We didn’t stand a chance. Playing the best fifth grade team in the league, a team stacked with talent who routinely beat sixth grade teams, we had just five players. No subs, no room for fouls. No fresh legs, clear heads or space for errors.
We knew We didn’t have a chance, even before the game started. The other team’s warm ups were crisp and complicated. They were Goliath. We were just trying to hold on, to fight through, to find some fun in a frustrating season.
The we, in this case, is actually my son Jack and his basketball team, a group of 11 year-olds who have had an uphill struggle the entire year. Complications from league registrations meant his team, good players but a B-team for certain, was forced to play the best teams from the league. You can imagine the frustration. Three wins in more than three months. Two games every weekend. Two or three practices a week. The team was lean to begin with – just seven players – but yesterday, there were only five.
I sat in the stands, leaning my back against the wall and my heart sank, even before the opening tip. As a parent, all you want is for you children to be happy, to feel success, to enjoy the things they do. When the opening tip-off went to the other team and they put points on the board, seemingly, before the clock had begun to tick, I felt for him, for the team, for this group of kids who work hard and still don’t get many wins.
But an extraordinary thing happened as the game went on. At the end of the first quarter, we were down 15, but when the kids went to the bench, they didn’t look defeated. At half-time, they had closed the gap (a little) and they looked exhausted, but when the horn rang for the third period to begin, they ran out onto the court. The third quarter, while just six minutes long, felt like an eternity. The boys were tired. My son, red faced and drenched in sweat, began to flag. As the other team put points on the board and we struggled to keep up, the expression on his face changed. He looked defeated.
I try not to be a meddling parent. I don’t argue with referees. I don’t send notes to the coach advising him on better strategies. I sit in the stands and I hope. But as the third quarter came to an end, I left the stands, walked onto the court and pulled my son aside.
“You look tired, are you okay?” I asked him.
“Yeah,” he said. “This just kind of sucks.”
“Jack,” I told him, “you’re getting beat. You don’t get to rest. The whole thing sucks. But if you want to go to bed proud of yourself tonight, you have to do two things: work hard and have fun.”
It seems the coaches, both of whom have done a fantastic job of keeping the team’s spirits high this season said something similar in the huddle, because in the fourth quarter, these five exhausted boys looked like a team possessed. I won’t lie or pretend that they made a miraculous comeback. I won’t spin this into a Hoosiers moment. But I will say my heart swelled as I watched all five of them hustle and smile, dive after balls and sprint back on defense. They fought through the tired. They fought through the absolute certainty that they would lose and they did everything they could to have fun.
With seconds left, the other team got the ball on a break away. It looked certain that they would score on a buzzer beating layup. They were already up 20, but they are the kind of team that plays until the final buzzer. I could feel my face light up when my son, far from the fastest kid on his team when rested, put everything he had into a full-court sprint to get between the would-be shooter and the basket and prevent the last second nail in the coffin. And when the buzzer sounded, a smile crept across his beet-red face, a smile that told me more than any words ever could. He had given everything he had, right up to the last moment. He had found fun in a situation that too often would bring kids down. He had left it all on the court.
They all had and it inspired me.
In youth sports these days, it seems like winning and advantage are the primary goals. We send our kids to camps, work with coaches, try out for travel leagues. But too often, we don’t teach our kids the value of losing when you’ve given everything you’ve got. In the huddle after the game, the coaches told our boys to keep their heads high, to be proud of how hard they worked and the fact that they were outnumbered 2 to 1 and fought to the very end.
Those boys should be proud. Sometimes, there’s honor in defeat if the effort was honest, if you left everything you had on the court. Sometimes it’s better to lose the right way than to win when you should. Sometimes, that little smile, that momentary look on your kids’ face when he realizes he did something that moments earlier he didn’t think he could do means more than any trophy, championship, scholarship or victory.
Sometimes, realizing your son is a warrior, means more than you ever thought it could.