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Mother of Game: Lessons from the Sidelines

(Graphic: Helen Jane Hearn/TueNight.com)

(Graphic: Helen Jane Hearn/TueNight.com)

I sat in the gym with my ass flattening on the wood bleacher. This occasionally alternated with sitting on soccer fields where the same ass is suspended more forgivingly in a camp chair. It’s a butt-annihilator, but I prefer the gym. I have no memory of what I did during weekends before basketball and soccer fused themselves to my being like an exoskeleton. Was I at the theater? Pickling breakfast radishes? Whatever I was doing didn’t include camp chairs — a product both nifty and humiliating.

My son’s team was getting crushed. This was local basketball and different from the travel team he also plays for — this one has volunteer coaches with a gentle vibe. Not harrowing. But feelings creep in. There are impotent frustrations. If only they did this, they’d be winning. If only I could shout some advice to my son, Griffin and the other kids, this game would turn around. I’ve never played basketball, not a single game, but I’m convinced I’d coach to victory. The previous time I’d given in to the misbegotten impulse, I screeched, “Shooooot!” And then again, “Shooooooot!” That was pretty much it. Shoot the ball into the hole. Shooooot! Just do nonstop shooting and make baskets until you win.

A friend of mine wears headphones at his son’s games because he can’t filter out the inanities other parents yell from the sideline. He feels bad about it but admits that when he hears them, he becomes angry and wants to put duct tape across their mouths. I know what he means. Instructions frothing from anyone but the coach = put a jockstrap in it. You’re embarrassing your kid.

[pullquote]I have become something I hardly recognize: Soccer mom. Basketball mom. A Mother of Game.[/pullquote]

Which is why I judge men for rabid spectating. Men convinced that years of sports observation could be regurgitated directly into the arms and legs of their offspring. Sports Spectator Tics are no less irritating than they are expected. I don’t want to have Sports Spectator Tics. I don’t want to be someone that compels others to put on headphones. And yet I’d been guilty of the same kind of buffoonish platitudes. So I committed to silent excellence that day. My silence — however irresponsible it was to not share my shooooot strategy — was inspired by a rumpled dad with the opposing team. He had a passive-aggressive style and yelled things like, “You can take him. Don’t let that guy take the ball from you! You’re better than that.” His favorite was benign but somehow the most irritating of all: “You Got This.” As it happened, they did have that, but no thanks to his inert kid who looked twitchy every time Dad-jeans-wearing-Dad screamed.

I felt — here’s the shameful part — that if my son would get the ball more, they would be playing better. This pattern of thinking is of course predictable, nakedly biased and often true, depending on which parent is thinking it. The other team stripped the ball from two of our players in quick succession and the words came hurtling out of my mouth like a wind-whipping banner: “Pass it to Griffin! He’s open! Pass! To! Griffin!” You know: Give the ball to my heroic offspring and victory is a lock. My husband looked at me, amazed at the accidental oral flatulence and covered his face. At game’s end, Griffin said, “Oh my god, Mom. Just, oh my God.”

My son has what I’m told is “high sports IQ.” He has Game. I had a smattering of game as a kid (okay, just a regular amount). I played years of soccer, but now I see that my understanding of game was off. Or rather, was inflated just enough to keep me playing but wasn’t truly a representation of high-level skill. On the field, I was happy, competitive, a team captain. I played on all kinds of teams but mostly soccer, until college where I did drinking. Just a regular American youth sports career.

In his 10 years, my son has turned me into a woman with an understanding of actual Game. I have become something I hardly recognize: Soccer mom. Basketball mom. A Mother of Game. (Oh how I LOVE BASKETBALL. If I could write a poem about basketball, I would. But there are no words pretty enough, and it would need to be so very pretty.) I love sports that demand speed and dribbling and stamina — contact sports that are not collision sports.

[pullquote]Travel teams are a chronic ass burr, disrupting family time and enslaving siblings to the travel schedule of their brother or sister.[/pullquote]

I like team sports. Sports where I get to see my lean, fast kid, once an ample-cheeked, bundle of saggy-diapered boy, whose first word was “ballball,” outrun and outmaneuver. His 65 pounds of coiled prowess make me beam with an immodest amount of pride. I recognize this is imbecilic. I know have as much to do with his three-point shooting as I do with his ability to draw. What I can take credit for are his green eyes, fiery temper and ability to read people, but somehow it’s the Upper 90 goal that makes me say, “That’s my boy!” Pretty full of shit, huh? Sports are like that. In the presence of Game, I am weak.

Here is something I know since becoming a Mother of Game: Who should play for a travel team and who shouldn’t. Travel teams are a chronic ass burr, disrupting family time and enslaving siblings to the travel schedule of their brother or sister. There are SATURDAY NIGHT PRACTICES. This is a thing that exists. I have carted my 60-pounder home from New Jersey at 10 p.m. on a Saturday from tournaments. There are dreaded summer leagues — a concept I stiff-arm and at which our family draws the line. There are very obvious reasons one should opt for the gulag of travel sports, and one knows by about age eight whether or not it’s in the cards for them. Sure, there are cases of savants trying out new sports at age 12 or 13 for the first time and excelling — imagine LeBron James at 14 giving baseball a whirl — rare, elite athletes who require the highest level of play in any sport to not be catatonically bored.

I also know my son will not grow up to be a professional athlete. Being a Mother of Game makes me weak but not stupid. And that’s not what any of this is about anyway. I know he may stop playing one or more of these sports and instead take up competitive kite flying or the cornet. I’ll show up to watch that stuff too, proud and quietly thinking, Come on, give my boy a solo. I’ll cheer for anything he does. But I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t miss all that game.

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