The best disappointing loss we ever had

In the small frame, this post is about basketball. In the bigger picture, it’s about learning life. I’ll try not to go into the weeds of basketball getting to the larger point.

Our university’s basketball team advanced to the NCAA Final Four this year. We’ve been spoiled by going to the Final Four eight times in the past 20 years. However, our team has brought home the National Championship only once in those eight trips. This means we’ve had seven instances of build-up and high hopes, followed by bitter disappointment.

Our last Final Four was four years ago, when Big Brother was six years old. He was just becoming conscious of the game called basketball, and wasn’t interested in it as television viewing. The words “Final Four” meant nothing to him.

Since then, he began playing organized basketball. This past winter, his 5th grade team had a challenging season, but turned their fortunes around at the end by winning their league tournament. Not only did Big Brother learn how much effort and determination it took to win such a tournament, it stirred his interest in our university’s team.

He began watching the NCAA tournament games with increased interest. For me, this was a long-awaited perk of fatherhood: watching sports with a child who cared about the game.

It’s a double-edged perk.

Even in 5th grade, it takes long hours of practice.

On Saturday, we watched the National Semi-final together. The game went back and forth, until the opposing team pulled ahead. Then our team came back and got within one point, but the momentum switched again and the other team held on to win.

It was another case of high hopes leading to disappointment. I’d been there before, but it was a new experience for Big Brother. The final buzzer left him lying face down on the couch. I rolled him over to find tears in his eyes.

At that moment I felt proud, which seems a little odd, but I was glad he could develop a passion for something beyond his own person. I also felt a tinge of guilt at my role in turning him into a sports fan. Sports leads to disappointment more often than not. Even the good seasons mostly end with a loss. Nobody likes to see their children disappointed.

But we have to see them disappointed. The character moments are born of disappointment. I talked to Big Brother about keeping perspective. There are so many things in his life, more important than basketball, to be happy about. We talked about disappointment, and how you have to move past it, get on with life, and be ready for what comes your way next.

I didn’t cheer him up much that night. He’ll have to see it for himself. Life is back to normal, with more pressing things that need attention (e.g. school assignments). If my words can just hang out in the background until the next disappointment life hands him, perhaps they can help him see it’s probably not the end of the world.

I would have preferred a victory, but as far as disappointing losses go, this one may have been the most useful.

What lies beneath

In matters of the heart, our boys are all boy. When it comes to demonstrating emotions toward each other, that demonstration usually takes the form of a punch or a blind-side tackle. Sure, they play and joke together, but when one inspires a deep feeling within another, that feeling is generally somewhere between annoyance and anger.

That’s what makes it so much extra soft and fuzzy when the moon turns blue and they show some genuine warmth for each other.

Last weekend was Big Brother’s league basketball tournament. This was the biggest tournament of the year, and he had been looking forward to it. The Thursday before the tournament, Big Brother got sick. We thought he’d be better in time, but when he woke Saturday morning it became clear he wouldn’t be able to play.

He and I were both disappointed. As he sat in his pajamas, coming to terms with disappointment and his physical discomforts, Buster took me by the arm and whispered into my ear. “Can you make him stay upstairs and you come downstairs with me?”

Big Brother didn’t look like he was going downstairs in the next few minutes, so I just went down with Buster. “Can you get me paper and a pencil?” Buster asked, leading me toward the drawing paper the boys use to make birthday cards for their friends’ parties.

I got him a piece of paper and a crayon, because crayons are better than pencils for Hallmark occasions. He sat at the dining room table and folded the paper into card form. Looking up at me, he said, “I need help with the words.”

I nodded. “What do you want to say?”

He told me his thoughts and I spelled the words for him. He wrote the letters as I dictated.

 

The best cards are made of crayon on paper.

All the words were his. Only the spelling was mine, except for the word “BAeTter” where he kind of got ahead of me. It didn’t matter. The meaning was clear.

A mouthful for a boy to say to his brother.

Big Brother came downstairs. Buster made me stand guard so Big Brother wouldn’t come into the dining room. When Buster was finally done with the illustrations, he handed the card to Big Brother with the understated, brotherly tenderness that comes with the single word: “Here.” “Here” is the most caring word in a boy’s lexicon when it accompanies a hand bearing a heartfelt gift.

Big Brother read the card. He didn’t know how to react. At last, the brotherly instinct took over. His face brightened just a bit. “That’s really nice,” he told Buster. He put the card down on the coffee table and life went back to normal.

Everything that needed to be done or said was done and said. The exchange lasted a brief instant, and that was exactly the right length for it. If it had gone longer, it would have turned fake.

This was real, and it had to be allowed to sink down underneath, where brothers keep it.

