The Steal

Everyone else in the gym witnessed a simple steal; a move seen dozens of times during a basketball games. It was the first game of the season. The fact that the steal happened so soon in the beginning of this game was unexpected. Jake instinctively saw the opposing team guard hesitate and he pounced. He snagged the ball as the guard transitioned it to his other hand. This was a big moment.  The only two people that knew how big were me and Jake. This was Jake’s first game, his first time on the court with a team, his first time ever playing organized basketball.

That one steal, was the exciting culmination of an eight-month journey. Jake pulled me aside in the spring last year. “Dad, I need to play on a basketball team, my schoolyard game is pretty good.” The fact that Jake sprouted up six and half inches in less than year meant that the basketball gods were calling. A six-foot one fourteen-year-old in eighth grade grabs attention. It was time.

I had played some basketball in middle school and high school. My game was simple. I was the wide-bodied player you’d put in to fill the lane. I could knock frenzied guards off their feet. No matter how tall your center was, my linebacker skills guaranteed players would get knocked around. I was a brick wall on the court. I was naturally good at basketball, just not fast. Like every father, I needed to dig deep and reach back to find the parquet polished wisdom to teach my son the finer points of this quintessential American game.

You don’t get far in coaching basketball without channeling the ghost of John Wooden. Wooden was the esteemed coach at UCLA . Wooden coached the team to 10 NCAA national championships in 12 years. My mentor Bennett Sims would regularly throw “Woodisms” into his conversations. “Good things take time.” “We shouldn’t expect good things to happen overnight.” “Getting something too easily or too soon can cheapen the outcome.”

Jake and I started training on a warm day last May, right after school. The court was just behind the neighborhood center a few blocks from our house. At first I thought this asphalt court was going to be awful for training. A hundred-year-old Oak provided a nice canopy over the court. The tree roots bubbled up through the fractured asphalt. What we quickly found the roots provided several excellent tripping points. Eventually, these minor court hazards became tactile markers for future game winning shots. The biggest problem was that the asphalt had the texture of a cheese grater. One fall and the first and second layers of skin came right off of a knee or a hand. I believe this is why nobody played on the court, and for these same reasons we loved it. The Phinney Neighborhood Court became our new home.

Easily a hundred games were played in eight months. Jake excelled. At first he could not dribble and then he mastered swinging the ball around his back and through his legs. Jake’s shot looked like he was holding a large watermelon and throwing it over his head. After some course correction Jake had the arm extension of Hondo Havlicek. I would let him make easy shots near the basket to build his confidence. Every game the score got tighter and tighter. Jake’s objective was just to make the Varsity try outs. I thought he would be lucky to get a spot on the bench.

As the fall arrived, coolness hit the Phinney Neighborhood court. I found that I could not keep up. I’m not sure when it happened. I got winded. Jake began to out play and out shoot me. The master could not beat the student.

Jake tried out for the team. He got asked back for the second set of try outs. A week later the coach took him aside. “You made the Varsity team and I’d like you to be one of my starters.” Magic. You would have thought Jake had won an Oscar. Now Jake got serious. He had to get ready to play the season.

The Steal happened in the first game and that was only one of two games they lost during the season. Jake played consistently well. Occasionally the starting point guard would have to gently nudge him to be in the right place on the court. Jake’s attitude was simple. He was filled with gratitude. Jake was amazed he was actually on a team.

By mid-season I noticed Jake was getting slightly nervous before each game. In the car ride to one of the games I told him “hey pal, fear is a good motivator. I once read about three steps to evaporate fear. First see the fear as a dark murky cloud in front of you. Say to yourself “Bring It On!” then imagine yourself cutting through the cloud and then say to yourself ‘fear sets me free.” I had Jake’s attention. “Once you’re on the other side of the cloud, say I love fear!” Jake closed his eyes. “Dad can we put on Jay Z’s Gotta Have It? “ He was set. Jake came up to me at half time, “Dad those steps are awesome.” He was not nervous the rest of the season.

They made the playoffs. In game one, of the All-City Tournament, they lost by two points in the last five seconds of the game. Jake had five steals and three blocked shots. He was the big man in the center.

At the end of the game, with tears streaming down Jake’s face I reminded him that he just played the toughest team in the city. They were undefeated last year. Many of the kids had been playing together since they were five. Eight months earlier Jake could never have imagined starting in a tournament let alone having that many steals and blocked shots. “I’m so proud of your commitment. Your pure commitment and drive” Jake got silent. I looked at him. “I’m so proud of you.” He looked back. “You know it is pretty neat.”  Wooden was right “it’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.” Pretty neat.

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