Basketball has always fascinated me. Or, rather, basketball players --but only since little family members’ve started playing. Professional basketball, because I’ve seen (snatches of) it on TV, the world of fantasy, doesn’t enthrall me the way watching kids I know reach out and grab that brown sphere from the air. And (since I’ve been watching little family members play) it’s not just those kids. Those middle-aged referees glance over at the ball for a nano-second, and then the old hands, seemingly of their own volition, find and palm that thang and throw it at some kid, whose hands can do likewise. You know, in most contexts, it’s considered cruelty to throw things at kids, but here, apparently, it’s some kind of art.
It’s called hand-eye coordination, and it’s a foreign concept to me. In fact, the only coordination that I’m the slightest bit familiar with is ball-head coordination. Until fairly recently, any ball in the vicinity was magnetically attracted to the lump a coupla feet above my butt.
Back to the games. In the organization for which AFN played, the boys wore expensive shoes, matching uniforms, prescription goggles and mouth guards. The boys played in a spacious, spotless community gymnasium. AFN’s team was extremely skillful, especially AFN, who always knew where the ball was and what to do with it. What impressed me more than that, however, was his new skill: working the team. He wasn’t as focused on Taking the Ball to the Hole as he had been the last time I saw him play. I was so proud of the way he passed that ball to other players, guarded his man and quickly advised members of his team during the smallest of breaks between skirmishes.
But even AFN wasn’t as entertaining to watch as one of his teammates, whom I’ll call Spud2. That child. He was about three feet tall, but instead of seeming to worry about being taller, Spud2 brilliantly used his lack of stature to score points. Instead of trying to throw over the heads of the taller boys guarding him, he dove down and dribbled under their arms. He passed between the legs of his opponents. Once, when he was knocked down, he still managed to sink the ball. He was a Bad Man of twelve (and I told him so after the game).
I would’ve enjoyed the game more, though, but for the behavior of some folk. One guy did some extra-loud coaching throughout the game. Somebody else, upon hearing a comment from a stranger, rose from the bench and seemed about to physically harm said stranger, but a couple of men held her back (with quite some difficulty). There was cursing and insult-throwing, second-guessing of referees’ rulings.
All from the parents, you know. The kids (with one notable, foul-crazy exception) were great sports. They grinned and helped each other up off the floor, whatever the jersey's color, and never complained about what the refs said. They just kept playing the best game they could. And, most importantly, AFN’s team won big.
The second game was held at a cramped court in a Baptist church. Team members wore white tees and various-colored shorts. Their coaches brought pullover jerseys and distributed them to whatever players happened to show up. Once everyone had suited and warmed up, all the players got into a circle and prayed while spectators kept silence. The teams of the organization Juice and Goobs played for were co-ed, and some of the sneakers the kids wore were raggedy. (In fact, Goobs keeps a pair of raggedy kicks just to play in. Her “formal” pair is for church.) These kids also had that hand-eye stuff, and they were also ingenious with what folk used to call “mad skills” and common courtesy.
But the parents encouraged all the players, laughing at mistakes (as the players did) and cheering every basket made. We nudged each other and made fun of our kids, regardless of the jersey's color. The kids, of course, were great sports, and when Juice and Goobs’ team lost, they shook hands all around, prayed and ran off the court, grinning, to Capri Suns and proud parents.
I pondered the dissimilarity in atmosphere between these two games. Why were the parents in the first game so ugly to each other, such bad examples for their children? Why were the parents in the second game so accommodating and easy-going? Was it the religious trappings in the second game that made the difference? When I was at the community center, before I went to the church game, I thought so. But later, when I watched the game at the church, I realized: the players at the church, all the teams, were black. At the first game, AFN’s team members, all but two, were black. And there were only white players on the opposing team. A racial rivalry in the air of the first game seemed to be expressed in the animosity among the adult spectators. The woman who had to be held back from throttling the stranger? At the end of the game, she said, with relish, “White people hate to lose to black people!” The folk with her murmured in agreement.
Personally, I don’t believe she was right. But she –and many of the people around her—believed she was, and I believe that made the difference among the grownups.
Fortunately, our children didn't seem to be affected by that difference.
Dear Jesus, brother, teach us adults to become as little children. Soon.