Nothing but net

An old friend passed away today.

It was one of those basketball hoops that stand alone on a tall metal tube, with a heavy plastic base filled with anti-freeze to keep it weighted down and to avoid cracking with winter’s freezes.

It was so rusted from its years standing sentry on my driveway that my neighbor had to cut the bolts with a power saw. The pieces were taken down to the curb with the faint hope that perhaps a local junk man will cart it off to be recycled before the trash truck scoops up the remains.

No one had banged its backboard for a long while, but it remained silently poised for service through rain and wind and snow. Its net became stiff and unyielding but never tore. Occasionally wasps would build nests in its nooks and crannies.

I’m not sure how long we’ve had it — maybe 20 years. I know I bought it when my oldest son started playing basketball. We would drop the hoop down so he had a shot at making a basket. As he got older, it would get raised higher. This did not help his younger brother, who almost always had to shoot at the height dictated by his older brother.

I think this is why younger kids get pushed to excel. It has nothing to do with the parents’ obsessions with achievement. It is self-driven, a 24/7 effort through childhood to keep up with their older sibling. It is the Serena Law: Serena Williams probably owes her impressive success at tennis to Venus, her older sister whose game she surpassed years ago.

I didn’t grow up with basketball. I had wanted to be the next Sandy Koufax. But baseball never held my kids’ attention. It wasn’t fast enough, and it didn’t have that rambunctious teamwork that typified basketball or soccer. T-ball was like watching paint dry — for me as well as for them. So I adjusted to their preferred sports. I learned the rules, I’d go to every game I could, and yes, I was one of those dads out there yelling encouragement and half-baked instructions.

My formal coaching accomplishment stopped at one season of Y-ball, during which I am fairly certain I did not squash the talent of any of the budding Michael Jordans I had been entrusted with.

What is great about a basketball hoop on the driveway, however, is that it is just an invitation to play. I would go out with the boys and shoot baskets, play H-O-R-S-E, play two-on-one. I was one of those softy dads, adjusting my game to keep them interested rather than pulling a Bobby Knight and demanding that the kids toughen up. Someone else could audition for that role.

I just loved juking and jiving with them, trash talking and applauding every good shot, whoever made it.

And then, all of sudden, they grew up. They got better than me. They got taller than me. They knew more about basketball and soccer, had more energy, more strength, even more game smarts. Alpha male, king of the pride, suddenly realized that he was never going to be better than them ever again. It is a bittersweet moment, a mix of hot pride and the chill of time passing. I felt that same chill when I was dragging that basketball hoop down to the curb.

Being a dad is the greatest of honors. Seeing your children grow into upstanding men and women is one of life’s great blessings.

But I don’t think there is a father alive who, when his children are rushing into adulthood, wouldn’t want just one more chance for a do over: to go one-on-one with his kids on a summer afternoon, watching them push that ball up into the sky with both hands, and yelling “Nothing but net!” as the ball falls to earth silent and true.

Greg Erlandson is OSV’s president and publisher.