 

We got game – family style

Big Brother just finished his second season of playing organized basketball. He seems to have found a sport he loves. He’s pretty good at it, much better than at soccer. This is not surprising since he seems to have good hand-eye coordination but is not a natural athlete. Soccer limited the use of his best asset; at least he was allowed to use his eyes.

We have a hoop in our driveway and he often wants me to play with him. Sometimes I do, but sometimes, like in February, it’s too cold for old folks to be shooting hoops outside. And sometimes there’s a good basketball game on TV, where we old men play most of our sports. These days, my best athletic moves involve transforming from the upright to the reclining position.

Meanwhile, the boy has received, as gifts, at least three small, indoor hoops that hook onto the top of doors. Mommy shudders every time he gets one, because he always wants to hang them from the door of his bedroom. This ignites the age-old conflict between moms and playing ball in the house. For my part, I see Mommy’s point, but I also remember how fun playing ball in the house could be, so I have mixed emotions.

As a compromise, Big Brother was allowed to hang a hoop over a door at the bottom of the basement steps. When he has a friend over, they can often be found playing basketball in the basement. This is doubly good, because not only does it keep the big kids from in front of any game I might be watching on TV, it encourages the little boys to go downstairs and play in the toy room there.

I’ve grown accustomed to hearing talk of slam dunks from the bottom of the stairs, but last weekend I heard something new. After the friends had gone, there was still the noise of kids playing basketball in the basement. Big Brother was sharing the sport he loves with his little brothers. “Is this a three pointer?” I heard Buster ask. Big Brother explained the rules; he was actually teaching them.

I love this on lots of levels: first, I love that no one was fighting – that’s always a plus in our Itchy & Scratchy household. I love that the little boys are developing an interest in basketball. I love that admiration for their big brother is the cause of this. I love that Big Brother wants to share one of his favorite things with them.

I called the boys to come upstairs for dessert. Big Brother and Buster came up, but Big Man kept practicing. He needs to stand on the second stair to get the ball near the hoop. I asked him what he wanted for dessert. “Nothing,” he replied, “I’m paying bassetbaw.”

There he stayed, practicing his second-stair shot. I’ll remember this day when he’s swishing three-pointers. I hope Big Brother does too, so we can be proud together.

 

"Paying bassetbaw."

“Paying bassetbaw.”

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With a two-step handicap.

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Is better than cookies.

 

 

Just put the ball through the hoop; it’s that simple

The most recent video gaming system we have is a PlayStation 2 from around the turn of the century.  The older boys turn to it when they need a change from their small screen games.  “Can we play a game on the TV?” they ask. This is my chance to tell them about the olden days, before Wi-Fi, when the only choice we had was to play our games on big screens plugged into the wall. Those were hard times.

After my sermon, if no good sports are on TV, I might let them use the appliance to play like the old people did. Their favorites have been Simpsons games, from back when young people used to watch that show and use products associated with the brand. These are one-player games, and I have two boys chomping to play, which means taking turns, a rotten system for having fun.

To overcome this difficulty, Big Brother and Buster have begun competing at sports games. In these long, school-less days before Christmas they’ve discovered a college basketball game. Seeing them play this together is much more entertaining than watching them destroy Springfield with the Plow King truck.

Big Brother plays on a real basketball team and has a good understanding of the rules. He knows what all the buttons on the game controller do and how his virtual players respond to his actions. Buster knows the ball is supposed to go through the hoop. You get points for that. He’s happy just to hold a controller in his hand, as long as he’s mostly sure pushing its buttons has some vague relationship to what’s happening on the screen.

This disparity of understanding leads to a mismatch. Buster has won every game so far. Instinct? Luck? Virtual motivational skills? I don’t know, but it’s funny to watch.

Our strategy is to win.

Our strategy is to win.

Once the score gets into double digits, Buster has to ask who’s winning.

“You are,” Big Brother moans.

When I ask him how the game is going, Big Brother complains about his team. “It’s not me. My players can’t make any shots.”  That may be true, but a coach takes responsibility for making his players better.

Big Brother starts out playing as our Spartans, but last time he got so discouraged he switched, in an act of outright betrayal to his father, to the University of Michigan. Buster doesn’t care which team he plays; he’ll motivate his guys to put the ball in the basket.

“Hello, Blue Jays,” Buster mocked as his big brother’s new, blue team took the court.

“They’re not Blue Jays,” Big Brother bristled. “They’re called Michigan Wolverines.”

“Hello, Michigan Wolverine Blue Jays.” Buster’s already taken trash talk to an esoteric level.

Big Brother has been a good sport, but sometimes his frustration gets the best of him. He tries to trick his brother into taking full court shots. “Shoot it from there and you’ll get 9 million points.”

Buster doesn’t need 9 million points. He’s already up by 21 with two minutes remaining.