My little guy was watching with tears streaming down his face as his twin brother played basketball.
There was nothing I could do but offer him my shoulder to lean on, and it occurred to me that this is why sports matter.
My fraternal twins are 11 years old, and they’re obsessed with basketball.
They watch hoops on YouTube. They read Slam! magazine. And at last year, they memorized the NBA’s top 10 all-time scorers in order.
They play ball in the driveway, on video games, on a tiny hoop in the living room, at the park, on the school playground and for a youth-league team.
They’re both pretty good, but the younger twin (by one minute) is something else.
He’s small for his age, and he’s been getting his hair cut like Devin Booker since he’s been big enough to tell me how he wants to look. His feet are kinda big, so I think he’s got a shot to be tall. Right now, though, he’s almost in middle school, but he’s small enough to pass for a third grader.
I’ve always told him that doesn’t matter, even in basketball. “The smaller you are, the more skill you need,” I tell him.
In a recent game, played the same day the Suns beat the Pacers 113-103, Tiny Book and his youth-league teammates were getting smacked around by a bigger and more organized group of kids. It was one of those games that was so lopsided that they should have just shut off the scoreboard.
But my little dude wasn’t giving in.
With about 5 minutes left to play, he walked the ball across half court, assessed the defense and buried a 3-pointer from the top of the arc.
Next play, same result.
Back-to-back 3-pointers from high-school range toward the end of a blowout loss, as if to say, “You might be winning, but you’ll never beat me.”
It didn’t have much of an effect on the game. We still lost. (I say “we,” because I’m fortunate enough to sit on the bench and scream “hands up” and “box out” and “cut! Cut! CUT!” I’m not much of an assistant coach, but I’m quite loud.)
Regardless of the result, I couldn’t have been prouder.
Then a few hours later, I was.
The little sniper was called up to play with our club’s elite squad. A couple of injures and a case of COVID-19 left the roster depleted, so the coach gave my guy a shot to run with the big boys.
We were excited, but the older twin was understandably disappointed.
It’s a new experience for him to be outshined by his brother.
He’s taller by a head and shoulders, so people often think he’s older by a year or two, not a minute or two. He’s also impossibly responsible. Around the house, I sometimes call him “Sarge.”
“Hey, Sarge, chill.”
“Dad, the girls aren’t listening to me.”
“I get it, dude, but they’re only 5 and 2. They don’t listen to me or your mother half the time. You’re doing the right thing, but just come get me. I’ll handle it. It’s not your job to run the whole house. Just be a kid.”
A version of this scene plays out once or twice a week at my house. Usually, he stands there, seething, with his arms crossed and his jaw set.
He’s a great kid, well-mannered, conscientious, kind, hard-working and thoughtful.
His twin brother is many of those things, but mostly, he’s a goofball.
They’re like a tiny, Black version of “The Odd Couple.”
The best way to describe the differences in their personalities is with an anecdote from when they were 4 or 5. A friend had broken her bracelet at a party, and beads spilled all over the kitchen floor. They. Were. Everywhere.
The older twin went around pressing his finger into each individual bead, then scraping it off into a plastic sandwich bag.
He needed a little help, but his brother was nowhere around.
I found him a few minutes later in the next room, basking in the attention of a cluster of adults. In my mind’s eye, he’s at the center of a tight pre-pandemic circle, almost like Turbo in “Breakin’” or Kid in “House Party.” His arms are spread wide, and he’s smiling and spinning around like Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music.”
I saw my older (by one minute) son go through all of the stages of grief.
Denial. (“I’m going to wear my jersey to the game, and Coach Paul is gonna put me in.”)
Bargaining. (“I can just sit on the bench, right?”)
Anger. (I read this one on his face when he stomped off to his room.)
Depression. (My little dude was crying, silently sitting next to me in the bleachers.)
At first, I tried to talk him through it.
“Look, bud, they’re playing a zone, can you tell if it’s a 2-3 or a 3-2?”
“Man, did you see Paul Jr. move without the ball there? That’s a great way to get easy buckets.”
It occurred to me that I should shut up, quit “coaching” and just be his dad.
I had to trust that he’d figure out his emotions and that the disappointment wouldn’t kill him. It might even make him stronger.
We were both cheering as our guy got a bucket. (Then, after the refs called him for a travel, I was screaming, “That’s OK, play through it!”) We cheered more when he scored again. (This one counted.)
And my disappointed son has played ball every day since.
I sometimes have to tell him to give it a break and go read about a dragon or build a rocket ship out of Legos or something.
We learned lessons that day.
Him as young man, learning that the world is beyond his control.
Me as a dad, learning that sometimes that’s all I need to be.
And it’s occurred to me, this is why sports matter.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Moore: Here's how youth basketball teaches me to be a better father