On a beautiful, sunny, late February Sunday, I worked with my parents to put up a basketball net for my son, Jack's, ninth birthday. I knew this was a gift Jack would use daily. And sure, enough, the morning after his birthday, he was out back, shooting baskets at 6:39 a.m.
Since then, every day he’s been out there, with me, or his friends, his grandparents or sister, and even alone. I love to watch him, a solitary figure of concentration and focus, shooting baskets as I make dinner, but often, I can’t help myself. I have to stop what I’m doing and take him to “school” which is what we call it. He threatens to school me, but I tell him I’m the teacher, and he says he’s got lessons I need to learn. And then we boil over with laughter.
Last night, it was 32 degrees outside, but we didn’t feel it as we drank in that extra hour of sunlight and enjoyed being in our bodies. We played until we were sweaty. I explained how to box out under the net, talked about using the backboard as a tool, and illustrated the shooting technique my junior varsity Coach Kelly Sears taught me. Follow through. All in the wrist. I showed him how to step into the pass, how to pivot at the waist, ball gripped firmly with fingers spread, always looking ahead and down the court for who’s open.
All of this was braided in with the joy of the fresh air, ebullient laughter over hilarious, nonsensical trash talk, whooping it up after a shot was all net, the bone and muscle freedom of movement, and also discussing some of the really hard stuff that’s part of life that we can’t change, that we have to accept, feel and deal with open heartedly.
I told him about how in fifth grade, when I started playing basketball, my coaches Jim Lucie and Richard Watson encouraged us to try to mean the “Good game” and hand shake we offered the other team’s players, especially when we lost. I told him basketball helped me learn not to be envious of other’s successes, and that the outcome of the game is important, but how the game is played really matters. Fair play is something to take pride in regardless of the numbers on the scoreboard.
Last week, Jack came home from school talking about WIU’s Women’s Basketball team. “Do you have ESPN?” he asked. He wanted to watch the Leathernecks become the Summit League Tournament Champions. What a game it was! A dramatic nail biter, these phenomenal student athletes took the win over IUPUI in overtime, 77-69, for their first Summit League Tournament title since 1995. I loved watching the players flood out onto the court, and huddle as a team in a huge embrace.
"If that win deserved to happen, it was for this team. Every single person on the roster is the most selfless kid I've coached. Definitely the most selfless team I've coached and I'm really happy for my players,” head coach JD Gravina said of the win.
Basketball wasn’t “just a game” for me. I learned so much on the court that has informed who I am and how I live. In junior high and high school, basketball helped me love my body for what it could do, instead of hating it for what it wasn’t. I learned to lean into discomfort, endure the struggle of disciplined practice, enjoy hard work and exertion, and take wonderment in the fact that as a team, we could do things together I had not thought possible.
I loved my teammates. We’d been through difficulty and growing pains together, the transcendence of a glorious win, as well as being sick to our stomachs after a hard loss. Coach Sears taught me about basketball, life, and his no excuses example of motivating and inspiring still impacts my own teaching. He helped me see my own potential when I could not.
But I know that women’s equal access to sports wasn’t available to my own mother, and that we still have real work to do on this front. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 protects people from the discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance.
Title IX states that: No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.
According to The Women’s Sports Foundation, there has been an “increase in high school girls’ varsity sports participation from 1 in 27 in 1972 to 2 in 5 girls in 2006.” They also note, “Women athletes are actually covered less in media now than they were in 1989 (5% of TV coverage). In 2014, only 3.2% of network television coverage was given to women’s sports; SportsCenter only gave women 2% of coverage. (Cooky, Messner, & Musto, 2015)”. Check out their FAQ page to get fired up about the work that we still have to do in this arena, and then do something real.
On Friday, March 17th, the Leatherneck’s will compete against Florida State at 6:30 p.m. The game will be aired on ESPN2. Gather your daughters and your sons, your friends and neighbors. Pop some popcorn and grab a cold drink. You’ll see poetry in motion, I guarantee it, but you’ll also witness, during the course of the game, what it means to be human—all the glorious struggle, the seemingly effortless ease that only comes through showing up relentlessly to practice. We’ll see grit and guts and soul. We’ll see individual players working selflessly, together as a team, toward a common goal, and we’ll be inspired, no matter the outcome, to imagine the possibilities of our own capabilities off the court.
Barbara Harroun is an Assistant Professor of English at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.