Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Basketball

If you ever ask my wife to come up with one moment where she was sure that our wedding would never take place, it will take all of two seconds for her to come up with the answer:

“When he played Trivial Pursuit with my mother.”

We had been engaged for about six months when The Missus and I were at her mom and dad’s for some event. As things wound down, her mom asked if we could all play a game and someone fatefully chose Trivial Pursuit.

As a trivia geek and huge fan of brain games, I was happy to give this a run. However, as the game unfolded, all sorts of weird shit started happening.

I kept getting leisure questions from the Sports and Leisure category, an area I usually dominate. I couldn’t land on a pie piece. When I did, it was the one question I couldn’t answer. On the other hand, every other question seemed to be from the kindergarten question box, and suddenly I was way behind and really out of whack.

I kept getting more and more pissed off at this and my ire was palpable. Finally when my mother-in-law finished me off, I pissed and moaned about it to the point where this sweet lady who taught learning disabled children with an unparalleled kindness refused to ever play with me again.

After that, I did my best to get away from game scenarios in mixed company. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to lose. I just didn’t want to be that guy any more. It was ridiculous, but when you put me in an environment like that, there was this chance that I’d somehow become like Mr. Hyde on meth. I tried to keep myself from doing it, but it always failed. Thus, like an alcoholic who won’t walk past a bar or keeps booze out of his house, I stayed the hell away from competitive group games.

I won’t play anything with my brother-in-law, simply because he loves to needle people when he’s winning and I’m afraid I’ll do or say something really stupid.

When we would play games in groups, I tried to avoid being involved. If we had to do a game night, I’d suggest cooperative games like Contagion, where it’s all of you against the game. If the goal of the game was to dick over other people, count me out.

It is into this cauldron of personal inner-turmoil that the events of last Saturday arrived.

The Midget and her friends play basketball in a Y league as part of a school extracurricular activity. They play in a third/fourth grade mixed league, where not only are they the youngest team, they’re also the smallest. In watching them take practice shots, the parents are often cheering if a kid actually gets the ball up to the rim.

So, you can imagine how poorly things go when there are actual defenders on the floor and the kids all crowd under the basket like they’re rushing the stage at a One Direction concert.

The team they were playing was ridiculously larger than they were. One girl was 5-foot-8 and weighed more than I do. They were also apparently trained by a guy who made Bobby Knight look like Bobby Brady.

Two weeks earlier, the Midget’s team played these girls and the guy was on the sidelines screaming out plays. They had a “switch” play, where the kids ran about five picks and set up the largest girl on the post, guarded by the smallest girl on the other team. (Keep in mind, in this league, the hardest thing for the refs is reminding the girls which basket they should be shooting at each half.)

In that game, my wife sent me a text explaining that with six minutes left in the game, one of our kids hit a ridiculously off-balanced shot that kept them from being shut out. The score was 40-something to 2 at that point.

Things didn’t look much better this time, as the other team took off to a 10-0 lead in the first five minutes. For some reason, however, the girls on our team kept hanging around and hanging around and managed to stay within six points for most of the game. At least the guy wasn’t there as the opposing coach, although the lady who was running the show didn’t seem to be much more interested in fair play.

The league doesn’t call fouls or double-dribble or travelling or almost anything else. The purpose is to teach the kids the fun of the game and fair play. To that end, each team has ten players. Every five minutes, the refs stop the game and you are required to do a full-team substitution. It’s a good way to make sure everybody plays and that you don’t get one Jordan or LeBron in there, taking over just to win.

Still, that memo hasn’t filtered down to everyone, especially on this team.

After being frustrated that they couldn’t dominate the game, the Midget’s opponents decided to employ their size advantage. The guard would bring the ball up and toss it high enough that only the largest girl could grab it. She would catch the ball by the free-throw line, tuck it onto her shoulder and then use her ass to back over all the defenders on her way to the post, where she would then shoot and score.

The ref admonished her that she shouldn’t do that. She nodded. She then looked to the sideline. The coach gestured her approval at the tactic. Still, in a weird twist of fate, her team STILL couldn’t break the game open.

As the game grew to a close, the refs stopped it for the last five-minute switch.

The giant girl didn’t come out.

The refs looked over at the bench for her team, but didn’t say a word. Neither did anyone else.

I nudged my buddy Joe and asked loudly enough for the girl’s obnoxious parents to hear, “Hey, didn’t that really tall kid just play her period? Don’t they have to substitute?”

Of course, the parents glared at me with distain. The older daughter made that teenage girl noise with her tongue that can drive a pacifist into a homicidal rage.

The big girl tried bulling people over again. It didn’t work. Thus, she employed another tactic that was equally effective.

The rules of the league have the kids line up after each substitution by height. The refs then “assign” the kids their dopple-baller, thus keeping the smaller kids on the smaller kids and the taller ones on the taller ones. Once it became clear to the coach that we had one girl who could get a shot over the front of the rim, she had her giant cover this kid. It wasn’t her assigned player and it wasn’t even close to a height match. It also had all the delicacy of a mugging in many possessions.

