The scene could not have been more fitting. As the lights were being turned out on what was a nearly empty gym, there stood 10-year-old Sean Guthrie, looking more prizefighter than point guard, with bloodstained teeth and an upper lip about twice its normal size. I watched as he slowly—reluctantly, really—shuffled off the darkened basketball court. Moments earlier, I had tried in vain to find just the right words to send a ragtag collection of fifth graders off after our season-ending loss. All season I had tried to teach them about sportsmanship, teamwork and maybe a little about basketball. Little did I know what I would receive in return.
Our team was actually the second of the two fifth-grade travel basketball teams fielded by our Illinois community. The first team, referred to as the “A” team, was staffed with professional coaches with real college-playing experience. Our team—the “B” team—got me. Cut from my high school team, my “coaching” experience consisted almost entirely of second-guessing real coaches on television from the comfort of my living room.
I decided to compensate for my lack of experience by embarking on a Manhattan Project-like effort to learn how to run a practice. I downloaded pages and pages of ball-handling drills and diagrams of motion offenses and zone defenses from the Internet. I read outdated books by legendary coaches from the 1970s. I even took notes at a few summer clinics my own boys attended. Nevertheless, despite this treasure trove of youth basketball information, when I blew the whistle for the first time as coach I could not help but think that maybe, just maybe, I was in over my head.
That feeling only intensified after we lost our first two games of the season, including a 21-point loss in week two when my Internet-created offense managed to score all of eight points. Only two weeks into our 16-week season and my confidence was shaken.
The boys, however, were freakishly resilient. As only kids can do, they considered our first game to be a win because the would-be winning three-pointer that clearly came well after the buzzer sounded “should have counted.” They shook off the second loss—and the anemic eight points we scored—as the product of a slow start and cold shooting. They showed up for practice in week three feeling as if they were the team every other team was chasing.
For me, on the other hand, a nagging and all-too-familiar feeling started to take hold. I feared that we would not win a single game all season. I fantasized about turning the job over to another parent and letting that poor soul take the responsibility for what was, in my mind, an impending train wreck.
I was scared of failing at something I thought I would be good at. My response to that feeling, as it so often had been through my 42 years, was to cut and run. It had meant, among other things, a premature end to my Little League baseball career and a dropped Marxian economics class in college that I judged to be too difficult. Flight rather than fight. As I watched the kids practice lay-ups, I could not help but feel that history was on the verge of repeating itself.
The kids had other ideas. They celebrated their first win in week three against an undermanned Holy Family team. Clutch free throws down the stretch sealed our upset of Solomon-Schechter in week six. In week nine, they made an improbable comeback to win on a buzzer-beater against Long Grove.
In all, the boys won six of our next seven games. As the season wore on, I became addicted to the exhilarating feeling of winning. I reveled in accessing the league website each week to watch our methodical climb up the North Shore Suburban League standings. In the end, we finished the regular season with 11 wins and entered the postseason tournament as one of the top seeds. My early season feelings of doom receded, at least temporarily.
The March Madness tournament is the Lollapalooza of youth basketball. It is an endless cavalcade of brightly colored uniforms gyrating about in a nonstop jamboree of basketball. Numerous games are played simultaneously amid a rock-concert atmosphere. Admission is charged, T-shirts are printed, and little brothers and dads take it all in with a mixture of two parts fascination and one part envy.
After an opening round victory over Highland Park, we faced an old nemesis in Arlington Heights, who easily handled us during the regular season. Nevertheless, visions of a championship danced in all of our heads. We all were expecting a magical end to what had turned into a charmed season.
The game immediately got out of hand, however, and at halftime we were down 19 to 4. I had no answer for the tenacious man-to-man defense Arlington Heights unleashed on us. The offensive schemes that looked so sophisticated on the youth basketball mega-website suddenly looked laughably simplistic.
After a lay-up in the second half pushed the Arlington Heights lead to 20, I could feel my will break. Almost instinctively I let go of my focus on winning. If you do not really try, then you do not have to confront your shortcomings face-to-face. A fragile ego is comforted by the delusion that this particular failure was simply the product of a less-than-full effort, not something more fundamental, more troubling. As with Little League baseball and the Marxian economics class, I was quitting.
As usual, the boys were having none of it. After we made one of our few baskets of the second half with a minute left in the game, the team demanded that I call a time-out despite being down by 18 points. As I stared back at the 12 attentive faces huddled around me, I was struck by the fact that despite the lopsided score they would not quit. They knew they were going to lose, I was pretty sure of that, but they were going down swinging. I did not see fear in those faces; I saw determination. I did not see quitters trying to soften the sting of a loss by pretending they did not give their best. They were winners with the courage to face defeat directly and honestly.
Seasons have come and gone, but even now, anytime I find myself contemplating not giving something my best effort in the face of an uncertain outcome, I think back to that team and that image of little Sean Guthrie walking out of an empty gym in a losing effort, with a fat lip, bloody teeth—and a smile.
Stephen Kelley is an attorney practicing in Chicago.