The First Goal

Not long ago, I wrote a little piece about our 9-year-old daughter Elizabeth and her experience at Harry Potter World and Katie the Prefect. I have been assured by a couple dozen people that word has gotten back to Katie, which makes me happy. In any case, I don’t want to bore you with too many family stories — I feel like one of those people who tries to get you to watch my home movies — but I did come across a little basketball revelation watching nine-year-old basketball the other day that I wanted to jot down. Feel free to skip this one. I have ANOTHER baseball Hall of Fame post coming in the next day or so.

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Years ago — quite a while before I had even met my wife — I was talking with the father of a fifth grade girl. This father was a friend of mine, and he was a pretty conservative guy. I don’t mean politically. I mean he was pretty conservative in the way he acted in public. He was an eye-roller. I associated with that. I’m an eye roller too. If I ever went to a Karaoke Bar — something I would never do except by accident — I would not sing no matter how much people tried to guilt me or bully me or bribe me. I just wouldn’t. I would sit there and roll my eyes. It’s just the stuff we’re made of.

But this guy was telling me how he had taken his fifth-grader to the father-daughter’s dance at her school. And the band started playing The Chicken Dance.*

*I must pause here to tell you an absolutely true story about our wedding. Margo was more or less in charge of everything, obviously. But I was in charge of the music. We heard this great little jazz band at a restaurant one day — the Skip Hawkins band — and I said that had to be the band that played our wedding. They were absolutely great. I highly recommend them if Skip and the guys still do weddings.

Anyway, Margo had only one musical request: That the band play the chicken dance at the wedding. And I had only one non-negotiable demand: That the band NOT play the chicken dance at the wedding.

This led to one of those absurd disagreements that you would swear can only happen on terrible sitcoms. At one point, and I remember this vividly, I made the argument that our wedding was supposed to be small and understated and classy, and the chicken dance would ruin it. I told her to imagine a fine meal, perfectly served, nice china and tablecloth — and on the side of each plate is a bowl of candy corn. That’s what the chicken dance meant to me. Candy corn. I know of such things. I have an uncle who played the accordion at weddings when I was growing up.**

**Uncle Lonka. Yes, that’s right. Uncle Lonka.

I would like to tell you that in the end I gave in — it was such a small request by my beautiful bride who asks for so little. I would like to tell you that I allowed the chicken dance and we all laughed at how stupid we looked and it was great fun. But no. That’s not what happened. What did happen was that I gave Skip and the guys a suggested playlist (I’m sure they were THRILLED to get my musical suggestions) and told Skip something like this: “Look, it’s very possible that at some point someone, possibly even the bride, will ask you to play the chicken dance. Well, I’m paying you. And I don’t want the chicken dance played at my wedding.” I don’t think I had to tell Skip twice — I’m sure he and the guys would rather choke on chicken bones than play the chicken dance again. They didn’t play it. I will forever be grateful. And I think Margo would agree with me now, maybe …

Anyway, back to my friend: He said the chicken dance started to play at the school dance and his daughter asked him to go on the floor and dance with her.

“What did you do?” I asked. He looked at me like I had to be (1) Crazy; (2) Not a father of a fifth-grade girl.

“I went out on the floor,” he said. “And I danced the chicken dance.”

I think about this story often now that I am a father of two little girls. And I realize how they have formed my interests more than I have formed theirs. I have seen all the Disney movies, I am a Polly Pockets expert, I know many lyrics to Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift songs, I (of course) can go pretty deep into Harry Potter, I know the ins and outs of the characters on Wizards of Waverly Place and Wordgirl and Cyberchase, I have sat through many Barbie movies, and I know the general quirks of most of their friends. I never liked Scooby Doo when I was a kid so I never watched it. I have watched about 500 episodes of Scooby Doo as an adult, some cartoons, some with real actors.

This is how it should be, I think. As trite as it sounds, I want them to follow their own hearts. Every now and again, I might try to teach them a sports rule or take them to a ballgame or play a little catch with them … and they seem to endure it cheerfully enough as long as it doesn’t interfere for too long with what they really want to do. That’s OK. I just want them to live life with spirit — and I’ll follow their lead. That, I believe, is what fathers do.

