Wednesday, February 5, 2014

More than the Win

I watched intently from the stands as that blonde head went up for rebound after rebound, arms extended, jumping high under the net to grab the basketball and pass to a sprinting teammate. As the players swarmed in and out under the net, Bran spent most of the game using his body to keep the ginormous offensive player he was guarding from getting the ball. 
Size is relative. Bran's height not terribly overpowering here.
Around noon this past Saturday, at the City Championship basketball game between YMLA and McLean at Billingsley Fieldhouse, the game buzzer sounded and our boys were on. We raced the ball down the court and scored an effortless two points within seconds. In the aftermath of the previous night's battle against Handley, where our boys were not quite as smooth in their passing and shots, I was relieved to see that the Cardinals were giving YMLA their best.
Cardinals pre-game chant
We parents felt a little bruised and battle-weary from that Friday evening game. After an undefeated season, including a decisive win in the first semi-final game Thursday evening, our team put us through emotional agony with a nail-biting, semi-final victory against Handley Friday night, where we trailed by about 6-10 points most of the game. I could be wrong, but I think this was the first time in either football or basketball that we trailed all year. And it lasted for an entire three quarters. Reid, an insanely skilled player, fouled out as the fourth quarter started. The rest of our team rallied slowly but surely to tie up the score. The teams volleyed for the win in the last seconds, with us coming out on top at an emotional 43-41.
Grey and Branson during Friday night's coin toss
Game time!
Celebrating the 43-41 win over Handley. Too close for comfort.
More post-game celebration with Bran, JC and Coulter
Smiles couldn't get much bigger... proud of these boys!
With eight teams in the single-elimination City Championship, those two wins propelled us to the final Saturday game. Corbin and I both thought - and hoped - that Saturday's championship would actually be an easier fight than Friday night's battle against Handley. While some of the YMLA boys are humongous and intimidating and fantastic athletes, we had already won a regular season game against them.

But come noontime Saturday, we didn't see quite the same YMLA. And for anyone in attendance that day, we truly didn't see the same team! Regardless, our boys were ready and rested and rearing to go. As were the fans. We filed into the large city gym on an overcast, chilly morning, relishing elbow room in the stands. Last week's games played at McLean absolutely filled the gym, to the point where Friday night half the crowd had to be turned away.

So for Saturday's game, the Cardinals were on. But so was YMLA. They didn't outplay us, but they outscored us. And again, for three and a half quarters we trailed behind, usually lagging somewhere around ten points, but during the third quarter, the spread accumulated to 15+ points. At that point, as Basden looked back at me with round eyes full of concern, I agreed, "Ok, this is getting serious."

One of our starters, Grey, fouled out at the beginning of the fourth, and with three minutes to go, Reid fouled out again. We trailed by about 7 or 8 points. In went Coulter, and Bran's intense pat on the back showed he was glad to see his buddy run onto the court. Coulter got the ball and shot one of his 3-pointers, but it hit the rim and bounced into the ready hands of a YMLA player. Once back on our side of the court, Branson made a jump shot and a free throw, putting us just a couple of points behind, with about a minute and a half left in the game. Coulter got the ball on the outside, his arms extended and attempted that 3-pointer again, and the ball sunk straight into the net. Unbelievable. Our crowd went W.I.L.D. For the first time in the game, we led by one point. Jaylon made a lay-up to give us just a little more margin. Back and forth for the last minute, each team scored a point or two and again, we led by just a couple of points.

By this time, we were playing against both the other team and the refs (my humble opinion, of course, Bran disagrees), and YMLA was awarded two sets of two free throws in the last few seconds, with one of the fouls called on Branson. We stood frozen in the stands, watching and hoping and praying those balls would somehow fall short of the hoop. Of the four, only one went in. So the final buzzer sounded as a YMLA player threw a desperate (but nearly accurate) three-pointer that bounced off the rim, and the scoreboard showed McLean ahead by one.

Final 53-52 ~ McLean wins! Basketball City Champions!!

