Sunday, March 1, 2015

An unforgettable basketball journey, with the promise of more to come

On The Scholars Academy website, the most recent addition to the photo rotation is of my middle-school basketball players doing their famed, "Fly, Fly, Fly, Eagles!" cheer after our tournament semifinal victory.

I love this photo because, to me, it captures what sports for kids this age should be about. Look at the smiles on those faces. Can't you feel the joy, the love, the camaraderie, the spirit?

At that moment, these girls felt they could accomplish anything. They especially felt they could win the conference championship.

Unfortunately, in that title game, Back Creek Christian Academy simply played better than we did. They jumped on us early and we never really threatened to make it a game.

They defeated us three times, representing 75% of the losses in our otherwise amazing 15-4 season. Remember how dopey Patrick Ewing used to sound when he claimed his Knicks were better than the Bulls even after Michael Jordan & Co. repeatedly whupped 'em? Well, I'm pretty dopey, but I'm not that dopey.

Back Creek deserved the title, and we have no choice but to settle for having reached the championship game for the first time in our school's 15-year history.

A few days have passed since that defeat, and time is a great healer. On Saturday night, we had our team party. It was a festive event, filled with jokes, reminiscences, anecdotes, awards, gifts, laughs, hugs, photos and food. Oh, and it also was filled with a middle-aged bald dude rambling on about how special these last four months were for everybody involved.

We talked about Ruta, our Rookie of the Year and leading scorer, sprinting the wrong way toward a layup, realizing the error of her ways, and slamming on the brakes as if a deer had just appeared in the middle of the road. And we talked about Sholeh, winner of our Coach's Award for Aggressiveness, stealing the basketball and going in for the basket just a second or two after I told her, "I need a steal." (Now that, my friends, is great coaching!)

We talked about Olivia, winner of our Coach's Award for Leadership, being the classic "coach on the floor" by regularly noticing things I didn't so we could make critical in-game adjustments. And we talked about Sienna, our two-time MVP, playing every position in the lineup (and playing them well) these last two seasons.

We talked about Celeste blocking more shots than any other player in the league, including several resounding two-handers against our smaller semifinal opponent -- an example of how being a bully is sometimes OK! We talked about Beijul's transformation from timid lamb to fierce combatant.

We talked about Malika somehow being able to make baskets with that funky, feet-together, no-knee-bend, line-drive shot of hers. And we talked about how Susanna, the last player to make the team, went on to be an instrumental contributor thanks to her competitiveness, intelligence and unselfishness.

We talked about Ritika, our only sixth-grader, making nine 3-pointers -- many of them "daggers" that turned games in our favor. (It's quite possible that there weren't nine treys made by the other 100 or so players in the conference combined.) And we talked about our captain, Margaret, leading us in scoring down the stretch and then delivering a touching, heart-felt speech before the title game.

OK, so I did most of the talking. (That won't surprise my high school classmates who named me Most Talkative.) The girls and their parents did most of the listening and applauding and laughing and picture-taking.

There also was much talk - and not all of it from me - about the program we're building at Scholars Academy.

My first year we had an incredibly young team filled with players who had little or no experience. We quickly established our identity: We might not beat all of our opponents, but we were going to wear them out with our aggressiveness and effort. We flashed our potential with a stunning comeback victory in the playoffs before losing in the semifinals to the eventual champion.

This season, in Year 2, we brought back five good players and added two high-level athletes as well as three super-solid role players. We used our relentless defense, our quickness and our determination to finish the season with exactly twice as many points as our opponents (28.8 points per game to 14.4 points per game), but we fell one victory short of our ultimate goal.

We will soldier on in Year 3 without three valuable players in Sienna, Margaret and Susanna, but we should return seven -- including six 8th-graders. We will have experience and talent and height and speed. Our defense should be especially good. And it cannot be understated how the trust, respect and love the girls have for each other will translate into still more success.

If the coach doesn't mess things up too badly, the 2015-16 Eagles just might end up fly-fly-flying away with the big trophy.

But enough looking ahead. I'm still basking in the glow of the season that was and of the unforgettable journey we all took together.

Look again at that picture, folks. It really is better than 1,000 words ... so I'll just shut up now and smile.

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