As a kid, if I were forced to choose between playing team sports and being pelted with rocks, I might have asked, “How big are the rocks?”
Decades later, I find myself practicing my basketball skills under coaches so critical and demanding I could scarcely tolerate them ... if they weren’t my own children.
“Guard me,” my 12-year-old says as he starts to dribble. His eyes narrow when he sees me just standing there, arms at my sides. “Guard me!”
“I thought you said I played lousy defense.”
“You’re better than nothing,” he says, not unkindly. Then he flips a pass to his 9-year-old brother, who ducks under my elbow and scores. Slightly better than nothing.
My son is referring to our recruiting problem: We live in a semirural area. Roughly half of the juveniles roaming our neighborhood will grow up to have antlers. Farther afield, kids are available for pickup or delivery, but right around here, there’s usually just me. After a lifetime of being drafted in the final round, I’m finally in demand.
On the next play, I raise my arms and jump about in what probably appears to be a more threatening version of a 1990s fat-burning workout (at which I excelled). This offends the only other player we have been able to enlist locally. Our best athlete, she’s fast and sets up a highly effective, though illegal, moving screen. But she has issues.
“Ow! Stop it, Scout!”
My teammate is a herding dog. When you guard her livestock (i.e., children) too aggressively, she seizes your shoe in her jaws and hangs on until you back off and say you’re sorry. Scout draws a flagrant foul for use of fangs and is ejected from the game.
Now that we’re down to three players (with the fourth banished to the backyard), the boys take turns playing “DL,” or “Divided Loyalty,” a position governed by rules clearly developed in collaboration with their attorneys.
“Jump ball,” says the little guy, now acting, inexplicably, as our referee.
I’ve got a serious height advantage and at least a four-inch vertical leap – more if I’m not wearing gardening clogs. But I forgot to cut my nails and I’m wearing a ring. What if I scratch my son’s eyes?
I lose the tipoff.
Later, I am commanded to help demonstrate the pick-and-roll, which sounds, frankly, like a behavior we parents should be trying to eradicate.
Exhausted by the mental demands of trying to play DL, I suggest that we practice free throws instead. My youngest recently proposed a free-throw competition, with the loser doing the dishes. Though I am often chastised for my lack of dedication to the game (I would get better if I only practiced), now I am motivated.
My hands are so rough from chores, and, well, fly-fishing, that when I needed to be fingerprinted for a pre-employment background check, the police department’s computer repeatedly rejected my prints.
I am not giving up fly-fishing. The dishes will have to go.
So I stand with my toe against a chalk line scratched on the driveway. With the boys advising me, I hold my arm at a right angle, elbow in, wrist cocked. I pop up a little at the knees as I release the ball and try to remember my follow-through. Sometimes the ball goes in. Sometimes it doesn’t. I keep practicing.
We play a game of “Horse,” and I lose. But I realize that I am starting to like basketball – one of the dreaded team sports of my childhood – just a little.
And according to the two kids who serve as my coaches, teammates, and competitors, I will get better if I just practice more.
Right after I finish the dishes.