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Basketball and Icarus

“Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew…
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell, but just coming to the end of his triumph.”
– Jack Gilbert, Failing and Flying

Last night I watched the last regular season basketball game of my son’s career. With four teams bunched up in the standings with the same conference record at the start of the game, there was a lot to play for, the winner of this game would move on to the playoffs, the loser would go home.  A similar reality was playing out in gyms in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Maine.  This was the end of some players’ triumph.

As a parent you think maybe your kid will make the travel basketball team.  If they have some skills you think they may make their High School team, and play AAU ball on a team with good coaching.  And in the back of your mind you calculate the odds of your kid playing in college.  For the record, the odds of a High School basketball player playing in an NCAA college basketball program – that’s Division I, II and III, is 3.4%.  So for the thousands of kids playing basketball and rising through the ranks, only a very small percentage actually play in college.  Crazy small odds when you think of it.

For my son, basketball was an obvious choice.  He’s always been a head taller than everyone else, he’s always been athletic and he’s very “coachable”.  He’s never been the leading scorer on any team after Middle School, but has always been a leader on the court and a strong defensive presence.  I’m slightly biased, but the team seems better when he’s on the court most of the time.  He had one hurdle that limited him; he had a tendency to pass up shots and open lanes and pass the ball instead.  In a game that’s played more and more at the perimeter, centers are less prioritized than they once were on the offensive end.  But put him on the defensive end and watch him shine.  He’s in the top five in blocks in the conference playing a third of the minutes of the others on the list.

He grew up playing ball in the Merrimack Valley in Massachusetts.  The Merrimack Valley is a mix of tough city kids and suburban kids.  When you play in the Merrimack Valley you quickly grow a thick skin or you fade away.  I’ve watched a lot of wild college games with hostile home crowds, but I’d put an Andover-Central Catholic or Lawrence-Lowell game up against most college games for level of intensity and the passion of the crowd.  Basketball players are either baked or burned in this environment, and college coaches know it.  Recruiters started talking to my son and many other players during fall league games at “The Barn” in North Andover during fall ball games, and would pop up at games throughout the rest of the season.  College recruiting is a game in itself, and you feel both honored and at times bewildered by the experience.  Where’s the best fit?  Will he actually play there or are they stacking players?

The best advice we ever heard was to choose the college first and the program second.  If your child doesn’t love the school, they won’t want to stay there.  If they don’t love the program they can still stay at the school and get a degree.  When you get a school they love with a program they like, playing with teammates they love, that’s the best scenario. And that’s where we found ourselves over the last four years.  It carried our son through major injuries and a change in playing philosophy in the program that emphasized shooters on the perimeter over big guys in the paint.  He loved his school, loved his teammates, and respected the program and stuck with it.  No regrets.  His last two points on his home court were an emphatic put-back dunk, his first dunk after two years of building his ankle strength back up.  His last dunk was on this basket two years earlier when a player came down on him as he grabbed a defensive rebound. He wouldn’t play again for a long time, and wouldn’t dunk again until this, his last home game. It came with exactly one minute left on the clock, and it was the perfect cap on those last two years of struggle.  It’s a grainy screen shot from the game video, but I love it because it shows him in flight, near the end of his own journey in this game.

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For any basketball player to be playing college basketball at any level is a triumph.  A very small number will move on to the NBA or to coaching, but this is the end for almost every one of them.  It’s the culmination of years of playing and learning, injuries and setbacks, making teams and not making other teams, growing as people and learning important life skills like time management and mutual respect and unselfishness and risk-taking.  As with every game, it gets harder as you grow with it, but you do grow with it.  And as a parent I’ve grown with it too.

And so we found ourselves in a gym in Maine on Senior night for the team we were playing against.  They were ahead of us in the standings walking in, but both teams knew that the winner wrote their ticket in, the loser had to hope others lost for them to move forward.  As it happened those other teams won their games while our teams played each other, setting up the win or go home scenario.  Parents watched scores on their phones, knowing more than the players did.  But the players knew the stakes.  I found myself drawn to a guard from the other team as the clock ticked down and our team holding a tenuous lead in the game.  Tears were in his eyes, and he’d pull his jersey up to wipe them away.  His coach, seeing his emotion, shouted at him to be ready for the ball should he get one more shot to win it.  That chance disappeared as time ran out on the game and the regular season.  One team moving on to the playoffs, one team at the end of their triumph. But surely a triumph for all of them, being here, playing this game at this level.

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