lifted 5-year-old Terance Penn up to the basket at a 2004 children's charity event in Miami.

Although this winter's basketball season isn't over, I don't think I'll see another game to top one I witnessed last year, when an enterprising player scored a touchdown against the opposing team.

The moment came fairly early in my son Will's kindergarten basketball clinic when one of his classmates snatched the ball at midcourt, tucked it like a pigskin beneath his tiny arm, and then charged for the goal, waving his other arm in victory once he had crossed the back boundary line.

The other dads and I howled with laughter at our basketball game's budding quarterback, but the school athletic director barely arched his eyebrow. After many seasons of peewee basketball, he had, after all, pretty much seen it all.

Over the course of the next hour, we'd see plenty, too, as our sons listened earnestly to basic tutorials in dribbling and shooting, and then ignored convention to create a basketball game like none I'd ever witnessed.

Much of the clinic was chaos, with 5-year-olds merrily combing the court for the ball as if skipping through an Easter-egg hunt. When one tyke would get his little fingers on the object of desire, a half-dozen other hands would claim the prize, and the boys played tug of war like a litter of kittens batting for the same skein of yarn.

Eventually, a coach would arrive to untangle the players and put the ball back into play, but athletic anarchy remained the morning's theme, with boys running ring-around-the-rosie style after any player fortunate – or unfortunate – enough to angle for a hoop.

At one point, one of the more promising peewee players scored for the opposing team by smuggling the ball – heroically, but in the wrong direction – through a swarm of pint-sized rookies to the other team's net.

The coaches stepped in from time to time to offer some pointers on the game's general rules, but the lessons were thrown out casually, with little hope of strict obedience, as one might direct – or try to direct – a house cat.

Not that the coaches didn't care about basketball or about the novice athletes buzzing around the court. But in peewee basketball, or so we were told, the goal wasn't to insist on a lot of rules young minds probably couldn't fathom, but to introduce the magical feeling of basketball – the stampede of rubber soles on hardwood floors, the windblown exuberance of rushing down the court, the sublime whoosh of a ball sliding through the net like a nickel through a slot.

As veterans of T-ball, the diminutive version of baseball, we parents had already seen ballgames that were really more of a brainstorm, with youngsters huddled over some outfield anthill, poking it with sticks to excite the colony, while an unattended fly ball whirred overhead.

A year has passed since I saw last season's basketball touchdown. Will, now a first-grader, has reported for another cycle of basketball games that, while still far from the standards of the National Basketball Association, are just a bit calmer, a tad more orthodox. He and his classmates are 12 months older now, more able to channel passion into performance, to play in a pattern, and to weave a game that has a frame around it.

That's a natural part of growing up, I suppose, and yet the more I watch college and professional sports, the more I wonder if we've lost our way somehow and made games perhaps too much about the rules and not enough about intuition, improvisation, and the sheer joy of invention that inspired play in the first place.

All of this came to mind on a recent Saturday as I sat in the stands at Will's basketball scrimmage, tapping my feet on the bleachers and hoping to see just one more touchdown.

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