Leon A. Walker
I absolutely love the fact that life will sometimes provide small offerings that are both unexpected and immensely satisfying. Little things, that initially seem to just make your day, but which you later discover have been etched in the positive aspect of your psyche, forever. It has happened to me many times. And each time, there remains a lesson, an appreciation which remains emblazoned on my heart. The story I am embarking upon took place many years ago, during what was most certainly among the most memorable seasons of my life. A season brightened by a tiny little girl that I scarcely knew. Her name was Amanda.
I first laid eyes on her as I was standing on the basketball court in the gymnasium on the Italian military base in Sigonella, Sicily. I was in the military and coaching one of the base youth basketball teams (11 and 12 year olds) and since the base was not tremendously large, and as many players as possible were needed to fill out the team rosters, it was a co-ed league. This was my second year coaching in this particular league, and because there was only one practice gym, two teams would often practice at the same time (on practice days). Each team confined their practice activities to one end of the basketball court.
On the day I met Amanda, my team was going through the meticulous practice drills that I insisted upon, while the other team’s players ran recklessly around on the other end of the court (their coach was nowhere to been found). As it was, Amanda had been selected to play for the other team. Amanda and her mother stood nervously at the entrance to the gym (only a few feet away from me) and waited.
I failed to mention until this point that my own son was a member of the team I was coaching, and also that not only had I been a basketball player myself in my youth but I had been an intense student of the game. Over the years in coaching I discovered that children can learn and do many things athletically at a very young age, if you teach them fundamentals and strictly discipline their practice and game routines. And also that you could still make it fun for them, by interacting with each one of them and making your comments consistently positive. I could see this in my son’s development over time, and this approach gave our practices structure and all of the kids demonstrated some level of improvement as the season wore on.
On this particular day, about 30 minutes into only our second pre-season practice, Amanda’s mother approached me and asked if I had seen, or if I knew, the coach of the team that her daughter was assigned to. I replied no to both questions. Then her mother asked me if I would consider taking Amanda on my team. I replied, sure… Because to that point, I had yet to have any girls assigned to my team that year. Still, it was up to Amanda’s mother to clear the team change with the base Athletic Department (which she promptly did).
Amanda was a very small child, but what I would learn is that she had a really big heart! She was so slight of frame and so short compared to the pre-teen boys on the squad (and throughout the league) that it was almost funny. If she were almost directly under the basket she could push a shot up and maybe hit the rim. If she was six feet away from the basket and tried to make a shot, there was absolutely no chance (she simply did not have the arm or upper body strength). With that came my coaching dilemma. What to do, what to do?
The immediate and apparent good news was two-fold. First, Amanda was very smart and a good listener. She was also absolutely fearless and incredibly quick. She knew nothing about basketball but it took only minutes to teach her the frontal defensive crouch (with arms extended) and how to slide or shuffle laterally (or up and back) in front of an offensive player. She learned to do this with such speed and balance that even our best players had a difficult time getting around her when attempting to score baskets (although she did get run over a time or two). Ultimately she developed an inexplicable knack for keeping players off balance.
And the other amazing thing about her was her shocking endurance. When she was playing her intensity and speed never seemed to diminish. After I pointed this out to Amanda, and her team-mates, her tiny internal flame became a full blown inferno.
As a result of her efforts, she enjoyed a significant amount of playing time, both at practice sessions as well as in actual games. She was a defensive nuisance to even the best players in the league, often causing them to stumble or mishandle the ball because of her tenacity and quickness. On rare occasions she found herself in a situation where she got the ball and was able to get off a shot, but due to her small frame -and the speed at which such opportunities appear and then vanish in a game- I don’t think she ever got the ball remotely close to the hoop. I desperately wanted her to score at least one basket during the season but it seemed hopeless. Once in a while she got fouled and was given the chance to shoot free throws, but the distance between the foul line and the basket was too much for her to physically overcome (in spite of the fact that I worked with her individually in practice).
Then one day it dawned on me near the end of the season, that there might be a solution. There were two games remaining and although nobody verbalized it, both Amanda’s teammates and the crowds at the games were becoming increasingly proud of her efforts. That, combined with her brilliant smile and obvious excitement to be part of the team (and playing in actual games) made it a pleasure to be associated with her. As her popularity grew, everyone was silently hoping that she might somehow score a basket in a game. So I scoured my coach’s brain for a scoring solution for her.
Then I had an epiphany! I recalled the old fashioned way of shooting free throws and I considered that Amanda might be able to reach the basket when shooting a free throw if she used the under-handed (old fashioned) technique. So over the next week in practice I explained and demonstrated the technique to her. Leaning forward and lofting the ball under-handed with two hands was exactly the solution I sought. It extended Amanda’s range, and although she never actually made a basket in practice, she could reach the rim with the ball, and at times she came very close to sinking a shot.
Sometimes you get the feeling that the stars are about to align, and it happened in the final game of our season. Our team was one win away from going to the championship game, and given that this was a league on a military base, -and everyone knew each other- the gym was packed with people anticipating a good contest. By now, Amanda was the darling of the on-looking parents and fans at the games, as well as a bit of a player-mascot-hero to her much larger and more athletic team mates. I often heard them call “way to go Amanda” or observed them give her a high-five as she trotted off the court.
