When the Games End
Sports memories and the pain of finality
His ankle ached. It was the third time this practice that he had dropped to one knee to re-strap the ankle brace. Sweat from dripping from his head, he grabbed a towel to wipe the hardwood court. Standing up, he slid his shoes back and forth on the damp floor to gain some grip. He thought, “why am I doing all this?” He did it because he knew it could be the last time.
Aaron loved basketball and had been good at it since he could remember. He was always the fastest and most agile player on most any court he stepped on. But this was different. His senior year had been such a struggle. A grade 3 ankle sprain during the first preseason tournament had severely limited his movement and effectiveness on the court. He still could hear the doctor’s words, “son, it would’ve been better if you had broken it.” Then came the rehab and having to watch preseason games from the sidelines only to roll the ankle again in his first practice back. Coach wouldn’t let him play another game until they got into league play. “We need you when the games count”, coach would say.
He thought about how this year was to be he and his teammates, Brandon and Will’s crowning achievement. They’d been playing ball together since middle school and had won 3 straight high school league titles. They were so closely intertwined that they could play blindfolded. They knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses and their chemistry could be seen by a novice. This was their time. They were the leaders of the team now and they were going to win the first state championship for their school. He’d seen it in his dreams. That’s how they’d finish their last year together.
A break came and he sat down to grab a sip of water and wipe his face. After practice he knew he had more work to do. He had to put some ice on his ankle and get it elevated. He planned to watch some film on their next opponent. They were now back in the playoffs fresh off that third league title. Having beaten their round 1 opponent in a much harder game than anticipated, he knew they needed to be focused to beat this next team.
The whistle blew. Time to run through those offensive plays for again. He grimaced as he put weight on his leg.
“You, ok?”, Brandon asked.
“I’m good”, Aaron replied. “Managing,” he said with a slight smile.
Brandon could see Aaron was in pain. He moved a bit slower and seemed a bit detached during practice. Normally Aaron is the one to command the practices, getting the team organized for stretching and into their drill work. But today he asked Brandon to do it. That was different. Brandon knew something was up. He asked again. “You sure?”
Aaron could sense his friend was searching for a more concrete answer. Aaron was the point guard, the leader of the team, the one who set the tone. But this time he was hurting and had a lot weighing him down. A lot for a 17-year-old kid anyway. He cut the smile and steeled his face before he replied. “I’m good. Let’s get to work.”
Brandon understood what that meant. It meant “drop it”.
Aaron walked in the door and heard newspaper ripping. Another sign of the changing times. His mom was packing. They were moving to Texas in a few weeks, and she was trying to stay ahead of the looming move date. Aaron had offered to stay out here in the desert with his friends so he could finish his senior year. The answer was a resounding “No”.
“We’re a family. We stick together’, his folks would remind him.
He remembered those words as he walked past the folded carboard boxes leaning against the living room wall on his way to the fridge.
“You need to begin packing this week while we are gone” His mom said.
Aaron just nodded. No need to answer. He knew. He opened the door to his room, set his gym bag by his closet door, and sat down on the bed. His face was blank. He laid down, putting his leg on a stack of pillows and rested the ice pack on his ankle. He had no stomach for watching film. He just wanted to stay here. With his friends. To make matters worse his parents were headed to a church conference this week. They were pastors and went every year, so it wasn’t a surprise that they’d be gone. But he thought this year maybe they’d stay. They’d come to watch his playoff games. Since these games would be his last.
“There you are.” His dad said as he poked his head in the slightly open door. “I heard you come in. I’m going to leave you some money tomorrow, so you kids have something to eat. Oh, and make sure your sister gets to school on time.” His dad disappeared around the hallway corner as quietly as he had appeared.
“Yes sir” Aaron replied. Aaron laid back down and stared at the ceiling. The place he called home would soon be somewhere else. The playoff run weighed heavier on him now. He wanted so badly for it to end in victory. But even in victory his world would change. Whether they won or lost didn’t matter. He was still leaving. He closed his eyes and he grimaced. His ankle was a bit swollen. The soreness was numbing his sense of anger. Distracting him from the emotions building up inside. The wave would come crashing down eventually. In one way or another.
