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.
* * *
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.