Tag Archives: youth athletics

Down twenty to nothing…

“I have a feeling,” I said, sitting in the bleachers with other parents of the Jazz, our 9 and 10 year-olds’ winless (0-5) basketball team, this past Sunday. “This is going to be the day they get their first win. This is our day.” But no one believed me. Not even I believed me. The other team, the Nets, looked bigger. And better. Just like every other opponent we’d faced. And within 30 seconds of the opening tip-off, the Jazz trailed the Nets, 4-0.

Then it was 6-0, 8-0, 10-0. “Come on guys, let’s score a basket!” cheered the Jazz’s coach from the bench. But the Nets stole the ball and hit an easy layup. 12-0. Then 14-0. “The Nets are shooting at 90%,” a Jazz parent observed. 16-0. 18-0. And with one second remaining in the first quarter, a Nets player took a shot from just inside the three-point line. Embarrassed by the gory slaughter that was taking place on the court, even the Nets’ coach hoped that the shot would miss its target. The buzzer sounded, and a moment later, the ball swished through the net.

20-0. That’s twenty to NOTHING after one quarter of play.

“A typical scoring total for an entire game at this level is 30 points per team,” said one parent. “And they have 20 in a single quarter.”

“At this rate, we’re going to lose 80 to nothing,” observed the mom sitting in front of me, with a smirk.

“Hi, honey,” I heard one dad sigh into his cell phone. “Well, they’re losing twenty-zip, so I’m not sure it’s worth the trip.”

Then my cell phone rang. It was my wife, calling to discuss the schedule for the rest of the day and transportation logistics for our five kids. “How’s the team doing?” she asked after we’d discussed the plans.

“Well, they’re losing 20 to nothing after one quarter,” I answered.

“Not again,” she replied. “Do you think they’ll win a single game?” Then, the Jazz hit a layup. Every parent in the gym cheered with relief.

“Now it’s 20-2,” I told her. “I have to go, it’s getting really exciting.” We chuckled.

The most memorable comeback I ever saw in person was the Red Sox’ remarkable win over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in Game 5 of the 2008 ALCS at Fenway Park. Down 7-0 going into the bottom of the 7th inning – and facing elimination from the series – the Sox clawed their way to victory. I know “Game Five” is my most memorable comeback because it’s the first one that popped into my head yesterday as I watched the final three quarters of a youth basketball game that took my breath away and left me shaking my head and grinning the rest of the day.

The second and third quarters are a blur in my memory, so I’ll quote the text messages I sent to my wife.

“Was 20-0, now 22-8. R has 2 pts.”

“26-15 at the half.”

(It was during halftime I remember saying to a few other parents, “Can you imagine if they came back and won this game? For the rest of our lives, whenever we’d see each other in town, we’d say to each other, ‘We were there for the greatest comeback ever.'” We all laughed.)

“28-21, 5 min left in 3rd Q. R has 8 pts.”

“31-30. R’s team WINNING. 1 min left in 3rd Q. Amazing.

“Winning 38-36. R has 12, 2 min to go. Do you believe in miracles?”

“Wow,” my wife replied.

“Unreal,” I replied to her reply.

At this point, the referee – who reminded all of us of Gene Rayburn, the host of ’70s TV show, The Match Game — held the basketball, walked over to the bleachers where parents were sitting, and said to all of us with a big grin on his face, “Raise your hand if you’re nervous.” A few hands went up. “All of you who didn’t raise your hands are lying!” he said, smiling.

Knowing that I was (perhaps) witnessing one of the greatest comebacks in 4th and 5th grade sports history, I videotaped the final two minutes of the game on my iPhone. The Nets’ coach called three timeouts, the Jazz coach called one — and these are the only timeouts I’ve seen ANY coach take during the entire season so far. This was a run-of-the-mill, regular season youth basketball game between kids whose tank tops fell to their knees, but these two coaches (volunteer dads) suddenly realized that this game could be one that they and their players would remember for a very long time. And they wanted to win. Badly.

With the Jazz up by two, 38-36, with 30 seconds to go, the referee walked back over to the bleachers and yelled up to the parents and kids on the second level who had recently arrived and were waiting to use the court next. “Hey you guys up there!” he called, “I wanted to let you know, the white team had a thirty-six to nothing lead. So half the parents on the white team went home, because they thought the game was over. And we had to get them on cell phones, we texted them, we brought them all back!” He was clearly savoring this unique sports experience as much as anyone.

The Nets fouled. And fouled. Until they were finally over the limit and the Jazz went to the free-throw line for a one-and-one with 15 seconds remaining. And the 4 ft 8 in, 10 year-old Jazz player (#31 below, on the right) hit BOTH shots, banking them in off the backboard. (To put this feat in perspective, 9 and 10 year-olds shoot about 20% from the free throw line…and about 3% when they’re nervous. Maybe he was too naiive about what was happening to be nervous? Or maybe, just maybe, he had “ice in his veins” and was truly clutch.)

Game over. Jazz 40, Nets 36.