But lately, they have both shown a surprising new interest: Basketball. This, amazingly enough, began with the older daughter, Elizabeth, who has been the most open about her disdain for sports (except Quidditch). I understand. Sports, to her, are the things that take Daddy away. But one day she announced that she wanted to play basketball. Not long after that — and there was NO surprise here — her younger sister Katie announced that she wanted to play basketball. And so it began.

Katie is 5, and she is … well, we have been trying to come up with a single adjective that might come close to describing her. Spirited doesn’t quite get there. Precocious doesn’t quite there either. Adamant is fairly close. When she was 3 or so, she started this habit of not eating anything that wasn’t candy or cereal because “It’s too spicy.” One day there was some plain chicken on the table, and she took one bite and said “It’s too spicy.”

I said: “It is not too spicy. It’s plain chicken. It’s not spicy at all. You have to eat it.”

And she said: “You don’t know how spicy it is for me. Everybody has different appetites.”

Katie kind of plays basketball like that. She is the smallest player on the floor … and she gets more or less every rebound. She doesn’t do this with style or great athletic ability but by simply being the one who always wants to go get the ball. She’s like that.

Elizabeth is 9, and she is quite unlike her sister. I think she is drawn to basketball because she likes being a part of a team. Her first athletic experience happened when she was 5 or so, and she played on a bitty soccer team. I once videotaped her soccer game, which was not hard to do because the entire game she basically stood in one place talking with one of the other girls on the team. It was like filming “My Dinner with Andre.”

We have known — and she has known — that she would not score a basket this year because she is not quite strong enough to get the ball to the rim. That tends to be a drawback when it comes to scoring. In the first four games she played — and she played about half the games — she touched the ball exactly once. A rebound bounced her way and, going against natural instinct, she chased after it. She got two hands on the ball when a girl from the other team knocked it out of her hands and out of bounds.

“That’s a rebound,” I told her proudly.

“That’s not a rebound,” she said. “The girl knocked it out of my hands.”

“No, that counts as a rebound,” I said.

“No it doesn’t,” she said. “It doesn’t count as anything.”

This led me to pull credentials: “I am a Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated, a sports columnist for more than 20 years, I have been to Final Fours, NBA Championships and I have seen Olympic basketball on four continents and I am telling you: THAT COUNTS AS A REBOUND.”

She was duly impressed.

“No it doesn’t,” she said.

Well, that’s Daddy’s girl. But to our surprise, she really seems to enjoy basketball despite the difficulties — we know this because she doesn’t complain about going to practice or games. She tries really hard. And we have seen small improvements here and there. She tries hard to play defense. She has gotten strong enough that one out of every eight or nine shots might touch the bottom of the front of the rim (the rims are nine feet tall). She doesn’t duck and put her hands over head when rebounds come down anymore. And we have noticed that she seems to be feeling better and better about herself. That first practice, she was so scared I basically had to carry her out on the floor. Now, she knows where to stand on free throws.

In the end, this is the first goal of playing sports isn’t it? A few make it professionally. A few more play at the highest levels of college. A few more are stars in high school. But for a few hundred million of us, sports can make us feel special for a moment, can make us feel like the stars of the play, can make us brazenly happy for a few seconds. To this day, I can remember every detail of a baseball game I played when I was 10 years old, I was a shortstop, and I made three or four dazzling defensive plays (for a 10-year-old) and everyone cheered me, and I sometimes wonder what those few minutes did for my life. I feel sure they did SOMETHING even though nobody on earth remembers that day except me. Before Elizabeth’s last game, I was watching the nine-year-old girls go through the layup line before their last game, and every time one actually made a layup (I think two girls made layups — Elizabeth almost hit the rim once) she would jump up and down in celebration. I did it! Isn’t that the most remarkable feeling in the world? I did it! Where else can a boy or girl get that feeling so suddenly and unexpectedly?

