Basketball is a messy game. It is even messier for 9-year-olds who can’t help but double-dribble, who swarm to the ball like moths to a porch-light and who take too many steps when none is allowed. Errant passes and wild shots fly all over the place and bodies tumble, rumble and fall.
But it’s also a great classroom for teaching life. Sports provide a great hands-on laboratory for learning about the real world.
Post-game conversations range from trying harder to being a good teammate, knowing when to shoot and when to pass, and how to brave the pressure and yelling and the big kid guarding you. The games and talks are really for learning about yourself and other people and the systems we all must operate in.
As a dad and coach, I am rarely asked for advice on shooting, how to execute the pick-and-roll or block out a taller opponent. What I get are not complaints, so much as puzzled observations and reports of inequities — the guy on the other team who knocked someone down with no foul being called, or the other team traveling and getting away with it, or the ball given back to the player who last touched it before it landed out of bounds.
I tell them basketball is a messy game; there’s lots going on. I say stuff like that happens, calls get missed, that you can’t let that stuff bother you. You have to play on, as best as you can.
Good things to learn, and remember for a lifetime.
It occurred to me, having fielded these inquiries through most of this season, that they are essentially about fairness.
And so I often find myself informing the kids that life isn’t fair.
Kids this age — at least the ones I’m learning from — are acutely aware of what’s fair and what’s right. They’re trying to figure it out.
But their concerns are not about the ball that bounces from rim to backboard to rim to backboard and miraculously into the basket — defying all laws of probability and physics. They accept the nature of balls taking funny bounces. And they are well accustomed to the “life isn’t fair” rejoinder. They know there are taller kids and better athletes and teams that are clearly better than others.
What they question is the adjudication of fair play. It’s about having faith in the referee making calls consistently or the rules being followed. It’s about the organizational principles of order and justice, and how right and wrong is administered.
Kids know that some things just don’t go your way. Bad bounces of chance may not sit well, but they are more easily accepted than the failure of authority to be fair and just. Kids still want to believe in judicious authority — that right wins out, that fouls are called, that traveling means the same to both teams.
Don’t we all? Don’t we all want to have faith in the organizational systems — the agencies, churches, governments, workplaces and businesses — that control our lives?
We all want to trust institutional authority, but both personal experience and polls show that we don’t. The evidence shows we can’t.
Basketball is a messy game — as messy as life itself. And there is no instant replay — that well-intentioned attempt to erase the “human element” from life’s tougher calls, the deliberative, mechanical process that seeks absolute justice in a world without absolute justice in real time.
In the live action of life on earth, there is no higher authority perched in the press box dispensing justice upon further review.
Bad things happen to good people. Bad guys are often rewarded with good things. Justice does not always prevail. Truth does not always win out. Human institutions are just as imperfect as humans themselves. Be careful whom you trust.
I know this is so. I wish it weren’t part of the lessons kids need to learn.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.