The kids went crazy on the court. My son jumped on the back of a smaller teammate who was caught by surprise, and they crumpled to the ground in a heap of joy. The Jazz coach suddenly produced a camera and started taking pictures of the boys’ celebration. The teams shook hands. Two Nets players wept as they found their parents in the bleachers and put on their coats to go home. Meanwhile, everyone wanted to take a picture of the Jazz players. They lined up and posed for about ten cameras. Click. Click. Click. Click.

Jazz parents didn’t know how to react. Is it OK to marvel at the outcome of a 9 and 10 year-olds’ basketball game? No one high-fived, though we wanted to. There were a few slaps on the back, and we all shook our heads and smiled. “That’s one of the greatest comebacks I have ever seen, at ANY level,” I said to the Jazz’s coach.

“Yes, well there was the Red Sox comeback against the Yankees in 2004,” he replied.

And just like that, this Jazz-Nets basketball game was “on the list” — along with Frank Reich’s Bills, Doug Flutie’s Eagles, Mookie Wilson’s Mets, and David Ortiz’s Red Sox.

I’ve written it before, and I’ll write it again: Some of the greatest sports moments of the day never make it onto ESPN’s Sports Center. Yet on backyard rinks, on dusty fields, and in tiny gyms across America, every day another sports drama unfolds that teaches its participants – and its other witnesses – that “you gotta play the game,” and “anything can happen.” I could tell my son a million times to never give up, to keep the faith, to grind until the end…. and now, thanks to this one game, that attitude will forever be in his blood.

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Winning’s the goal, but it isn’t the point

A couple of years ago, I had the chance to attend a pitching clinic that Jonathan Papelbon gave for kids. My eldest son, who was about 8 at the time, was one of his 40-or-so students that day. The night before the clinic, Pap had blown a save against the Yankees, so we were all a little worried about the mood that he would bring to the clinic. And he did look exhausted and beaten down, but he was tremendous with the kids, teaching them a lot of important pitching basics and spending some one-on-one time with all of them. And after the clinic, he stuck around to sign autographs for the kids and to answer all of their questions.

Pap said a lot of great things that day — things that a parent really wants his son to hear from an all-star major leaguer — but what I remember most was what he told the kids about winning. Someone asked him about how he bounces back after a painful loss to the Yankees, and he went off on a philosophical rampage. “Hey, I feel bad because I let my teammates down. But you young kids, you need to remember that playing baseball is supposed to be all about fun. Winning and losing — it really doesn’t matter when you’re young, as long as you’re having fun.” He went on to say, “Now, when you start getting paid to play, winning becomes the  main thing. But not until you get to the pros. And you all have a long way to go ’til then. So don’t get all caught up in winning and losing. Remember, baseball is all about having fun.” It was a message straight from his heart, almost like he wished he could go back to those days when fun was the main goal of pitching – not beating the Yankees, not making a living.

This past summer, my son played on a summer baseball team of very good 9/10 year-olds. I was one of the coaches. We had practices or games perhaps 4-5 nights per week, and we ended up going 20-2-1 and winning the league championship on the last day of the season. At the end of the championship game, we presented the kids with their championship trophies and they all felt really marvelous. All of us coaches high-fived and embraced – after all, we were champion coaches, and we had helped to give our children and their teammates the unique feeling of being champions (plus, we had successfully avoided the uncomfortable feeling of coming oh-so-close and then losing).

I received congratulations from many people for winning it all – parents of our players, other coaches in the town, and some close family and friends who had followed my son’s team’s season. Being the last team standing is just such a rare achievement, and it’s a fantastically simple, no-nonsense way to evaluate the success of a team’s season.

But the success of our season shouldn’t be defined only by our win-loss record or the fact that we won the league championship. Winning was the goal, but it was never the point, and the allure of winning makes this easy to forget.

The point was, as Papelbon said, having fun. The point was improving young baseball players’ physical skills. The point was teaching them how to think – before the game and in every game situation. The point was teaching kids the value of practicing in the right way. The point was teaching them to play as a team. The point was teaching them to never give up, and to bounce back from disappointing at-bats, plays, or games. The point was improving their resilience and focus. The point was developing leaders. The point was teaching kids to have the courage to dream about winning but to avoid becoming attached to that outcome. The point was teaching them to cheer for each other and keep each other “up” at all times. The point was teaching them to stay loose and to smile. The point was giving kids an experience, through a series of practices and games, that would not only give them joy today — for joy’s sake — but also help them to grow into happier, more self-confident people, better equipped to face challenges in the future.

We coached with these objectives in mind all summer, and this is why I’m proud of our team’s season. The goal of winning simply gave us a context for teaching all of these other vastly more important lessons.

Lots of coaches achieve these objectives with their youth athletic teams, but fail to win the championship or even to have a winning season. And, I fear, plenty of youth athletics coaches “win it all” and point to that accomplishment as justification for everything they did  — even though their coaching methods may have totally missed the point of youth athletics.

So I have my championship trophy, but its value isn’t its inherent symbolism of our team’s ability to score more runs than almost every other team. The value of the trophy — to me — is in the memories it holds of the players’ happy afternoons and evenings  playing the wonderful game of baseball, and in my son’s and his teammates’ evolution as competitors, as teammates, and as human beings.