Monday, February 22, 2010

Our Hero, Jack

This season, Kobe Bryant has hit a number of miracle shots at the buzzer which have snatched a victory from the jaws of defeat. He has been well past the three-point line, off-balance and going up on one foot. One watches the clock count down in tenths of a second, all hopes of a win beginning to fade. Finally, with less than a second to go, Kobe releases as he falls backward into the arms of an incredulous defender. All eyes follow the trajectory of the ball as it sails through the air, slowly arcing downward past the clock, now flashing 0.0, that sits above the rim. The ball passes effortlessly through the net, an audible "swish" resonating throughout the breathless crowd; nothing but net. Lakers win.

Jack watches most televised Laker games but often misses the second half due to his school night bedtime. The next morning, he goes straight to the sports page to learn of the outcome of the game and then turns to YouTube to watch the highlights. To Jack, who tells me he is going to provide for us in our retirement years with his NBA salary, this is less of a game in review than it is a study of the game, a training video. He will watch these buzzer beater shots over and over, committing every detail to memory. Often, he retreats to the basketball hoop on our driveway, undoubtedly reenacting those final critical seconds as the crowd cheers in his head. He has great form for an 11-year old and an impressive shooting record from beyond the three-point line.

In his playoff game the other night, Jack's team was down by 8 with about a minute to go in the game. Bringing the ball down court, Jack set up just outside the line and coolly let the ball fly. The home crowd cheered as the referees each put both hands in the air, indicating a 3-pointer to the scorekeeper. Jack's team again had the ball with about 30 seconds to go. One of his teammates put up a shot that rebounded off the rim to the top off the key. Jack never took his eyes off the ball and was waiting in just the right spot when it came back down. He grabbed it and quickly dribbled out once again beyond the three-point line. With nerves of steel, he cocked back his right arm, keeping his left guide hand on the ball. His aim was true and the net barely moved as the ball passed through it. The lead was cut to two points. The crowd was on its feet. The visiting team hit one of two free throws, bringing their lead back up to three. With 4 seconds on the clock, our coach called a time out. Now, we needed another three-pointer to tie up the game and send it into overtime. Everyone in the gym knew what was being said: "Get the ball to Jack." Back on the court, one could see the strategy set up: the center would inbound the ball to Jack as the forward set a screen. It could work; there was just enough time to get off the shot. Slapping the ball to set up the play, the center passed the ball across the court toward Jack but the pass was short. Suddenly, an opposing player raced toward the pass, knocking the ball down court before Jack's team could recover it. The seconds quickly ticked away as the ball bounced out of reach and the buzzer sounded the end of the game. Final score: 51 to 48.

On the court, the winning team was jumping up and down with glee, chest bumping and high fiving. In contrast, Jack's team retreated slowly to their bench with their heads hanging down. I looked for Jack, expecting his disappointment. He was easy to spot amid his downcast teammates because he walked tall with his head held high. It struck me that even though his team had lost, he was feeling the pride of leadership. In a time of need, his team put their faith in him, their designated hero. He was clearly proud of having put forth his best effort and the recognition bestowed upon him by his coach and his team. I would love to have seen him get the ball, put up that final shot and live out his dream as the hero. But for Jack, the approval, respect and confidence he earned that night was very close to winning it all.

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