Their season was done. The five second-graders came to the bench, replaced by five teammates who would play the game’s final period. As the head coach gave final instructions to those entering the game, I thanked the others for a good year, gave them high-fives.
They seemed surprised it was over. It was just sinking in. They wouldn’t be going back out there. They didn’t want it to end.
There’s a lot I love about sports. Mostly it’s what you learn about yourself and life. Sports is life in microcosm. It’s like a laboratory in which you experiment and try things and learn and see life in capsule form — except that it’s not actually distinct from everything else.
It’s as real as who you are anywhere.
So it was hard this past Saturday to say goodbye. And the ending has shed a different light on the NCAA tournament games I’ve watched.
Our first practice three months ago was all chaos and confusion. A pack of rowdy 7- and 8-year-old boys who had to be taught how to dribble and not double-dribble, or travel, or pick up the ball and run with it. For almost half of them, it was an effort just to get the ball up to the rim, to say nothing of getting a shot to go in.
Ten 8-year-olds on a court is a mad, blurry jumble of commotion and craziness — impulsive human nature and a spectrum of personalities loosely governed by the codes of the game.
By season’s end, though, they had learned to spread the floor and get open and look up when they dribbled and pass to open teammates and to aggressively go after rebounds. They had also come together as a team, shared in their achievements, helped each other out, were as excited as Steven when Steven’s shot went in.
One of the trickiest, most interesting aspects of team sports — whatever age or level — is how teams come together, or not. Call it “chemistry,” it supersedes the coach, transcends the individual players.
In kid sports you may start with maybe a few friends, but it’s virtually all strangers at the beginning. And you try to bring together all the different skill levels and personality types, the shy and swaggering, the ones who are into it and the ones who are not.
Most of the time they coalesce somehow. They become almost friends. They do become a team. And at season’s end it all dissolves, and they all go separate ways. It’s over, and they rarely see each other again.
That’s what you really miss when the season is over — the unity and solidarity, the melding of parts toward a common goal. That’s what you’re playing for. You don’t want that to end.
I didn’t watch much of Notre Dame’s tournament game against Iowa State. But I watched enough not to want to see any more. They didn’t look like they wanted to play on.
More than 64 teams enter the tournament, and of all those teams, only a half dozen or 10 figure to have a legitimate chance to win it all. And some of these are riding delusions of grandeur. Most surely suspect the run will end before the summit is reached, the king crowned. So what’s the point?
What are they playing for?
If sports is life in microcosm, who among us gets crowned as king? Is that what we’re after?
It’s not why we watch.
We watch en route to pull for underdogs. We watch for the beauty and excitement of the game. We watch for the human drama. We follow storylines and teams. We watch to see if the rich and powerful can hold on to their birthright, if the daring upstarts can take them down.
And what we see are those who want it more than others. Those who bend to the weight of expectation. Those whose confidence swells in the moment. Those constricted by pressure and those lifted by the drive to play again — whatever the cost, whatever opponent awaits, however long it might last.
In the tournament, as in life, each game is a kind of sudden-death playoff. You don’t know how far you will advance; it can end at any time.
So in the game, as in life, we admire those who bring joy to the effort and those who love to play the game. We enjoy those teams propelled by some unifying magic, and happily ride it for as long as it might last.
Because, just like those second-graders who came together for a season-long moment in time, the magic evaporates when the ride is over, the game ends and the team members go separate ways.
That ending hurts, in the game as in life. But it doesn’t mean you go less boldly, to save yourself the pain. You learn a lesson from those whose game you like.
Kerry Temple is the editor of this magazine. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.