In that last game, only five girls showed up for Elizabeth’s team — well six, if you count the girl who got hurt sledding and was told by doctors that she was not allowed to play (she played in the second half being sort of the Willis Reed of the league). Five and a half girls, this meant Elizabeth was going to have play almost the whole game. And sure enough the opening tip went right to her, and she dribbled into the frontcourt (you are not allowed to steal on the dribble in this league — a very smart rule, I think) and passed to an open teammate. It was a glorious moment, the greatest athletic moment of her life to that point.

Some people think winning and losing is important even at this level because it teaches competitive spirit, and that may be true, I’ll leave that to the psychologists. But I really don’t care who wins. I mean really, zippo, don’t care. I happily cheer both teams. Maybe I’ll care when they’re 10 or 11, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll turn into one of those parents they make documentaries about. But for now — don’t care. I just want them to have a blast. The game turned out to be a close one, decided on a last second shot, but that didn’t matter to me. What mattered to me was that Elizabeth and her teammates played their hearts out. And Elizabeth even touched the ball a few times. She stepped in front of a couple of passes. She dribbled down the court. And this one time, well, a teammate tried a shot that bounced off the rim, and Elizabeth — rather than ducking — reached up and caught it. An offensive rebound. It was great. And then she did the most remarkable thing I have ever seen on a basketball court.

She shot the ball.

And it went in.

Elizabeth did not celebrate her shot. I think she was too stunned to celebrate. She ran back down court while everyone who had watched her struggle to get the ball to the rim cheered madly. I would not say it was the proudest moment of my life because both girls have already given me so many more meaningful proud moments. But it might have been the most stunning proud moment of my life. She did not take another shot the rest of the game, of course, so her shooting percentage is 100%, which I believe is a record.

After the game, I asked her how it felt to score her first goal. She said: “Well, it hasn’t really sunk in yet, but I’m sure it will after a few days. I don’t really like to look at individual achievement now, I think that’s something to think about after I retire. My goal is just to concentrate on the next game …”

Nah, she didn’t say any of that. Truth is, she didn’t say anything at all. She just beamed, this big beautiful smile, and if she had asked me to break into the chicken dance right then and there, I’m absolutely sure I would have done it.

52 thoughts on “The First Goal

  1. Nathan

    Fantastic story, Joe.

    Reading about your family is anything but “boring”. The wonderful relationships you have with your wife and daughters shines through each and every story.

    It makes me excited about the prospect of starting a family of my own sometime down the road.

    Thanks.

    Reply
  2. ajnrules

    What a beautiful story. I enjoy reading your posts on sports, but I love reading the family stories because not only do they present a slice of life that is easy to miss, but you also do it so well. Thanks for sharing a part of your family.

    Reply
  3. michael

    Amazing story, Joe. I’m a writer, too, but I swear we’re not in the same profession.
    You make your readers feel like Katie and Elizabeth are part of OUR family, too.

    Reply
  4. cjdahl60

    Joe –

    I also have two daughters, although mine are a bit older than yours. My oldest is graduated from college and now out on her own. The younger is headed back to school for the final run to graduation this spring.

    Your stories bring back major memories. Please continue to include stories about daughters. It brings tears to my eyes. Enjoy it while you can.

    Reply
  5. Jimmy

    I don’t have children yet, and I fancy myself the type to avoid potentially embarrassing situations like the Chicken Dance like the plague, but it seems that upon having children, personal embarrassment comes (at the very least) a distant second to your child’s happiness. Who would ever skip a story like this? Forget arguments about the BCS and the HOF, I think I speak for everyone here when I say tales like “The First Goal” are the reason we’re all here. Anyone can write about sports, but it takes a truly special writer to tell a story so personal and create such a lasting effect in their readers. Thank you.

    Reply
  6. Christine

    Lovely story, Joe. Stories like this remind us that there is a world of sports much greater than just the few elite athletes in the World. Thank you for sharing your beautiful family with us, and for doing it in a way that makes us feel like we’re right there with you.

