Winning and Losing

The other day, I saw a coach in a sixth-grade girls interfaith basketball league pull his point guard out to halfcourt and have her stand there dribbling the ball for four minutes. His team had the lead. His team was also better. His opponent (the team my daughter Katie was on) was beat up and in foul trouble and in no position to go chasing. Katie's team had needed something of a miracle performance to even get to the championship game. I'll get to that in a minute.

Anyway, this coach had his guard dribble out the last four minutes of the third quarter. It was uncomfortable to watch; four minutes is a LONG TIME to watch someone just dribble a basketball. The parents on the other team were not sure exactly how to react. The parents on my daughter's team were screaming "Come on, this is ridiculous, play basketball!" The clock just ticked down and ticked down and ticked down.

I must admit that I watched this with a certain amount of awe.

And I thought to myself: What must it be like to be an adult and want to win a basketball game with 11 and 12-year-olds that badly?

And then I thought: Wait a minute. I KNOW what it is like. Every sports fan does.

Please understand, I wasn't angry at the coach. The thing he was doing was perfectly within the rules. There's no shot-clock in sixth-grade girls recreation basketball, at least where we play it, and to be honest there is almost never any need for it. Usually, the girls chase each other like crazy people. These were very particular and unusual circumstances. One team, my daughter's team, had lost two of its best players and was in foul trouble. The other had an intense coach who so badly wants to win that for a couple of years now, going back to fourth grade, he has been known to scream at officials and even opposing players. It was a perfect storm.

As the clock ticked away, as the point guard stood at halfcourt sheepishly dribbling away while my daughter's team stayed back in a zone, I started to think again about my favorite topic: What do sports mean anyway?

One night earlier, in the semifinal, Katie's team had played against the other team from their school. It was an odd game; they all practice together and are great friends and so are the parents. The other team had beaten my Katie's by 20 or so in the regular season ... they're a fantastic team and a great bunch of kids and it seemed likely that they would win again, especially after one of Katie's teammates, one of the team's stars, twisted her ankle and couldn't play.

Katie, my daughter, is a fine player. And I say modestly but certainly: Everybody loves her. She's small, but she plays her heart out. She plays basketball like she acts in the school play like she serves on student council like she does her schoolwork, with this overpowering joy that just seems to burst out. She's almost dancing on the court. Parents constantly come up to us to say how much they love watching Katie play, even though she rarely scores and has this habit of holding on to the basketball until she gets double-teamed and the ball is ripped from her hands.

Anyway, before the semifinal game, Katie asked me for advice. I don't like giving sports advice other than "Just have fun." But she was insistent and so I told her (as her coach has told her) that she should be more aggressive on the offensive end. "Shoot the ball," I told her. "You have a good shot, if you're open, don't hesitate. Just shoot."

Eh, why not? They were likely to lose the game anyway.

About a minute into the game, Katie fired up a 16-footer. It was the longest shot she had attempted in an actual basketball game by, I would say, 14 feet. It swished.

A few minutes later, Katie got the ball around the free-throw line again. She turned and fired a shot. It hit the backboard and went in.

A couple of minutes after that, Katie was open from 17 feet. She did not hesitate. The ball swished through.

This from a girl who, just three or four years ago, could not get the ball to the rim.

"Baby girl!" her coach told her after the game, "they're going to have to stop leaving you open!"

It was, of course, thrilling for us ... but it was also thrilling for parents of the other team who, as mentioned, love Katie. We were all cheering for everybody. The game felt like a party. As it turns out, Katie has a teammate who is a sensational player, the sort of player you will probably hear about in college in a few years and, freed up by Katie's stunning display of outside shooting, she took over the game. But the other team had a girl, also a terrific player, hit a halfcourt shot at the buzzer, which for a sixth-grade girls team is the equivalent of winning. Everything about it felt perfect -- everyone felt like winners.

The very next day, well, this coach had his guard dribble out the clock on most of the third quarter because, well, because he could.

So ... which one better represents what sports are all about? Was it this semifinal love-fest, two teams playing their hearts out for the joy of basketball and friendship? Or was it the tense final, with a coach having his team do anything and everything to win, even if it meant taking all of the fun and all the energy out of the game?

Of course, I want to believe that the first one is what sports are REALLY about -- the games are about competition and fun and grace and surprise and all that good stuff. Sports are about watching Mike Trout hit and run, about watching Julio Jones pull in that catch on the sideline, about watching LeBron in flight. Sports are about hitting one good golf shot, about unleashing a forehand passing shot, about picking up the 7-10 split. Sports are about relationships and inspiration and joy and pushing yourself harder than you thought possible and winning with grace and losing with dignity.

Anyway, that's what I want to think.

But there's no doubt: That's not ALL sports are about. Sports are also about cheating to win. Sports are also about being sore losers. Sports are about intentional walks and kneeling to run out the clock and flopping and coughing on the backswing and doing whatever else, within the rules, barely outside of the rules, WAY outside of the rules, to win. Sports, many will tell you, are simply about winners and losers. Heck, I just wrote about how Bill Belichick's greatness is his insistence on always doing what will give his team a better chance of winning.

"Right now," Louisville women's basketball coach Jeff Walz ranted a few weeks ago, "the generation of kids that are coming through, everybody gets a damn trophy, OK? You finish last, you come home with a trophy. You kidding me? I mean, what's that teaching kids? It's OK to lose. And unfortunately, it's our society."

I imagine Jeff Walz (who I first met 25 years ago when I was writing about his sister Jamie, a dominant high school basketball) would have nodded as he watched that sixth-grade recreation coach run out the clock. Make no mistake: That guy's team was going to win the game. They were the better team. To be honest, I'm not even sure that running out the clock was, strategically, the right play.

But it was what the coach believed would guarantee victory, and he did not hesitate. Jeff Walz would tell you -- lots of people would tell you -- that the coach was right, that he was teaching his kids a valuable lesson, that you do what you need to do to win, even in a sixth-grade girls recreation basketball league.

During those uncomfortable few minutes, I watched that girl at halfcourt sadly dribbling the ball and looking to her coach to see when she would be allowed to play again. She was definitely learning a lesson about winning and losing. I'm just not sure what it was.