The final indignity was with two minutes to go and their team clinging to a four-point lead. The big girl caught the ball at the top of the key and stood there with the ball over her head. There was no way she was moving and no one could take it from her.

I had this “Incredible Hulk” thing going on inside me. I really didn’t want to feel that way. I wanted it to stop. I could sense something bad was growing inside and was about to burst out.

“STALL!” I hollered at the court from the stands, as if a) anyone cared and b) it would at least stop me from feeling like this if I said SOMETHING.

Nothing happened. The girl took a shot with ten seconds to go. We got the ball, but the game was over.

The parents of the largest girl, who had been whooping it up during the game, turned to Joe and me with a self-satisfied set of smiles.

They had won. That was all that mattered.

I tried to stand up, but it was like lactic acid had built up in my legs from all the tensing I was doing, trying not to be “that guy.” I didn’t look at them or the ref or the other team. I went over to my kid and hugged her.

“You guys played GREAT!” I said, still shaking from that inner tension. My stomach was in knots and I really had a hard time getting that single sentence out.

“Daddy! We were SO CLOSE! We only needed two more points!” She was jumping up and down so much that I didn’t have the heart to tell her it was two more baskets.

“I know! I saw you get that rebound! Way to go!”

(Truth was, the ball was on the floor and no one else wanted to pick it up. Still, it goes into the stat sheets as if she cleaned the defensive glass after boxing out Bill Russell, so hey…)

“Can we get a pretzel?”

“We need to get home, Sweet pea. Mama’s waiting on us.”

We walked out toward the lot, having to press our way past the large girl and her family. They wouldn’t move. It took everything I had not to take a swing at the girl’s father who was acting as a roadblock to our freedom. The only thing that stopped me was imagining the headline in the newspaper the next day about how a professor beat the shit out of some asshole at the Y.

I stewed all day, trying to stay away from anyone in the house. The dog even sensed I wasn’t right, and she stayed upstairs instead of coming into the family room to mooch popcorn from me.

I played Wii boxing until my hands basically bled.

It took a long time for me to finally sit down and talk to my wife about this.

What it boiled down to for me was that I didn’t care about winning. Honestly, I didn’t. I never even allowed myself to imagine a winning scenario there. Besides, in most cases, these kids don’t care. They like to share the ball with the other team because, to quote one of our turnover-prone guards, “Jesus says sharing is good.”

I also didn’t want to be that parent who is like the guys in “Trophy Kids.” I think I yell three things all game long: “Nice job!” “Hands up on defense!” and “No, you go the OTHER way!” We have one of “those parents” on our side and he’s annoying as hell. He’s constantly screaming at his kid, “Get to the wing! Get to the wing!” as if this kid even knows what he’s talking about. We’re lucky that the kids go toward the right basket.

What kept coming back to me was a line from the TV show “Banshee,” where the sheriff takes on four brothers in a fight outside a lumber yard. He is kicking their asses, when one of the brothers grabs a piece of lumber, only to be held back by the evil town boss, Kai Proctor. When the men realize Proctor is there, they stop, only to have Proctor admonish the one with the stick: “Your four on one advantage wasn’t enough? You needed this?”

That’s what bothered me. You had every possible advantage and it still wasn’t enough? You used every possible cheap move to gain a greater advantage and it STILL wasn’t enough? Finally, you had to basically just grind everything to a halt to make sure you didn’t lose? For what?

In the end, I basically got over it. I didn’t scream or yell at a ref to right what I perceived to be a wrong. I didn’t even quietly approach their coach and question her approach to the game and what it was teaching the kids. I didn’t write a letter to the league or try to teach my kid how to clear some space with a couple sharp elbows to the kidneys of the defender.

Still, I find myself not wanting to go to my own kid’s games any more, for fear that I’ll snap and become what I despise: the parent who becomes part of the story.

And that bothers me too.

3 thoughts on “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Basketball

  1. gratuitous says:

    If it’s any consolation, I know exactly what you’re talking about, and where you’re coming from, Doc. While winning some no-trophy-not-even-an-ice-cream-cone-afterwards game isn’t the point, I too get offended on the kids’ behalf when the system gets gamed like that. Incredible Hulk-style rage is exactly what it’s like, and I have to remind myself again and again that the important part of it is the kids going out and having fun.
    The only bit of advice I have is to concentrate on your own team, holler your favorite three phrases (maybe add “nice hustle” for an even four), and tell the kids afterwards that you’re proud of them for competing so hard. Maybe age finally banks those fires, but I still feel it even at 55, which probably isn’t encouraging.

  2. Hank says:

    Been there. I coached my both my of my sons when they played AYSO soccer (ie, the everybody plays fun league). Trying to keep the kids in the fun place when the other coach was being a jerk was always super fun.

  3. Delta says:

    I don’t know a lot about basketball but I know a bit about little kids, and they see the same things you do. They see the unfairness and the cheating and the shitty tricks the other kids (and their coaches) pull.
    They also see how you handle it and how you pick out the important parts of what they’re doing (your 3 positive phrases) and let the rest go without a confrontation or drama, even when it makes you grit your teeth.
    Wouldn’t you rather your kid learn from you than that other set of parents? At least I bet yours has WAY more fun than that other kid.

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