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  7. kdr.coors

    I love my two girls, aged 5 and 8, and terribly miss them during the weeks that I don’t have them…

    My youngest started playing hockey this year–very common for those of us up in the ND/MN area–but not for me, a Kansas City native… At her first practice, she was one of about five kids who couldn’t skate–out of about 75 kids… She was literally crying because she couldn’t go more than a few feet without falling down, while kids all around her were skating just like they teach at camps…

    I remember feeling SO bad for her–I described it to others that “I felt embarrassed for her”**… Not because I was embarrassed for her, but because I could see how much it pained her to not be able to keep up…

    **The comment made it back to my ex-wife that I was “embarrassed by her”, which caused quite the argument between us… I’m only embarrassed by my kids in places like grocery stores, Walmart, stadiums–places were large crowds are gathered when they do something totally unexpected and everyone stares at me like I have two heads!!! LOL Here, I was scared that her tears would lead to her deciding she didn’t want to play hockey anymore…

    Needless to say, after practice she said she had a blast and couldn’t wait for her next practice… She’s gotten better each practice, and while she still can’t skate backwards, or even stop, she can now skate as good as half the kids on the ice at any given time…

    At her last “jamboree” (i.e., quick, four-minute scrimmages where the goal is to play in a loosely organized game), she actually scored a goal as the goalie when her clearing shot made it all the way through the piles of sticks and skates and past a goalie who wasn’t paying attention…

    While that excited her, halfway through the jamboree her coach moved her from the group of kids that made up the bottom third of the talent pool to the group that was roughly in the middle of all the kids… Now THAT excited her…

    And, honestly, it excited me, too… I know the rules of hockey and love watching the sport, but there’s not much I can do to help… She’s not only picking it up quickly, she’s getting better… And THAT’S what makes it so worthwhile**…

    **Well, that and the HUGE smiles it generates!!

    Reply
  8. Troy Sowden

    You simultaneously took me back to a few select moments of athletic bliss in my childhood and forward to the days I have children and pray they play sports so they can enjoy moments like this.

    Thank you, Joe.

    Reply
  9. oldstation

    Nice story.

    It’s interesting, though, how parenting styles have changed over the years. Parents are much more fully immersed in their children’s lives than their counterparts were thirty or forty years ago. I am certain my father could not have named any of my favorite childhood songs, let alone recited their lyrics. I suspect the same would be true for my mother; if you had asked her to name one song performed by my older sister’s Justin Bieber crush, the Monkees, she probably would have replied, “Oh, you know, the one that goes ‘she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.’”

    And, for my money, a father/daughter dance is way more disturbing than a night at the karaoke bar. It’s not that I like karaoke–I don’t–but the idea of a father/daughter dance just strikes me as creepy. And before any of you jump down my throat, answer this question: Why is it that over 90% of the schools that have a father/daughter dance NOT also have a mother/son dance?

    Reply
  10. Holden Cornfield

    Great story, Joe. My own Katie started playing when she was eight. Didn’t score at all the first year, and hadn’t halfway thru the second. We were beginning to wonder what would happen first, scoring or quitting out of discouragement.

    Then out of the blue one night she went all Vinnie Johnson. Her teammates kept passing to her, the defense kept leaving her open, and she kept chucking shots, must have been a dozen or more before the defense caught on, lol. Scored 12 points in one half…never scored again that year.

    She’s played two more years now since then, still looking to recapture that magical microwave performance.

    Reply
  11. Troy

    Joe,
    I have been trying for a long time to explain to my wife why I love going to my children’s games. Why I continued to coach my daughter’s soccer team even after she quit playing. Why I want to attend every school performance, play, practice, etc. I will send her the link to this and I think she will understand. Thanks for the help.

    Reply
  12. NMark W

    The “Chicken Dance” and the “Hokey-Pokey” are different classical dance steps, correct? And then there are the
    Polkas…?

    Please, anyone feel free to help me out here…

    Reply
  13. First Baptist Church, Stephens

    My daughter is three months old, and my son is three. I was much more comfortable with the idea of raising a boy than a girl, but everyone told me that a little girl captures your heart in a very unique way. I think that definitely comes through in your last two stories about your daughters. Right now, all my daughter does is smile and gurgle, and I already know I’m in trouble.

    In defense of the father/daughter dance, I think that the goal is to teach daughters how they ought to be treated by men. Fathers should give an example of what a man unmotivated by other motives other than making a girl happy respects and treats her. (I guess you could argue that a son should learn the same things by the way he treats his mother, but that’s an argument for mother/son dances, not against father/daughter dances). Anyway, girls like dances, and boys generally tolerate them to be close to girls.