So in this, the final game, and holding a bit of a lead, I sent Amanda back in. Shortly thereafter, a technical foul was called on the other team (one of their players had used the “F” word), and our team was awarded two free throws. A time out was called and my players crowded around me at our bench, waiting for instructions. Since we were ahead in the score, I simply told my team to relax and just play good defense and protect our lead. Then, one of the players asked me: “Who is shooting the free throws coach?” I replied: Amanda… Everyone in our huddle (including Amanda) looked stunned, but no one balked at the idea.
There were only a couple of minutes left in the game as Amanda walked up to the free throw line. Before the referee handed her the ball, nearly everyone in the gym was calling to her and cheering her on. The players (on the floor) from both teams lined the sides of the basket and awaited her first shot. When the referee handed Amanda the ball, without hesitation, she launched it from the shoulder as if she were a seasoned professional. In her excitement, she had forgotten everything we had practiced. The ball made it about half way to the basket and dropped to the floor like a stone. I nearly panicked, and as bad luck would have it, she was shooting at the opposite end of the court from our team bench. I immediately stood up and yelled at the top of my lungs: “Amanda!” And when she turned to look at me (as did everyone else in the gym), I bent over, dangled my arms between my legs and then swung my arms forward, demonstrating the old school technique that we had practiced.
Amanda nodded, and turned her back to me in preparation for her next shot. She took the ball from the referee and bounced it a couple of times in preparation for the shot. She leaned forward and held the ball below her waist, dangling the ball between her tiny legs. There was absolute quiet in the gym… Then she swung her arms forward in a perfect motion. It was immediately obvious that the ball would cover the distance to make it to the basket. It was also obvious that it was slightly off the mark to the right. In that moment, it felt like time had stopped.
It is critically important to point out what a small and tight knit community it was, on that military base and in a foreign country. Everyone worked and socialized together; most of the children attended the same American School and interacted together daily. The events and activities which were organized on the base were designed to promote this sort of wholesome interaction. I may never know why Amanda had not yet emerged in her own way in that small community before she joined our team. The one thing I can say is that I did not recall ever having seen her before she started playing basketball that year. All of that was about to change…
Amanda’s second free throw shot landed on the top of the right side of the basketball hoop. It bounced high and slightly back to the left and then struck the fiberglass backboard just above the painted square (right smack in the center of backboard). Then the ball fell straight down (as if pre-ordained) and swished through the hoop. In my initial shock, the first thing I noticed was that Amanda had begun jumping up and down in circles (at the free throw line) with her arms raised and fists clenched! Then my attention went to the referee who was simply frozen in his tracks with a beaming smile on his face. The other players (from both teams) swarmed her with hugs, high-fives and pats on the head and the players from both benches rushed onto the floor in celebration! And the game was not even over yet!
I stood in front of our bench watching in satisfaction and pride and I began to feel the warmth of emotion wash over me. Then suddenly, I felt my balance leaving me, and suddenly realized that arms were wrapped around me in an embrace. Amanda’s parents, who -as was typical- had been sitting behind our bench watching their daughter, had joined in the celebration! Her mother was actually weeping and her father was visibly overcome with emotion and they both thanked me profusely. Although at that point, I did not fully understand why… But on that day, in that little corner of the world, we had our own little Super bowl celebration, our own Final Four or World Series victory moment. Amanda had scored a basket and all of us were thrilled! It was the perfect culmination to an excellent season and it was that little girl’s coming out party.
My team held on to win the game, and the remainder of that day, the players -including Amanda- hung out around the base together (still wearing their uniforms) and they continued to wallow in their revelry. Later that afternoon, as I observed them at an ice cream stand from across the street, Amanda looked my way, (still beaming) she waved and called out: “Hey Coach!” I simply waved and smiled and went on my way.
Sometime later I encountered Amanda’s mother and she shared with me that Amanda was an only child and that this was the first time she had ever played sports of any kind. Her mother also shared that she was a studious and rather withdrawn child. She was convinced that the experience had given Amanda a new confidence and social perspective that she had never enjoyed before. Amanda’s mother was very clear about the fact that she believed that this experience had been a very positive note her daughter’s life. And she again thanked me for my part in the process. This would all become clearer to me in the coming months.
When baseball season rolled around, I remember standing on the baseball field holding a clipboard before the first practice; and looking up when a voice called out “Hey Coach”. There was Amanda (carrying a baseball glove that was about the size of her head) ready for her first attempt at Little League. She (no doubt due to her parent’s influence) was on my team again! And when soccer season rolled around, as I sat in the stands and watched my son prepare for the first practice session of the season. I was roused from my mindless trance by Amanda’s voice, and what had become a familiar greeting, “Hey Coach”. I was not surprised that Amanda had decided to give soccer a go.
I coached youth sports for years and it was a wonderful experience. Not only watching my son, but also the other kids as they developed and enjoyed themselves. But most of all, I cherished those special moments; the ones that seemed to come out of nowhere. When an unlikely child accomplished something beyond expectation. When something special happened, and for our efforts, and our participation in an unforeseen moment, everyone became a happier and better person. Who can know? But maybe, just maybe, to that youngster, it means so much more.