This is a story that took place more than 45 years ago. In a 30 minute span, I may have inadvertently offered the best advice that I ever offered anyone not only about basketball but also life and in return, I received a lasting life lesson and one of the nicest things ever said to me, all from a young boy who just wanted to shoot baskets.
When people need to clear their head, some may pray, some may meditate and others may go for a long walk or run. In my 20’s and 30’s, I would pick up my basketball and head for the courts to shoot some hoops. Shooting baskets was a very centering practice and often served as my moment of Zen. Bounce, Balance, Aim, Release, Follow Through, Retrieve the basketball and Repeat. So on a sunny summer afternoon, I found the basketball court at Memorial Park in Cinnaminson empty. There was no one to disturb me and I was left alone to empty my mind and forget my worries.
Routinely when I practiced alone, I would start with bank shots off the backboard and then move further back until I felt warmed up. I would then shoot set shots trying to find a rhythm and pace. I would then practice lay-ups and jump shots before I finished with shooting foul shots. I would be so focused on this ritual that I would often lose track of time and not notice people or activities around me.
But not this day…
After shooting for about ten minutes, in the corner of my eye, I caught a young boy maybe nine or ten sitting silently on the side. He watched me for a while and every now and then I heard a low “Wow” or see a shake of his head in approval when I hit a basket. I really was in “flow” and I did not want to be disturbed and have to share my time on the court with anyone. Every now and then the ball would roll over to where he was sitting and he would slowly get up and roll the ball back to me.
I was able to largely avoid the youngster until I noticed that he now stood and was mimicking how I was shooting as if to copy the shooting motion. The boy was mostly silent to me as if he knew that I was in my own world and he was trying not to disturb it. But I could tell he wanted to shoot baskets.
In my mind, the young boy sparked a memory of my youth. It was of another young boy, about his age, fatherless, who also stood silently at a park or ball field hoping that someone would let him play catch or toss a football around. That shy young boy was also silent not wishing to intrude but also hoping that he would be invited to play.
I motioned the young boy to come over and asked him if he wanted to shoot. I noticed that as he walked over, his balance seemed unsteady. One of his legs appeared to drag. I softly tossed him the basketball and noticed he had some difficulty in catching it. When he dribbled the ball, he did it slowly with two hands as if he never touched a basketball before. When he spoke, I detected a slight lisp or speech impediment.
His first few shoots did not touch the rim. His shooting motion seemed forced and I wondered if he suffered some type of physical disability. I could tell he was becoming discouraged as he kept missing. I kept handing him the ball silently after he missed shot after shot. I sensed his frustration. He stopped after one bad miss and handed me the ball and said, “Thank you” and turned to sadly walk away.
“Don’t leave,” I urged the retreating youngster. “Keep shooting! Everybody misses at first. Don’t give up.” I then showed him how to bend his knees and use his arms to aim the ball to propel the shot. He struggled for a few more shots where he hit nothing. Then one of his shots bounced around the rim. He wanted to stop and I told him “Keep shooting.” Finally with one big heave he made a basket. He seemed very relieved as I smiled at his success. “All huge journeys begin with one small step,” I told him.
To compensate for his poor arm strength, I showed him the Rick Barry style of shooting foul shots underhanded where he could use both arms to power the shot to reach the rim. He was better able to reach the rim and he made a few baskets bringing a slow smile to his face. What was an exercise in futility for him now became a challenge he gladly accepted.
I had to leave but I urged him to keep practicing. I could sense a bit of sadness in his eyes as I said it. I asked him if he had a basketball at home and he said he did not. I wondered what kind of home life he had and if kids his age would play sports with him. He did not appear to have the athletic and mobility skills that kids his age would have. I sensed that he may not have been invited to play any sports.
I handed him my basketball. I told him the basketball was his but he needed to keep shooting to get better. It was as if I was giving him a new bicycle for Christmas. His face lit up with a smile. I did not realize at the time that I was providing him a lesson not just for basketball, but for life. You will face frustrations especially when you attempt new things. You will have bad streaks where you will get discouraged. His struggles may have been more challenging given his physical limitations.
As I grabbed my towel to leave, I asked him if he watched basketball on television. He shook his head yes. I then asked him if there was a player he wanted to be like. He paused, looked down at the basketball in his hands, raised his head slowly and answered, “You.”
The boy’s answer stunned me. I was going to try to say something witty and self deprecating but I could not. I could not speak. I know the youngster appreciated my time and attention that I provided. I nodded my head and smiled my thanks and headed for my car. The boy may have thought as I walked away that I was using the towel to wipe sweat from my brow. I was wiping my eyes.
Never been a coach, never was fortunate to be a father but fortunate to have that opportunity to make a small impression on that boy’s life. I envy all of you who have or had greater opportunities to make positive impressions on a young boy or young girl’s life. I just shared mine…