    Reply
  14. Rational Fan

    Loved it! I found out yesterday that the twins my wife is carrying will both be girls. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a little disappointment )we both wanted one of each), but I immediately started thinking about the Katie the Prefect story. This story makes me smile about the future that normally has me biting my nails and hyperventilating.

    Side note: I cannot wait to get them in skates. With a mid-May birth, that should project perfectly for them to be 18 mos. when they hit the ice. And I already found them some nice camo things with pink collars and cuffs. They can start picking clothes later.

    Reply
  15. Ed

    I think the reason there aren’t any mother/son dances is because most sons have no interest in that. I would have had NO interest in going to a mother/son dance in 5th grade, and I can’t think of a single one of my friends who would have wanted to do that either. Girls seem to enjoy father/daughter dances (and dances in general); guys typically do not. That’s the easy answer, if not necessarily the right one.

    Reply
  16. melodyjbf

    Joe, I’ll echo the others who have already said how much we enjoy your family stories. I’m expecting my first child this coming January, so these stories seem especially sweet to me. Thank you so much for sharing, and showing the ways in which sports are not the domain of the super-star, but are intertwined with the memories, successes, and failures of our own lives.

    Reply
  17. Coop

    Loved that someone else had a fight over music played at their wedding. Our first fight after marriage was over the quality of the DJ. In short: He sucked. And he didn’t bring any of my wife’s playlist, not even the chicken dance (a good thing). So after our honeymoon, my wife wrote a scathing review of him on one of those “feedback” cards they give you. I read it and told her she could not send it in, under any circumstances. She demanded to know why. And I told her: He’s a wedding deejay. He makes $5 an hour. His name is Trey. And well, he didn’t play the chicken dance. That, to me, was enough to not pile on his pitiful soul.

    Reply
  18. TheAngryYoungMan

    I don’t know what year you got married, Coop, but the DJ at my wedding (in 2006) made a lot more than $5 an hour. He wasn’t good, but he did at least honor my insistence not to play any “gimmick dance” songs. No chicken dance. No electric slide. No macarena.

    Reply
  19. nightflyblog

    Five bucks an hour????!? Did your wedding DJ play the music on a giant victrola? Five dollars an hour wouldn’t have gotten us a homeless guy with a kazoo. IIRC we had to give our DJ a car right on the dance floor, like The Price is Right.

    Pos – wonderful story. Makes me wish I had been there. I’ve coached kids Elizabeth’s age (and even younger), and seeing them learn and sometimes earn a little success is the best possible joy.

    Reply
  20. emrigsby

    My husband sent me the Katie the Prefect post and this one. I really do love your stories about your family. I wish you all the best, and may try reading your sports stories…

    Reply
  21. Susan

    It’s the little things in your writing:

    “She did not take another shot the rest of the game, of course, so her shooting percentage is 100%, which I believe is a record”

    I love that you take the time to add “believe” here.

    Reply
  22. pokerpeaker

    Please. If your blogs are as wonderful as that one, I want you to write about your family EVERY TIME. I love sports, but try as you might – and you do a pretty darn good job – I can’t relate to guys who can hit baseballs 500 feet, even if they took steroids to do so. But I am a Dad and can relate to your journeys as a father. I was laughing so hard at this blog because that’s exactly how my conversations go with my kids.

    Reply
  23. amie

    Scooby Doo was my favorite cartoon growing up.
    I loved it.
    The endings when Fred would pull off the mask as he say: “Now let’s find out who this ______really is.”
    Or how about the guest stars? Harlem Globetrotters? Batman and Robin?
    I will admit the series took a turn for the worse when they brought in the new characters.
    Scrappy Doo was Scooby’s nephew?
    And Scooby-Dumm was Scooby’s uneducated cousin.
    They could have done without those guys.

    Reply
  24. Abby

    Ah, Joe, you have some fortunate girls!!!! I think my husband was more excited that Skip Hawkins played at your wedding…..he played at ours, too. Now he has something in common with you, his sports writing hero! Oh, that, and he’s an awesome father who “gets it” when it comes to raising those beautiful, lucky kids!

