The Real Games Begin by Sharon O’Donnell

The time has arrived when going to my youngest son’s basketball games is no longer relaxing. It used to be going to Jason’s games were a welcome respite from the competition of the middle and high school leagues my older sons played in; the final score wasn’t that important and sometimes not even kept, and I didn’t stress about it if my son made a mistake.

Now that Jason is 11, however, the element of competition has reared its head. I noticed it a bit last year when play would get rough, and the boys would become too physical. I would feel myself tense up and would then find myself yelling, “Call a foul, ref!” while it seemed that the other parents were still smiling and saying things like “Good try!” to all the players. I was one of only a few parents with older kids and obviously the only parent who had older boys who played high school sports. I could sense the game was changing, that the strictly ‘for fun’ times were evaporating replaced by that sense of competition. It comes as the boys get older, and I knew it when I saw it. It wouldn’t be long.

Jason had his first game of the season this year today, and yes, his little boy, strictly for fun games are indeed behind him. He’s in the 11 and 12 year old league this year, and it gets dangerous out there. Sure, when he was in kindergarten, the games — although cute — would get exasperating. Sometimes one player would take forever to pass it to someone, prompting encouraging parents to yell, “Pass it” and then clap wildly when they did. Traveling wasn’t called often, and kids would sometimes run down the court with the ball in under their arm like a football, and the ref wouldn’t call anything even then. For a lover of the sport and a purist for the rules, it was excruciating to watch this — but I did because I wanted to watch my son. Just like the two before him. And even though the league was laid-back and I liked it like that, I secretly also wished that things were a little more like my older sons games where they played by all the rules and winning meant something.

As they say the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. After going to Jason’s game today, I realized his games would never again be sweet and innocent with parents calling out encouragement to their kids and never yelling at the ref (unless it was me or some other parent with older kids too). And now suddenly, I wish I had more time for those basketball games when he was younger, when it wasn’t about the competition. When one of the players on the other time came up to Jason and rammed his elbow into Jason’s stomach while Jason was dribbling the ball, it was my voice I heard yelling, “Come on ref! Blow your whistle!” The other parents don’t know it yet, but soon they will be joining me in my shouting. That’s the way it is when the boys get older.

Competition 101. The classroom of life on a basketball court: how things sometimes aren’t fair, how one person gets called for traveling on your team, but the other team travels three times without a single call. I guess whether I’m ready or not, it’s time for the real games to begin.