Loving to Play

Sometime after Munchkins soccer and before college football, every mom and dad of a sports-playing kid reads at least one parenting article written by a professional or former professional athlete. There are many of these articles and they all carry the same advice.

When the game is over, your child wants to hear one thing: I love to watch you play.

And that is all your child wants to hear.

I have listened to this advice and buy into the whole concept. Universally, kids want parents to leave the critiquing to the coaches. I get it. And I say the phrase often, because I should. Even when I am not actually in attendance at a game, I try to work it in. A son comes home, sweaty, dirty, eager for a shower.

“I wish I got to love to watch you play!” I yell, as he heads up the stairs. “Yeah, ok, mom. Right,” I get in response. My boys know about my article-reading habits. And that I work hard at fine-tuning my parenting game.

I think they also know this: I love to watch them play. I do. I am amazed and proud and overwhelmed with gratitude that I have a child — three children — willing and able to give it a try. Jump in the pool, so to speak. However, in total honesty, when they do play, I am more often filled with angst than joy. Instead of enjoying the moment, I am making deals with that great sports deity. I offer up many things in return for fulfilled requests.

Please let him get a hit. Please let him catch the ball. Please let him miss the ball (that is for the other guy). Please go in the basket (that is for the basketball). Please don’t go in the basket (the other guy’s basketball). Please play him above all others, in his favorite position (the coach). And, for my special little hockey player: Please don’t put anyone in a headlock and end up in the penalty box. Please.

With all of these appeals swirling around my head, with the deals being brokered, promises being made, it is often difficult to stick to my primary sports parenting role: the loving of the watching. For this reason, God gave me Recreational Highschool Basketball.

Recreational Highschool Basketball is open to all kids ages 15 to 18. You want to play? Pay the nominal fee and you are in. You are placed on a team (usually with one of your closest friends), given a schedule, and that’s it. Show up. No tryouts. No cuts. No levels.

Also, there are no wishes in Rec Basketball. No deals with deities. Or special requests. The stands are mostly empty, when there are stands at all. More often than not, the bleachers are pushed back against the wall, with a DO NOT SIT sign hurriedly taped to the bottom.

The gym is set up so several games can happen at once. There is activity and noise, but not school colors or chants. It is not that kind of noise. The boys move in and out, as one game ends and the warmup for the next begins. Parents stand in small circles, chatting, gossiping, catching up. Also, not worrying about the game about to start, the contest about to begin.

Since teams are not based on talent (some might say they are absent of talent), they are instead focused on friendships and chance. There are big boys and small boys. Beards and muscles worn by the seniors, pausing to play one more game, one more season, before growing up. The underclassmen, with big feet and little bodies, eagerly waiting for the growth spurt, sit side by side with older teammates. One dad sits at the end of the bench. He is the coach, but not really. He wears no suit or tie, carries no playbook. He does not fire the team up or discipline them down. He is just there. Because someone has to be. But he knows: the boys are in charge.

The game begins when the whistle blows. The boys clamber onto the court, without plans, plays, positions. With different levels of ability and varied expectations. There is little fairness but great unity. Big boys pass to each other as smaller attempt to intercept, to get hands on the ball. They shoot often, miss much. They defend by pushing, shoving, holding. There is heckling. There is smack talking. There are constant requests from the ref to settle down. To play the game.

And there is fun. Great fun. The kind that happened before All Star Teams and AAU. Before weight lifting sessions and sprint work, carbo loading and protein shakes. It is that T Ball kind of excitement. Kindergarten stuff. Back when we loved to watch them play.

And as quickly as it begins, it is over. Win or lose, it doesn’t seem to matter to the players. No one leaves sad, disappointed, with a pledge to get better, to practice harder. They just leave. But not before that final buzzer beater shot. Someone, anyone throws the ball from half court. And if by chance the stars align, that ball miraculously bounces in the basket just right. Cheers erupt from both benches. Cheers of joy and of awe. Of good old fashioned merriment.

And I love this. I love to watch them play.

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