A growth experience

April 17, 1999|By Rob Kasper

WHEN I ASKED my 14-year-old if we should sign up for a father-son basketball tournament being held at his middle school, I did not detect much fervor in his reply. I did not hear, "That would be swell, Dad." Instead, I got a grunt.

Since I am fluent in the language of grunts -- having already experienced one son's journey through the early teens -- I recognized that this was a grunt in the affirmative. Sometimes the affirming grunt is about as good as parent-child communication gets.

From the kid's point of view, he was agreeing to give up a Friday night -- time that could have been spent in the company of friends or a computer screen -- to appear in a public place with his parent. Moreover, there was the strong risk that sometime during the evening this parent would do something stupid.

Had my son and I been able to "dialogue about our concerns," I would have told him that I, too, was worried about doing something stupid. I would have told him that in the sea of fatherhood, these parent-child sporting events are shoals that must be carefully navigated.

From a dad's point of view, you want to demonstrate competence -- to "represent" -- without being gung-ho. You don't want to get injured, or bloody the cherry-cheeked kid who happens to wander into your path.

But we didn't talk. The kid grunted, I signed the form. Then on the night of the event, the kid announced that he had changed his mind. Rather than playing hoops, he now wanted to spend the evening gyrating at a school dance that was also being held that night. Too bad, I told him. We had committed to this event twice, first when the form came home, and the second time when the organizer telephoned after the original date had been snowed out.

The parents who had labored to set up an elaborate series of three 15-minute games were counting on us to be there. This was not the answer the kid wanted to hear. He went into a funk, and we drove to this father-son bonding event in stony silence.

When we arrived at the school, the kid kept his distance from me. He warmed up, shooting baskets with a few other eighth-graders who somehow had also ended up at the gym rather than the dance. I stood around with a few dads I knew, stretching, lacing up my many braces, praising the soothing powers of ibuprofen.

"Some of those dads look pretty young," observed Carlton, Joe's dad, who had weathered a few of these father-son events.

I concurred. The frisky fathers looked like they might actually run, instead of mosey, down the basketball court. Moreover, also on hand were a number of svelte and supple volunteers -- guys who played on the high-school varsity basketball team, members of the faculty and school staff -- who had agreed to serve as surrogate dads for middle-school kids who needed an adult partner.

I watched as my kid's Japanese teacher -- the sole female in the event -- dribbled down the court. I bet her knees, unlike mine, didn't sound like popcorn when they made sudden movements. It looked like it was going to be a long evening.

Thankfully, the event was organized so that every team didn't have to play each other. With the luck of the draw, you could avoid the young, the spirited, the sprinting teams.

That is what happened to our four-man team, composed of David, a sixth-grader, his uncle Greg, my son and me. Adopting a "minimum movement for dads" game plan, the adult members of our team stood, like tree stumps, under the defensive basket. We grabbed rebounds and then hurled the ball to the two boys, our shooters, who had run to other end of the court.

This approach worked well for me. Several times I didn't even journey beyond the half-court line. My son, however, didn't care for my style of play. He criticized my lack of mobility, and my desire, and this was after we had won a game. I, in turn, told the kid he needed to pass more and dribble less. Instead of bonding, we bickered.

In another game, David, the sixth-grader, saved our skin, hitting a shot at the buzzer to edge out a team composed of Matt, a sharp-shooting seventh-grader; Matt's energetic dad, Ron; Jonathan, a spirited eighth-grader; and Jonathan's surrogate dad, Bob, who was pressed into service when Duke, Jonathan's dad, had eye surgery.

Bob contended that since he had come out of retirement to play in this middle-school event -- his kids were in high school -- he should be named Most Valuable Player. It was hard to argue the point. Any dad who gave up his Barcalounger on a Friday night to play ball with somebody else's kid would get my vote.

During the lull between games, it seemed to me that the younger kids were laughing and talking with their dads, while the older kids -- my son, Qwenton, Brendan -- were gathering in knots, laughing at the exploits of their elders. I took this as a good sign. Mockery is, I think, is a step toward bonding.

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