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Wed Apr 28, 2010 12:57 pm

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It would be something of an overstatement to say that I played on the school basketball team in junior high.

I was on the team. I practiced with the team. I wore the black and white uniform. Yes, color HAD been invented by this time -- black and white were our school colors... or absence of colors, as the case may be of the mighty Millcreek Mustangs.

I ran out on the floor and did lay-ups before the game started, then I sat on the bench and waved a towel and cheered for the guys who were actually going to play in the game. And when we won, I hugged cheerleaders and Pep Club members, who seemed to like hugging me because I wasn't all sweaty.

As far as I was concerned, it was a pretty good arrangement. I enjoyed the camaraderie with the players, the workouts kept me in shape, I had a great seat for all of the games and I got a number of exuberant post-game hugs from Heidi Van Ert, who was the president of the Pep Club and the object of my 9th grade affections. But I didn't feel any of the pressure that comes with knowing that the outcome of the game may rest on your bony adolescent shoulders.

I don't know how my Dad felt about my bench-warming status. We never talked about it. In retrospect, I imagine it was hard for him. Dad was a gifted athlete. He played basketball and ran track in college. He was fast and strong and he could jump like a kangaroo -- at least, that's what it says in his news clips.

By the time I was old enough to play ball with him he was well into his 50s and wasn't moving like he used to. But he could still kill me in games of H-O-R-S-E with a two-handed set shot that he could hit from half-court -- time after time after time.

Two of my older brothers were high school sports stars, and the third was an important part of a college basketball team that won the NIT championship (OK, he was the equipment manager - he still received an NIT championship ring that he wore until the day he died.)

Dad was used to going to games to watch his sons PLAY. I'm not sure how he felt about going to games to watch his son SIT. And cheer. And wave a towel. And, hopefully, hug.

Still, Dad was always there in his suit and tie, usually standing in a corner of the gym, leaning against the wall. I'd make eye contact with him during pre-game lay-ups -- it would've been uncool to smile or wave. And then I forgot about him until after the game -- and the hugging -- when he'd come up to me and smile and shake my hand and tell me, "Good game!"

Even though I never actually did anything to make the game good.

Until the last game of the season.

We were playing our arch-rivals, the South Davis Redmen (OK, so maybe we didn't have actual colors for school colors -- at least our mascot wasn't politically incorrect). It was a great day for the Mustangs, as we galloped off to a big lead. We were up by about 20 with two minutes to play when coach finally felt comfortable enough to look toward my end of the bench.

"Walker!" he barked. "You're in!"

The next two minutes are still kind of surreal to me. I remember running up and down the court a few times. I remember getting a rebound on defense and then running up the floor as the Pep Club starting counting down the last seconds of the game. I remember hearing them yell "5!" just as Mark passed the ball to me. I remember hearing the guys on the bench behind me shouting "Shoot!" as I faced the basket -- and shot. I remember watching the ball bounce off the backboard and through the hoop as the buzzer went off. I remember hearing everyone scream and yell like I had just won the game even though it just meant that we won by 22, not 20.

And I remember wondering what to do.

I mean, I knew what to do when we won a game while I was sitting on the bench. But I was completely unprepared for what to do when we won a game and I had hit a last-second shot -- meaningless though it may have been.

Instinctively, I looked for Dad. And he was there, where he always was, smiling at me as he always did. And somehow that helped -- just knowing he was there -- and I came back to my senses in time to give a sweatier-than-usual hug to Heidi.

For the next 35 years that was always the case -- not the "sweaty hug" part, but the "Dad was there" part.

Through good times and bad, Dad was always there to smile, to encourage, to support and to love. I came to depend on that, even toward the end of his life when smiling was about all that he could do. It helped to know that, no matter what, Dad was there.

And now I'm the one who is in my 50s struggling to keep pace with a teenage basketball player in my family. I think about Dad on Father's Day or whenever I'm tempted to NOT be there for my children.

To be honest, I'm not as good at it as Dad was. But I keep trying because I know how much it can mean for Dad to be there when you hit that big shot.

Or especially when you don't.


I like this story. Do you?



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