Last Sunday, as my 7-year-old daughter was putting on a basketball uniform for the first time, she said, “I’m kind of scared. This is the first basketball game of my life.”
Our local Catholic elementary school lets the students start basketball in the second grade. Of the ten girls in my daughter’s class, nine play on the team. I am their coach. And coaching them is one of the most rewarding things I do.
We practice one day a week after school. The girls always greet me by skipping across the gym and saying hello with giant gap-toothed smiles. Before a recent practice, they presented me a sign which read, “Apresheat Mrs. Rushin Day!”
None of these 2nd-graders ever played before this year. I doubt many of them ever watched a game on TV. They needed to be told what “dribbling” meant. I had to explain the difference between “offense” (we have the ball) and “defense” (the other team has the ball). But they have fun, work extremely hard and giggle more than I ever thought possible.
And last Sunday was the first basketball game of their lives.
Anyone who has ever played basketball knows you get a jolt of energy when you score. In college or pro basketball, that jolt makes you run down the floor a little faster on defense. When one of my second-graders scored, that jolt translated into the scorer and her four teammates jumping up and down on the court. It was joy in its purest form.
One of the girls on the team, Zia, is a cancer survivor. She was diagnosed with leukemia when she was just three years old. She underwent chemotherapy treatments and was home-schooled in Kindergarten. She joined my daughter’s class a year ago. At our first basketball practice, I was surprised to see Zia diving on the floor and aggressively trying to win every drill. I don’t know why I expected that she might be fragile, when she had already proven in life that she was anything but. On Sunday, when Zia scored her first basket (she made two), she looked over to the bench with complete joy (and shock) in her eyes. I clapped and yelled, “Great job… now get back on defense.” Truth is, I had tears in my eyes.
A few days later, I got a note from Zia’s parents. It read, in part, “We take nothing for granted, and we both felt so joyful and grateful on Sunday watching her play her first game! No moment is ordinary to us…”
Zia and her teammates are extraordinary. They are so special to me. They are everything that is good about youth sports.