“Basketball is an intricate, high-speed game filled with split-second, spontaneous decisions. But that spontaneity is possible only when everyone first engages in hours of highly repetitive and structured practice–perfecting their shooting, dribbling, and passing and running plays over and over again–and agrees to play a carefully defined role on the court. . . . spontaneity isn’t random.”
― Malcolm Gladwell
Emma wanted to play basketball this year, but the team of third graders from her school was already full. Allison, the mom of Emma’s friend Lola, called me back in October.
“If we put together a basketball team, do you think Phil would want to coach?”
“Hmm…probably. Hang on, let me ask.” I pressed the phone into my shirt, and turned to Phil, who was separating the recycling.
“Would you want to coach Emma in basketball if Allison can get a team together?”
He took a break from crushing seltzer cans for a moment, then shrugged. “Sure. Why not?”
And the All-Stars were born.
The team was comprised of thirteen girls, many of whom had never played basketball before. It’s possible some of them had never actually seen a basketball before. Phil came home from the first Sunday night practice gnawing on the back of his hand – his version of nail biting.
“How did it go? I asked as I served up
He cracked open an Amstel Light and took a long swallow. “I have my work cut out for me.”
That week, he spent hours printing out basketball drills. When he walked in the door from practice on Sunday night, I asked, “How did it go?”
Insert hand, begin gnawing. “Maybe they are not quite ready for drills yet.”
The All-Stars lost their first game. “Hey you win some, you lose some, right?” I said over
hot dogs dinner. Emma glared. Phil gnawed.
Then they lost their second game. “Hey, you guys are new to this, you’re still meshing as team, you’ll get there!” I said over
scrambled eggs dinner. Emma rolled her eyes. Phil gnawed.
They lost their third game. “Well, it’s official!” Emma announced when they walked in the door. “We stink.” She tried to toss her basketball shoes in the shoe basket but missed. She growled. Phil gnawed. I made
cheese sandwiches dinner. Quietly.
But then something began to shift. Not the losing part- that remained consistent. It was the talking about the losing that went away. There was a shift in energy after Sunday night practices. We had lively conversations over
hot dogs dinner about how they had improved that week. “No one even layed down on the court until the very end!” Emma reported with pride.
Phil ditched the drills and instead developed his own lessons based on what he was seeing in front of him. Each week they tackled a new skill:
- How to Not Hide in the Corner
- Shooting In Front of the Basket, Not Behind the Basket
- Overcoming Your Fear of the Ball
- Only Pass to Your Teammates
- What Color Shirt Are You Wearing
- Passing to People With the Same Color Shirt
- How to Tie Your Shoe Mid-Game in Under Five Minutes
By their eighth loss, Phil had stopped gnawing on his hand, and Emma had become almost philosophical about the whole thing.
“You know Mom,” she said one day while eating her after school snack, “the other third grade team is undefeated. And we are like, totally defeated. But that team played together last year, so…it’s not a super fair comparison.”
I poured her a glass of milk. “Did Dad tell you that?”
“Uh-huh,” she said with a mouthful of Goldfish. She took a gulp of milk, then added, “Dad doesn’t talk much about winning. He just wants us to build our skills. He doesn’t care if we win, he just cares if we improve. Oh and I can’t call him Dad when we talk about basketball. It’s Coach Braun.”
I smiled. “Got it. Sounds like Coach Braun is pretty good at this.”
She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and pulled her books out of her backpack. “Yeah. The best thing about him is that he never says stuff like: ‘it’s not about winning it’s just about having fun’ or whatever. Because duh. Winning is kind of the point. He says we will win when we are ready to win.”
“Hmmm. And do you think you are ready to win?”
She paused, pencil case in hand. “Maybe. I mean, Lola scored last week. And most of us know the names of the positions now: Guard, Point Guard, Wing, Down Low…so…maybe.” And with that, she started her homework.
Sunday was the last game of the season for the All-Stars. The game started at 2:00, and by then the wintry mix that had been falling all morning had turned to ice. But the game was still on, so we bundled up and headed over the to gym. The parking lot was a skating rink.
“Do you think people will show up?” I asked, shuffling my feet across the ice.
“Let’s hope so,” Phil said. Gnaw, gnaw, gnaw.
At 2:00, the other team had twelve players, the All-Stars only had four. Allison and I huddled by the door. One more person, one more person, please please please….
“It’s Sabine!” Allison shouted. “Sabine is here!”
With a burst of icy air the gym door swung open and in stumbled Sabine and family, a bundle of wet boots and flying scarves. Game on.
The girls played with an intensity I had never seen. Even though the other team was wearing shirts of a similar hue, no one passed to an opposing player. They hadn’t quite mastered the shoe tying thing, so Phil called a time-out for lace management.
Emma scored for the first time. I cried. Lola scored. Allison and I held hands. I couldn’t believe these were the same girls. No one huddled in the corner. No one covered her face when the ball was passed. No one took a nap. They ran, they passed, they shot, they scored. The All-Stars had risen from the dead. It was a freaking Easter miracle.
The final buzzer sounded like Handel’s Messiah. 9-0, All-Stars.
What happened next is fuzzy. There was a lot of jumping. And hugging. Then some jumping together while hugging. Videos were taken of the jumping and hugging. I’m not sure what the kids were doing.
Slowly we collected ourselves and skated our way through the parking lot, high-fiving our way to our respective vehicles. When we got in the car Emma said, “Hey do you think we made the other team feel bad for cheering so loud? I feel kind of bad about that.”
Oh shit, I thought. She’s totally right.
But Phil was on it. “No worries, Buddy. I explained to their coach it was our first win. He totally understood. Besides they beat us earlier in the season, so they know what it’s like to win.”
Emma sat back in her seat, relieved. “Yeah, now I know why people like to win. It feels really good to win.”
I looked over at my husband in his Betterball t-shirt, his hair covered with ice, eyes fixed on the road. I reached over, rested my hand on his leg and thought, I know exactly what she means.