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.

The secret league of horrible parents

We just won a moral victory of sorts. It took two months, and there were times I doubted the Fates would allow it, but now that it’s done, I feel free to speak of it.

I mentioned that our seven-year-old son was on a basketball team. If you saw that post, you may think our victory is a decision to keep score at the games, but it’s not. It may be even more valuable than that.

Over our three years in sports, there has not been a team that didn’t require a rotating list of hapless parents to bring healthy snacks for the kids to eat at the end of every game. The Team Snack was the Sacred Cow of youth athletics. God knows, kids playing ball for an hour would wither to dust if not fortified with granola and sugar-free fluids within seconds of the final whistle.

When I was a boy, we played all afternoon without a thought to our bellies, but then we were not enlightened enough to know we were doomed to die young for our bad habits. We drank whole milk too, to give you an idea of how recklessly ignorant we were. Our parents were the worst, making us have fun all the way until dinner time. For shame.

My wife and I dislike game-day snacks because we struggle to get to the games on time without having to remember the groceries, and it’s not like we can just grab a bag of Doritos or Oreos on the way out the door. These evil snacks we have, but only because our tragic upbringings neglected to teach us any better. Blame the 1970s.

old school

After the game, we had to take up the planking from the pasture and milk the cows before we could even think about eating. (Image: Russell Lee/US Farm Security Administration)

They told us it couldn’t be done. They said the kids on a snackless team would grow envious of the other team’s snacks, though I don’t know a single kid who covets a V8 juice box and a bar of pine needles. Still, no one would want to be on the team whose bad parents didn’t do exactly what the good parents do.

So after the first practice, we waited for that email – the one organizing the snack rotation. We’d highlight a game on the schedule, dread it’s coming, and hope we were both available to attend, so all our children and all our snacks could be at the same place at the same time.

The email never came. The coach was new, and I don’t think she even thought about snacks, which makes me love her a little bit. For the entire season, we went to games where other teams had snacks. Our team never bemoaned our lack of snacks. I saw no indication they even noticed. From our team’s other parents, I never heard a peep about snacks. Our snackless rebellion was our little secret.

I now suspect that many parents dislike the post-game snack, but no one publicly decries it, because that might make them the worst parent ever, and who would ever dare flirt with that consequence?

A game nobody wins

The oldest boy is playing basketball this winter. I am happy to report he appears to have a brighter future as a basketball player than he does as a soccer player. For one thing, he’s taller than most of the other kids. Now if he would just learn that he’s allowed to jump for a rebound, he’d be on the road to stardom.

My son’s team is made up of role players. On a team of 1st and 2nd graders, every kid (my boy included) is convinced his role is to shoot the ball as often as possible in each game. If this means picking up his dribble, taking a large hop to one side, then resuming his dribble in the clear, in order to get a better shot, then that’s just the strategy adopted. Passing the ball to a teammate is the last resort, only to be considered when one is in danger of being crushed by five closing defenders.

It occurred to me that if I were the coach of such a team, I would tell the boys, “If you want to win games, you’ve got to work as a team.” Upon thinking this, I realized I would say no such thing, and for one simple reason: Nobody wins games in our league. There are no winners or losers, just a bunch of elementary schoolers running around the gym, each craving the chance to add to the number of baskets he’s scored.

Nobody keeps score. Officially. Some of the parents keep it quietly in their heads. The kids try to keep it, but their tallies vary widely. They are much more precise at counting the number of points they have scored individually, which bodes ill in this team sport.

Your 1920 American Industrial League Champions

You’ll never become Industrial League Champs if you don’t learn to work as a team. Also, you may to keep score in some of the games.

Not keeping score is society’s admission that it no longer trusts parents to teach sportsmanship. There may be good reasons for this lack of trust, but it is a mournful admission just the same. It means society doesn’t trust itself to produce humans that are, on balance, kind people. That’s too bad, because nothing improves that doesn’t trust itself.

In our league, and probably most leagues like it, we have limited the chances of gloating, hurt feelings, and the other disappointing aspects of competition. In doing so, we have limited the opportunity to experience the inspiration of contributing to a team effort, and the ideal of putting the team’s success ahead of one’s own. Is the tradeoff worthwhile? Can they make up for lost teamwork concepts when they’re older? I’ll have a more fully developed opinion on that in a few years.

Meanwhile, there are rumors that the refs are going to crack down on traveling and double dribbles. This has to keep the coaches up at night. I would much rather have to teach these kids good sportsmanship, citizenship, civics, and probably even advanced mathematics than how to resist the urge to shuffle a few feet to the right to get a clear shot at the hoop.

Germany rules when Germany makes the rules

It took six hours to assemble our new basketball backboard and bracket. Thanks to instructions compiled by competing factions of preschoolers, those six hours transpired thus: two hours of making progress; two hours of undoing my supposed progress; and two hours of actual assembly, incorporating all I learned about the deficiencies of the instructions during the previous four hours.

Next came two hours of removing the rust-encrusted, old hardware from the pole. This didn’t come with instructions, which is why it did not require six hours. It would have taken less time if I’d been swift enough to cut through the bolts sooner, rather than waste time tugging at intractable nuts. The time I wasted tugging at intractable nuts is embarrassing.

set shot

When I play against him, I feel like an NBA superstar, because I’m not expected to play defense.

It was all worth it. My son loves the new backboard.

He wants to play basketball all the time now. I can see the hoop dreams in his eyes as he calls dibs, “I’m gonna be Michigan State!” Then he wants to know if I want to be the University of Michigan. I’d be justified in spanking him for even asking such a question, but I just roll my eyes.

“Or do you want to play Olympics?” he asks, sensing my disgust at his previous suggestion.

“Let’s play Olympics.”

“Okay. I’m Germany.” If you were five and saw a picture of your great-grandfather wearing his Pickelhaube, you’d want to be Germany too. “Do you want to be your favorite country?”

he scores

If it goes in, he wins. If it doesn’t, his opponent loses. So this is a pretty important shot.

“You mean the one in live in?”

“Okay. You’re USA.”

The thing to know about “Olympic” basketball is that Germany always keeps score. And he doesn’t do it by the generally accepted principles of addition.

The rules of international play are foreign to those familiar with American basketball, and arithmetic. When Germany falls behind, the scores are sometimes transposed, magically jumping him into the lead. Germany’s opponent is not allowed to “get in the way” of Germany’s shot. Germany gets extra points for an otherwise routine shot if his heels are on a particular crack in the concrete.

3 pointer

The three-point line. You have to have your heel on it just so, and you have to be Germany.

When Germany is off on a juice break, any shots his opponent makes don’t count, but when that same opponent steps away to attend to one of Germany’s little brothers, Germany is free to rack up points in his absence.

Germany’s opponent sometimes gets points deducted from his score for inadequate deference to the need for Germany to have the most points by the end of the game.

toddler in the way

“You go move Buster off of the court and I’ll see how many points I can accumulate while you’re doing it.”

But I have a say in the rules too. Being a stickler for such things, I insist Germany dribbles the ball occasionally as he moves about the court. To his credit, Germany complies, whenever he doesn’t forget.

At one point, Germany actually let himself fall behind in a game. I grew concerned that his endurance was flagging. But he rallied, creatively score-keeping his way back into the lead.

Germany is undefeated, having bested the USA, Mexico, Canada, and Italy. I haven’t decided what nation I’ll select to be his next victim.