The euphoria, the dizziness of disbelief... I watched as Branson bounded across the court like a gazelle, his feet touching about twice to cover half the court. The team swarmed each other in excitement and just grabbed on to one another, not knowing what to do with the incredible release of emotion. We did the same in the stands, jumping and screaming and hugging each other.

Pretty incredible. Until the last minute of the game, this photo seemed unreachable
Perhaps it was the build-up of our undefeated season, as well as going in as the #1 seed for the tournament, that put added pressure and longing into winning this basketball championship. Prior to this year, according to our coaches, McLean has never taken a men's team of any sport to the City Championship game. We've made it to the semifinals, but never to the final game. In November our football team not only advanced to the game, but also took the title. And here again, with this opportunity in basketball, the taste of victory was so close and sweet, it was absolutely painful to consider missing it by just a few points.

Some things I hope to remember about this basketball experience -

- Getting to decorate lockers with the other team moms - again!

- Bran spraining his wrist from a fall in Thursday night' game ~ Coach Sisk applied his magic aloe vera / deep heat / saran wrap solution and it felt like new by game time

- Reid staying healthy, and his illness not turning into full-fledged strep. Agh!

- Basden and Esther getting to sell concessions  - along with a lineup of their friends. We typically had more workers than customers

- The deafening cheers in McLean gym - incredible to experience - full stands with feverish cheering, and the entire crowd standing during the last quarter of Friday night's game

- Watching the boys play was just plain fun. Some of the passes seemed almost telepathic, anticipating each others' movements and patterns

- Coulter's game-changing 3-pointer in the championship. That kid has turned baseball games around with home runs more times that I can count. Coulter's can-do, never-give-up attitude is admirable. Along with his athletic prowress!
Teammates - and friends - through thick and thin
- A rush of support from our community. Our stands were filled with teachers and parents of high school and elementary kiddos coming out to support McLean ~ tremendous.

- Committed coaches (and our fabulous principal) building into these boys. Not just with practices, but driving long commutes, enduring rowdy bus rides, washing LOADS and LOADS of smelly uniforms, and even juggling a newborn in the midst of the incredibly long hours. Branson just said to one of his grandparents, "These championships weren't from just one season of training - they started preparing us for this in seventh grade."
Coach Goebel and Coach Smith whispering sweet nothings during a time-out
Not sure if this is sweet nothings??
Smith and Goebel's pre-game pep talk Saturday
- Watching our team come from behind, exercising the strength to not give up. They've done it together before in no-way-we're gonna-win situations, and yet with a little luck and a lot of work they pulled it off.

I drove away from Saturday's game to meet some girlfriends at the lake. I spent most of the hour drive replaying scenes in my mind, processing all of the intense (I repeat - intense) emotions we'd just experienced. A few minutes before I turned off the highway toward the lake house, I called Dad. He was still eating lunch with all the other grandparents and Basden, and I needed to hear his knee-jerk reaction.

"Dad, I'm only in the car a few more minutes, but I just needed to hear your response. Just give me one thing - one observation or thought you have from all of this."

Without much hesitation, Dad sighed a happy sigh and said, "Well, it's been said at this table, that this was just a game. In a couple of weeks, no one will remember this game. But the experience as a whole, the season and the work and the accomplishment of what these boys have just experienced, won't be forgotten for a long, long time. It's significant. And it's going to propel them forward in a unique way, each of them individually and collectively. It's setting the stage for the years to come."

I was comforted by that, of course, to think that even if this was "just a basketball game", or "just a city championship, " that it was more than a win. This experience will propel these boys forward. And in more ways than athletics. It's invigorating to watch these boys come together for a purpose bigger than themselves, especially during these middle school years where they're figuring out their place and their unique contributions. And it's not just the boys being propelled - we parents (and grandparents!) are rolling right along with them. Grateful for the wild, wild ride!
Back row: Branson, Grey, JC, Reid, Coulter, Coach Smith  Front row: Ian, Jaylon, TJ, Marc, Michael
* Photo creds (at least the clear pics!) to Coulter's mom, Susan
** Author not responsible for accuracy of facts, scores, and specific game minutes. This post to be interpreted as a zealous mom's perspective