Two basketball seasons ago, I was given a group of sixth-grade girls no one wanted to coach. They were not considered good enough to make an “A” team, or they were too much of an unknown quantity to other coaches.
They could have played pick-up games in the local rec program, but they wanted to be part of a team in a competitive league.
Most had attended the Falmouth Youth Basketball Association selection trials – an hour-long process that favors the more athletic players, but not the ones who fight for every rebound but don’t do well dribbling through an obstacle course.
The team was assigned to what the association regarded as the inferior Southern Maine Boys and Girls Club League, contested mainly by private schools, and teams from within the club.
As the standard of play was more street ball-like than how-to-play-basketball instructional, many of my girls who had little self-confidence from previously having minimal playing time, were completely shell-shocked by the aggressive type of play they encountered.
That first season they won just one game, enough to put most people off basketball. But a core group of six came back for more the next season.
Some again unsuccessfully attended the “trials;” others just put their names down for the “B” team, and a player from the previous year’s “A” team who didn’t make the cut joined them. That season was a reversal – they won the majority of games, lost convincingly in the semifinals, and along the way grew in self-confidence. They formed close friendships with each other, celebrated good times, and learned some of life’s hard lessons as they emotionally supported one of their teammates who lost a sibling during the year.
At the beginning of this season, one of the players dropped out, three again went to selection trials with the same outcome as before, but this time not caring because they would be playing with the others who had again opted to nominate for the “B” team. The association could have picked two equal teams of eight, but preferred an “A” team of 10 and left it up to the remaining six to decide if they wanted to play or not. Fortunately we picked up one more player – one who hadn’t played since fifth grade.
This season, except for the names, each player was different. All had dramatically improved and believed in themselves and each other. By combining and playing to each other’s strengths, they finished the regular season 7-3. The three loses were all to the same team – the one they were to meet in the recent finals, therefore making them again underdogs, but ones no longer bothered by the tag.
Preparing for the finals with only seven players wasn’t easy, so in the final week of practice, parents and siblings joined in, providing much-needed, although at times chaotic, live opposition to run plays against.
They choose a theme song for the final that echoed their confidence – the Black Eyed Peas’ “I’ve got a feeling” – playing it as they made their entrance into a jam-packed gymnasium on final’s night.
In the team huddle they told each other they could win if they played their best, but if they didn’t they were still winners because they had beaten all the odds stacked against them and had made friends with each other for life.
At the half Falmouth was down 19-13, exhausted by a team of 12 that kept running at them all game long. During the break I simply told them I believed in them and asked, “Do you have the heart to win this final. Do you believe you can do it?” They responded as one – “Yes.”
They went out pegging back the deficit, leading by five at one stage, and holding on to win 30-29.
I will never forget their joy as they accepted the championship trophy as one and then ran over to their parents to thank them for their support.
The girls have photos of that victory – for some it will bring back memories of their first championship; for others, sadly, it will bring back memories of their first and last championship ever – not because they are not good enough to do it again, but simply because they now move into high school and into age groups where only those considered to be the very best will make it onto a school team.
This is tragic because they deserve to have a competitive league in which to play, not only next year but also every year they wish to compete.
Unfortunately very few, if any, exist.
Pekka Paavonpera lives in Falmouth with his wife and daughter. He is the public relations director at Burgess Advertising & Marketing.