The Joy of Team
A late afternoon some ten days ago. I arrive at a school, tasked with collecting an athletics trophy from the PE office. A vicious rain lashes down, and I am drenched as I reach the foyer.
Despite the lingering smell of varnish, I can literally sense the quaintness of the building. A series of honour boards adorn the walls. Photographs of basketball players from yesteryear, sporting buzz cuts, singlets and satin shorts, hint at a simpler, less complicated time. I imagine wooden backboards in an old gym, as well as lights dangling from the roof, safe in the protective covers that would occasionally get in the way of last second, three-quarter court heaves.
Then, a short distance away, I hear the all too familiar sound of a leather ball bouncing on a hardwood floor. Squeaky shoes as players change direction. Excited voices and the shrill blast of a whistle.
Old habits are hard to break, and so I venture along the hallway to watch.
The game in progress appears to feature two evenly matched teams, maybe U-13 or U-14 level. It is full on. The Blue jerseys, alias the Knights, snare a loose ball, race down the floor, score in transition. Now ahead by three, just a few minutes remaining. The battered scoreboard, mounted across from the benches, reflects the 50-48 score line.
Back come the Whites. An athletic forward flashes his dribbling skills. He crosses up his check, scythes to the basket, only to be met by a wall of defenders. Bodies crash under the hoop, the ball escapes towards the corner. No call from the referee as the action continues.
It is hard not to smile, hard not to share in the limitless energy and unbounded enthusiasm of the players. The reserves wildly celebrate each hoop, agonize when the ball slips through a normally safe pair of hands.
As the seconds tick away, even the officials get in on the act, missing an obvious travel, turning a blind eye to an illegal screen, ignoring the pile of bodies hammering into each other in search of a vital rebound. Instead, the various infringements are greeted with “all good, play on.” In this way, the pair contribute handsomely to the contest.
The final seconds tick down and the horn sounds. The two point margin remains. The teams gather, thank the referees, offer three cheers, acknowledge the performance of the opposition.
I get set to depart. Yet, before doing so, I am drawn towards the Knights, now huddled around their coach. Some are on their feet, several sit on the bench, the others sprawl on the court. I stand quietly nearby, just off to the side of the waiting parents.
I take to the young lady immediately. She provides a brief summary, then prepares to hand out post game energy bars. Yet with the instruction that players can only take a bar if they tell the others something they thought the team did well that afternoon.
Then, while suggesting her charges savour the victory, the coach clearly states that winning is not necessarily the prime objective. That teamwork, learning, improvement, competition and enjoyment are also essential.
Now it is the boys’ turn. The smallest in the group is the first to speak up. He is also the point guard, a cheeky, chatty playmaker but one with real spirit. Ironically, he plumps for improved communication. This draws a laugh from his teammates, no doubt used to the little floor general bossing them about.
Next is the power forward. Broad shouldered and strong, doing much of the dirty work, he is clearly the team’s cornerstone. “Most of the time” he pipes up, “I feel I am the only one working to get rebounds. But today, I felt the support. Everyone scrapping for the ball. I like that.”
The final offering comes from the #12. Lean and angular, he recounts getting knocked down early in the first quarter. “Before I even knew what happened, my teammates were all there to help me up.”
The game and the post-game interactions leave plenty to ponder. The anecdotes themselves remind me of the huge benefits of sport. Of shared experiences in a life that, for many the past three years, has not been easy. Certainly, for millions around the globe, anxiety, dislocation and isolation too often inch us away from one another.
Much better is the value of a positive environment, of winning with humility and losing with grace. As important are courage and enhanced self-worth, of dealing with adversity, of being mentally and physically resilient, all the while backing each other and working together.
In this particular case, I observe a basketball game, and its immediate aftermath, become learning tools for life. Learning tools that hopefully never stop.
I believe and pray that similar lessons can and do occur every day, all over the world, in multiple disciplines and at all levels. In this regard, I look no farther than professional hoops. There, stressing the importance of family, connectivity, character and a collective journey, an inexperienced bench boss helps rekindle the fortunes of a struggling Brooklyn Nets franchise.
Indeed, the grade 7-8s I encounter, and an established NBA squad have more in common than the two groups will ever know.
I finally exit the gym, retrace my steps to the foyer. Locate the PE office, collect the trophy, prepare to leave. The storm continues unabated, but I don’t care. My mood lifts, I have a bounce in my step. In my mind's eye, I see the beaming faces of youngsters, playing together a game they love. Unencumbered by thoughts of fifth waves, Omicron, pandemic fatigue, bungling politicians, wild weather or threats of war. Guided by a caring coach whose own priorities are clearly in good order.
I reach the door, grateful for discovering, yet again, the wonderful, life-affirming Joy of Team.
In whatever way, shape or form, may you find it also. And hold it close.