For one coach, basketball wasn’t about winning. It was about letting little girls be little girls.
"WATCH OUT FOR NUMBER 4!” I shout to my nine-year-old. But Alexa can’t hear me; she is dribbling toward the basket, smiling, eyes fixed on the ball, oblivious of threats and shouts of warning. She can’t see that Number 4—the opposing team’s hotshot—is making a beeline toward her. In a moment, Miss Hotshot will punch the ball from her hand and race, unopposed, toward a two-point swoosh.
For the Li’l Flames, it’s another Saturday, another loss.
My heart goes out for Alexa; her mother and I didn’t enroll her in basketball so she’d feel like a loser. “The Li’l Flames are such pushovers,” I mumble to my wife. “They leave the other team’s players unguarded. When a teammate is surrounded, no one moves in close to make the pass easy. They’re being steamrollered.” Similar murmurings can be heard up and down the line of parents.
Where’s their coach? On the bench, shouting words of encouragement.
Minutes later, our Number 7 lobs the ball hopefully toward Nicole. It lands in the waiting arms of the opposing team’s Number 0. A seven, trumped by a zero? This is painful.
Mercifully, the final buzzer sounds. Final score: 24 to 6. Nosed out by a landslide. Eight Saturdays, seven losses.
Basketball is not my game. In gym class, I was often the last picked. But woe to the opponent I was assigned to guard. I stuck to him like a leech. He’d turn, I’d turn, my arms arched around him, above him, denying him any chance to receive or pass.
If I were coach, I’d turn this ragged band into a pack of in-your-face bulldogs.
I turn to my wife. “I’m gonna have a word with Alexa’s coach.” I walk toward Coach Chris Giarratano, a wiry, gentle man in dark slacks and a pullover shirt.
To my surprise, Giarratano is congratulating his troops. “You did great, Caitlin, your shooting has really improved. Maggie, great passing.” Were he and I watching the same game? Still, it would be indecorous to rain on his parade. I’ll wait till next Saturday, before the final game.
Alexa, my wife, and I head toward our minivan.
“How do you feel?” I ask Alexa.
I have my doubts. “How does Seven-Eleven sound?”
Friday evening finds me and my girl at the elementary school’s sock hop. The auditorium lights have been dimmed, but you can see the smile above each child’s glow-in-the-dark necklace. When the disk jockey begins to play a familiar hit, the girls shriek. Clueless little boys ignore the girls; they are training to be clueless men. But at their age, a sock hop is less about dancing than about slouching by the wall.
The room is packed and growing hotter by the minute. I duck outside to cool down. Shortly, who should appear but Coach Giarratano. He is chaperoning his third-grade daughter, Brianna. With the mood so festive, now may be my best chance to straighten him out.
“You know, Coach, some of the teams we’ve faced have been pretty aggressive.”
“They certainly have.”
“I think we could win more games,” I continue, “if we guarded a little closer, intercepted a little more.”
“You’re absolutely right.”
“There are coaches who coach their girls to win. And I could turn my girls into winners, if I chose to. But that’s not what girls’ basketball at this age is about. It’s about enjoying themselves. Learn the rules, but have a good time. Together.”
Shrieks of joy greet the opening notes of “Livin’ La Vida Loca.” “I see your point,” I say.
“By the way,” Giarratano continues, “when it’s all over, I’m thinking of taking the girls to see a Mystics game,” referring to Washington, DC’s women’s pro basketball team. “I can get tickets for ten dollars. Would Alexa be interested?”
“Sure. I know she would.”
“Great. Well, I’ll see you tomorrow at the game.”
The next day, the girls square off against the Tarheels—the only team with as poor a record as the Li’l Flames. At least we won’t get massacred.
My wife and I take our places on a blue gym mat. Sitting beside us is Peggy, a mother from the opposing team. “Opposing” is too harsh a word; we’re all from Poolesville. Our girls attend the same classes and birthday parties. “I’m hoping for a tie,” laughs Peggy. “Of course, the coaches are hoping for a different ending.”
The Li’l Flames play as they always have. A tenth of their shots make the basket; fully half their passes get intercepted. But today, I can’t find a loser in the bunch. Just third-grade girls—a giggling gaggle of ponytails—doing what they do best: cheering from the bench, cooperating on the court. Letting themselves be little girls for the brief time we allow them, in an age when a song at the school dance bids them, “Hit me, Baby, one more time.”
The Li’l Flames lose 12 to 10. Alexa has played her best game yet. But to this father, how she’s played doesn’t matter.
When I reach the girls, they are huddled around their coach. He is handing out praises like candy. “Caitlin, great running today. Maggie, nice shot in the third quarter. Alexa, that was some passing.”
A mother hands Giarratano a greeting card, signed by all the girls and their parents, taped to a giftwrapped box. “Oh, you shouldn’t have,” he protests. He opens the box. It’s a sports shirt and baseball cap that read, “Coach Chris.”
“Oh, this is wonderful, just wonderful,” he beams. “Thank you so much. Whose idea was this?”
The mother shrugs and smiles. “We do everything as a team.”
As my family walks to the car, Alexa, too, is beaming. “Did you see how I passed? I know I didn’t score any points, but I passed it to someone else, and she scored.”
I want to respond, to punch her arm and say, “You’ve got game, kid.” But I’m lost in hoop dreams.
© 2000 Paul Franklin Stregevsky