My daughter’s high school basketball career ended recently, a couple of victories shy of fulfilling those senior-year championship dreams. The end was chaotic and abrupt, achingly so, and it left this old sportswriter with the realization that it’s exponentially more painful when your child’s high school career ends than when your own did. I wish a few of you parents nodding knowingly right now had given me some advance warning. It’s absurd how short the journey is from the first time your kid picks up a ball to the final buzzer of the final game. It might be one of time’s more underrated cruel jokes.
Leah’s team, Wells High School, was the top seed in their class and region in Maine state basketball tournament, a smaller but just as passionate version of the fabled Indiana tourney, but with more potato-based products at the concession stands. In many towns, when your boys or girls team is tipping off at the Bangor, Portland, or Augusta venues, the population migrates to the game site, and the tumbleweeds are free to come out of hiding. It’s quainter than it is here in Massachusetts, but it’s an Event, capital E, and it’s awesome.
The girls went undefeated deep into the regular season, but were bounced in the semifinal by a school from a couple of towns over, a respected, annoying nemesis since travel ball began in third grade. The local newspapers heralded it as an upset. We were shocked by how it happened – the rival unleashed the kind of hellacious full-court press that made Rick Pitino a lot of money – but not necessarily that it did. To underestimate this opponent would have been to ignore history and how well they knew each other.
The immediate aftermath brought plaintive couldas and shouldas, tears streaming from the girls’ eyes and upon each others’ shoulders, parental reminders that they weren’t quite ready to hear about how proud they should be, and wholly unnecessary apologies from valiant players who in defeat were left with the sob-inducing feeling that they had somehow failed.
It was brutal, and it crushes you as a parent to know that there’s not much you can do beyond giving them something sturdy to lean on. Leah, a disciplined role player who started but didn’t always finish, wore her disappointment heavy for a few days. She commiserated with teammates but was quiet with us, burrowing deep into a nest of blankets on the couch, vowing not to watch the public television broadcasts of games featuring those lucky teams that got to play on a little longer.
Eventually her sad haze started to lift. Attention turned to spring lacrosse, and the multi-state pursuit of a prom dress, and those other obligations and joys unique to senior year. The basketball successes, including a state championship sophomore year completed just a couple of weeks before COVID turned the world inside-out, surged to the front of her memory, with a renewed appreciation. We could have done without the reminder, but it is inspiring how resilient and mature teenagers can be.
Me, I’m still caught in the flashbacks and the echoes, and I know I’m not alone among our parent group there. One fellow dad told me he drove by the school gym recently and caught himself tearing up when it dawned on him that he had no reason to go there anymore. Part of the reason it’s so hard letting go, we agreed, is because the end of basketball portends many other senior-year final scenes for which we are in no way prepared. Say, has anyone ever proposed 13th grade?
Basketball has been such a significant part of my bond with my daughter – she breaks more news about the Celtics to me than I do to her – a happy truth that was reinforced by one of those Through The Years collages that one of the moms put together for Senior Night. The photos – from summer 3-on-3 tournaments and grade-school travel games and overnight camps and a Celtics game or two – still felt recent to me. To her, they’re specific markers of her lifetime so far. We’ve had basketball as far back as she can remember, and I’m sure the bond will sustain.
The comfort comes in the knowledge that Leah and her classmates have exciting new beginnings and opportunities for great triumphs directly ahead. One of the five seniors, a wonderful all-around player, will play Division 1 ball, and two others possess the skill and savvy to play in college if they choose that from their options. Leah may play a sport, though it won’t be basketball; she’s hanging up her cherished Giannis Antetokounmpo smoothie sneakers she bought with her own money for good.
As much as she loves basketball, it’s the ancillary stuff that comes with being part of a team that always appealed to her as a player more than the actual game – the rites and routines, the day the coach hands out the jerseys and gear, the camaraderie of a team meal, the protocol of dressing up on game day, the inside jokes that only the players and coaches know, the inside jokes that the coaches don’t know, the shared achievements, the rhythms of the season.
I’m not sure she comprehends yet how much she will miss all of that. But as the girls get ready to go their separate ways, they already know they’ll always be bonded by the experiences basketball gave them together. Their memories will endure, and the abrupt, frustrating ending will eventually yield to recollections and retellings of the best of times as the years pass.
It’s just that, as a dad with a growing suspicion that time accelerates when you most want it to slow down, I wish they had collected just a few more basketball memories for the mental scrapbooks. For themselves, of course, but for their sentimental parents, too, who so loved watching them play and will not stop yearning to watch them again, if only once more, long after they have left that high school gym behind.
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