Aaron looked up at the scoreboard. 75-62, them. His hands were on his hips, and he was gasping for air. He had nothing left and now all was lost. Fifteen seconds to go and it’ll all be over. He heard a whistle blow. Coach had called a timeout. He could see that five of the underclassmen were set to check into the game. It was the official sign of the white flag and a chance for the home crowd to recognize the efforts he and his teammates had put in over their 4 years together. He felt an arm go over his shoulder. It was Brandon. He didn’t say a word. His eyes directed Aaron to look to the stands. One by one the home crowd stood up and began clapping and cheering. They cheered just as loudly in defeat as they had when the game was still in the balance. Will covered his face with his hands, sobbing. They could all feel it coming.
As they walked over toward the bench, coach came to meet them. He wrapped his arms around each of them as passed by with tears in his eyes. Coach Smith had watched these guys play together back in middle school and it was Coach Smith who begged Aaron to tryout for the Varsity team his sophomore year. He knew how tight the bond was between those three guys and he knew it was that bond that would lead this little school in the desert to more victories than they’d ever seen. He wanted to give them the honor they deserved. This school was now on the map. They had a winning culture in their basketball program. And these three high school kids had a lot to do with both.
“I’m so proud of you guys”, Coach said tearfully. “Thank you for giving this team and our school everything you had. They are cheering for you.” He said as he pointed to the crowd.
They turned to see the stands still erupting with applause. Even the opposing team’s fans were participating. In this small town in the high desert, this was as close to fame as it got. In this moment they were heroes returning home from a fabled and storied conquest. They raised their hands to acknowledge the crowd. Time had stopped. Then the whistle blew, and the moment had passed. One of their teammates dribbled out the clock and the buzzer went off. The game was over. This time the celebration came from the opposing bench and their players. Aaron looked down at the ground and gritted his teeth. They were not going to state.
They walked in single file to shake their opponents’ hands. Damned sportsmanship. Aaron and his team were all misty eyed as they repeated the familiar phrase over and over again, “good game.” He and the team began walking toward the home stands. Parents, siblings, and girlfriends raced out to comfort the young men. Aaron’s sister was in tears as she hugged him. She looked up to him and knew he was in pain but not from his ankle. Aaron’s eyes darted through the stands in hopes of seeing his parents. Hoping that they’d also be making their way to him. To hug their boy. But he knew they weren’t there. They were a thousand miles away. In church somewhere, being holy.
After a few more hugs, they all managed to make it back to the locker room. All were standing. Not one uniform or shoe had been removed. They stood like they were waiting for the next game. Like it wasn’t over. Coach Smith walked in, and the team gathered around him. “I just want to say thank you. This isn’t the outcome we wanted but I wouldn’t trade the journey for anything. I’ll leave it to your team leaders to address the team.” He said.
All those tear-filled eyes made their way to Aaron. The team leader. The one who kept them in line and brought intensity to their practices. The one who knew all the plays and everybody’s role. The one who loved to laugh. The one who was moving away. Aaron’s eyes met theirs. He smiled. He thought about his folks who weren’t there. He thought about the first time he played basketball at recess with these Brandon and Will. He thought about the final score of the game. He thought about them going their separate ways. Will playing ball for the local community college and Brandon heading to a small school in Northern California. He thought about all the screens they’d set over the years and the passes he made and the baskets they scored. The long bus rides to road games. The times they’d come out of their home tunnel to a raucous crowd and a nervous opponent. The late nights playing video games and talking about girls. The first time they rode in each other’s first car. It was the end of all that. They were going to be men growing up in different places. No longer teammates. It was all too much for 17-year-old Aaron. He could feel that wave of emotion that had built up come crashing down. Between the onset of tears he said, “Family, I love you.”
Aaron closed the old yearbook he found with the picture of his high school team. He had scheduled a meeting in an hour with an investor and his phone was letting him know. It was the only time he could get nailed down with the businessman. Then another notification popped up, “Chloe’s basketball game at 5:30 pm”. His daughter had a basketball game at the same time as his meeting. He stood up. His ankle ached from the way he had been sitting on the floor. A familiar ache. He picked up the phone and left a message for the investor. “We have to reschedule the meeting. My daughter has a game tonight and I need to be there. I hope you understand.” He said as he ended the call. His nose let out a sniffle and he touched his face. He had been crying. Those memories were just as fresh now as they were 20 years ago. He texted his wife. “Baby, save me a seat. I’m on my way.”