By Joel Swedlove, JCC Maccabi Sports Camp Program Director
26 seconds on the clock. Down 11 points just three minutes ago, now leading by 2. The player steps to the line with a chance to extend the lead to 4 and push his team into the championship game. He gathers himself, takes a deep breath and shoots the first free throw…it misses.
For the second attempt he takes a deep breath, raises his eyes to the basket and fires…another miss.
The other team comes down and hits a three-point basket and is able to hold on for the one point victory. Devastation and elation.
It is easy to blame those missed free throws, to blame the defender on the three-point shot, the referee who missed a foul on the final attempt, but what is gained from that anger, from that resentment?
I wish that this situation I had created for you were a hypothetical, but it’s not. This was the scenario that played out last week for the Varsity Men’s Basketball team I coach in the Southern Nevada Semi-Final game. Coaching high school sports is one of the great privilege anyone can have. You are there not only to teach the game, but also to guide them from children to adults, to be a role model of how to be a person of strong character in the world outside of sports.
It is this second part of the job that makes the end of a high school season so devastating. Every player who puts on a high school jersey has a time limit on their career. Four years (if you are lucky) and then it’s gone, no matter how hard you train, or how much time you put in, at the end of your senior year it’s over.
There were five seniors on our team this year and when our last second attempt bounced out of the rim and our season ended, my heart broke, not for me, but for them. These young men who spent four years waking up at 5 am for early morning practices, spent hours on buses to play games in front of fifteen fans in small Nevada towns and who after years of toiling in mediocrity had changed the culture and direction of the program enough to put the school in a position to add its name to the Nevada High School record books.
It would be easy for the seniors to be bitter at their sophomore teammate who missed the free throws, or their freshman teammate who failed to rotate on defense, but instead they let them know it was okay, that while their career was over, the team would be back stronger than ever next season.
With the seconds ticking down, and his high school career on the line, one of those seniors; the team Captain (who had scored 47 points in the previous game) had the ball and as he drove to the basket the defense collapsed around him, but rather than force a shot he found his open teammate and trusted him to take that last shot. It didn’t matter that that same teammate had missed the two free throws, the Senior Captain trusted that he could do it.
No one would’ve blamed the senior for forcing a shot and making sure he took the last attempt, but instead he gave his teammate a chance at greatness, he allowed the team to be bigger than himself and that act will reverberate for years to come.
Sportsmanship is more than just shaking hands or saying good job, it’s having trust in those around you, it’s knowing that a team’s success is not just its greatest asset but a measure of the sum of its parts.
Unfortunately the game was lost…that’s life, that’s sports.
Our success and failures shape who we are, and when the team comes back next fall it will be that confidence in each other that spurs the team forward. Rather than blame and frustration there was trust and love.
That is sportsmanship, that is being a teammate, that is when sports can transcend the moment of the game and become something bigger. That is why we all love playing these games.