    Reply
  25. Dan!

    As the father of a ten year old girl who plays on a travel soccer team, I can relate to this.

    Their first season, they were 0-7-1, outscored 40-2 (the tie was a 0-0 tie against the other terrible team).

    The second season they were 0-8, outscored 35-11.

    The second game of their third season, my daughter scored a goal to put them up 3-2 with nine minutes left. It was, quite simply, the longest nine minutes in the history of the world.

    When the game was over, and all the parents had finished crying, I hugged my daughter and said wow, you won, you won, you won. She said “yeah, but now we need to win the next one.”

    Reply
  26. socaltwinsfan

    My sons both love Little League, but my oldest is very shy in public and sports have really helped him to come out of his shell.

    In his first season in Farm League (the players pitch, but the coaches pitch after Ball 4 to a batter), he had a moment I’ll never forget. His team eventually won the league championship and he was the only first grader on his team. He usually batted last and played right field for two of the four innings. In a game against their rivals, his team led 1-0 with two outs in the top of the fourth and a runner on third. He got to coaches pitch and blooped in a single to make it 2-0. His team held the lead to win the game and he got the game ball for his first hit in Farm League.

    Reply
  27. Neal D

    “That’s too spicy” is a classic in my family (8 year old and five year old). Whenever either isn’t too into the food they’re given (especially the younger one), they play the “it’s too spicy” card. Classic.

    Reply
  28. LoCoDe

    Really great story. Love the Willis Reed reference. And yeah, you’d do that chicken dance all night now.

    You might want to consider giving up the sport writing entirely. (just kidding, but…)

    Reply
  29. Spiritual Klutz

    I’m too insecure to play sports, and I sure can’t teach them to anyone; therefore, I’ve always been afraid that my babies are going to grow up and want to join a team. This post makes me hope they will.

    Reply
  30. Joel

    Great story! A friend of mine sent me the link and said it reminded her of me…I take that as a great compliment…thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  31. tim.hubin

    My oldest son (11), though always big and strong for his age, has never found a team sport that he really liked or, to be honest, was very good at. He loves the water and is a strong swimmer, so he’s been off and on our local YMCA swim team. But he doesn’t really like competing, and I have no experience to offer in competitive swimming. He is very bright and also an excellent musician, so his competitions now consist of 5th-grade quiz-bowl and piano contests. I’m quite proud of him and, at least with quiz-bowl, can offer him tales from my high school quiz bowl accomplishments.

    My younger son (9), however, is more of an athlete than I’ll ever be. He could climb a rope 20 ft by age 5, something I have never been able to do. We had him in gymnastics for a year or so, just long enough for him to master a back handspring, before he wanted to move to more competitive team sports. I’ve always assisted with his team sports, either officially or unofficially, until his YMCA basketball team needed a coach. This was the first (and likely last) time I’ve taken on the head coaching duties for my kids’ teams.

    We were woefully outclassed by every other team–we were a combination of young and not-very-good basketball players. My son, the oldest and easily most athletically gifted, was by far our best player. The first game, I have him at point guard, but have no choice but to have him play defense (man-to-man is required in the league) on the opposing big man, who is, I kid you not, a good foot taller. My son took that challenge and ran with it. He fought for every rebound, fouled hard when he needed to, got a plethora of floor burns, and took several elbows to the face–and that’s all on defense. On offense he scored all of our points, even though we got easily doubled up in scoring.

    By the end of the game, he was so hyped up, so adrenaline filled, and so emotionally and physically exhausted, that after we got into the pickup to drive home, he just had to cry for a few minutes to let it all out. This was one of the most intense efforts I’ve ever seen on the court, and it was by my 9 year old son. I told him how proud I was of him, and then I said you go ahead and cry. I was very nearly doing the same myself.

    Reply
  32. jeff

    I’m the father of 2 girls (10 and 16) and I have never seen 2 paragraphs that better describe my life than the 2 that start with “I think about this story often now that I am a father of two little girls…” and ends with “….That, I believe, is what fathers do.” – Great story – Thanks for sharing

    Reply

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