Dave Hannigan: True spirit of sport evident in six-year-old’s joy

Bitten by the basketball bug, it’s almost time to enter the fraught world of the local league

“Within minutes of bouncing it around, he beseeched his grandfather to lower the hoop in his driveway from 10 feet to seven and a half, and began taking pot shots” Photograph: Inpho

“Within minutes of bouncing it around, he beseeched his grandfather to lower the hoop in his driveway from 10 feet to seven and a half, and began taking pot shots” Photograph: Inpho

 

My six year old son Finn sat at the dining room table the other evening as my father-in-law unspooled a yarn about the day he met the Boston Celtics’ legendary coach Red Auerbach at the old Boston Garden.

Rapt, he hung on every word of grandpa’s story about a long-dead icon with a cigar in his mouth lecturing a group of errant teenagers preparing to play in the 1959 Massachusetts’ state high school finals. And then, at the very end, the child asked a couple of questions pertinent to his own ambitions. “How high was the basket in that place? Could I score in it?”

Finn has never played organised sport, an admission that makes him something of a rarity in an American town where most children start lacrosse or soccer or baseball (and sometimes all of the above) at three and four. Neither has he ever evinced any interest in swinging a bat or taking a shot even as he traipsed after his athletic older brothers. Until now. A few weeks back, pottering around his grandparents’ garage, a suburban museum teeming with so many relics of 70s and 80s’ childhoods, he picked up a faded blue and white basketball. And everything changed in an instant.

Within minutes of bouncing it around, he beseeched his grandfather to lower the hoop in his driveway from 10 feet to seven and a half, and began taking pot shots. He missed a lot and sometimes it seemed the ball was way too big for his tiny hands, and the net too high for his reach. However, he made just enough to want to keep going and Grandpa’s eyes lit up. He’d been here before, witness to a passion taking flight.

They cut an amusing pair. Grandpa is 6ft 4in and first honed his shot by chucking a ball into a basket nailed to the trunk of a tree in the back garden of a house in 1950s’ Holyoke, Massachusetts. In school and at Boston College, he played every game in regulation Converse Chuck Taylors, wearing tight-fitting shorts that make his old photographs the subject of enduring ridicule. He is older than old-school.

Finn is just over 3½ feet, and once he discovered the game that has hallmarked his grandfather’s life, he unearthed a pair of black Adidas basketball boots from our basement. Hand-me-downs from his 10-year-old brother, Charlie, at least three sizes too big, he looks like a golf club when he stands sideways. Not that he cares a jot.

“Check out the new kicks old man!” he declared the first time he stomped into grandpa’s driveway in them, seconds before unfurling an air ball that made a mockery of his trash talk.

Dollar signs

As a sports parent and sometime coach, I’ve grown utterly disillusioned with the environment of children’s games in America over the past 17 years.

Too often, the atmosphere on the sidelines is toxic, poisoned by clipboard-wielding ayatollahs with no understanding of the true role of sport in shaping young lives. Some coaches regard talented boys and girls as tools to amplify their own legends. Others see them as dollar signs with which they can line their pockets.

Parents too bear responsibility for so much of the dysfunction. They talk of future college scholarship opportunities for nine-year-olds. They think losing to a bad refereeing decision is worth squabbling about in the car park. They believe every U-11 match must be sound-tracked by the constant cacophony of them bellowing instructions at bemused kids. A dreadful din punctuated only by them hurling abuse at opposing players.

Finn stumbling into basketball has been the antidote to all of that. We live four doors down from my in-laws. Several times a day, he announces he’s off to Grandpa’s to shoot baskets. I watch through the window as he starts to dribble the 50 yards or so. Every now and again, he tries an audacious bounce between his legs move and the ball skitters away. As soon as he’s recovered it, he glances around, just to check nobody saw his misstep. Then he continues on his way, a new-found swagger to his step.

Of course, now that he has the bug, he’s already demanding to join a team, to play in real games and to be called “Baby ’Bron”. Soon, I will sign him up for the local league and, sometime in November, he’ll make his competitive debut. The moment that happens, the innocent joy of these past couple of months will be gone forever. All the more reason then to savour what we have now.

There are nearly seven decades between teacher and pupil. One at the very start of his life, the other nearer the end. Yet, they are inextricably bound together by this ball that bounces constantly back and forth between them.

On the hottest days of a Long Island summer, Grandpa sits in a chair, feeding passes, rising only now and again to correct his protégé’s stance or shooting form. But Finn still glances across at him after every shot, desperate to see the approving look that greets each fresh swoosh of the net.

Me, I lurk in the background, relishing the spectacle. And I think to myself, this is sport at its most pure, at its most beautiful, at its most perfect. A reminder of all it should be.

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