Several years ago, when my son Julian was in the fifth grade, he decided to sign up for the school basketball team. I was taken by surprise. We are not, nor ever have been, a sports family. I didn’t play sports as a kid and don’t watch sports as an adult. In fact, the only time I break into a sweat is when I’m whisking a hollandaise or jump-starting a car. But Julian was determined to play, and soon I was chauffeuring him back and forth to practice.
It was immediately evident that this was more of a social endeavor than an athletic one. Julian had no interest in the game of basketball and was fairly confused about how the whole thing worked. That’s not to say he didn’t have skills.
He could run and he could dribble, but he couldn’t do both simultaneously. If he happened to be passed the ball while running down court, he would stop abruptly, bounce the ball a few times, hand it to the nearest teammate, then take off in a wild sprint with no apparent destination in mind.
During the actual games, Julian spent much more time on the bench than on the court. Only if the team was so far behind that there was no hope of winning would he be put in the game, where he would invariably perform his routine of catch, stop, bounce, hand off, sprint. Only once did he attempt to make a basket. The shot didn’t go in but it did hit the backboard, and Julian reacted victoriously. That it was the opposing team’s backboard didn’t matter. I beamed with pride nonetheless.
In one game, a player on the opposing team, a rival school from the other side of the county, twisted his ankle and fell hard on the floor. The whistle sounded and the players went to their respective benches as the opposing team’s coach knelt next to the kid, who was obviously in pain. After a few tense minutes, the coach lifted the boy to his feet and began leading him off the court. Julian sprang up, ran over, and patted the player on the back as he hobbled off.
As I watched this, I happened to be sitting next to one of the school’s teachers, a kindly man named Mr. Terrell, who had been my seventh-grade history teacher at the same school many years before. “We used to give a trophy for sportsmanship,” he said. “But we haven’t done that in a long time.” I felt my eyes tear up, and my heart swell.
On the way home I asked Julian what compelled him to run across the court and pat an opposing player on the back. “He was hurt,” Julian said. “And I wanted him to feel better.”
I was more proud of my son that day than if he had scored 100 points. Ten years later he’s exactly the same—there’s not an athletic bone in his body, but he is kind, caring, and full of empathy. As a father, what more could I ask for?