A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker


Adam was a marked man.  I knew it, and the teenage players on the church league basketball team I was coaching knew it.  For us to win we had to stop him.  And that wasn’t going to be easy, since he was six inches taller than anyone on our team.  He was also a great jumper, an excellent shooter, a fine ball-handler and an outstanding defensive player.

Oh, and they tell me he made a mean batch of popcorn to sell at halftime, too.

But we had a pretty good team, and in our pre-game huddle we stressed the importance of working together – as a team – to contain Adam.  If we did, we had a chance.  If we didn’t . . .

Adam easily controlled the opening tip, and his team sprinted down the court.  With a couple of quick passes they had the ball back in his hands just a few feet from the basket for what should have been an easy shot.  But he didn’t even look at the hoop.  Instead, he passed to a smaller, younger player on his team who took an ill-advised shot that missed badly.

“Nice try!” Adam shouted to his teammate as they ran up court.  “Get it next time!”

A few minutes later Adam again spotted his younger, smaller teammate unguarded while three or four members of our team swarmed around him and the ball.  He flipped the ball to the other player, who confidently drilled a 15-footer.

“Great shot!” Adam shouted, smiling, as the two slapped hands.  “Keep it up!”

The first three quarters of the game followed the same pattern.  While Adam made a few shots, most of the time he distributed the ball to his teammates.  He also encouraged our players, although he often did it after taking a rebound away from them or blocking a shot.  If anyone from either team was knocked to the ground, Adam was the first to extend a hand and a smile.

As the two teams prepared to begin the fourth quarter, the outcome of the game was still very much in doubt.  Adam’s team was ahead, but only slightly.  My boys felt good about their chances.  As I hunkered on the bench, however, I noticed the scorekeepers smiling knowingly.

“What’s going on?” I asked, wanting to be included in the joke.

“Just watch,” one of them said.  “You’ll see.”

What I saw was a devastating display of athleticism.  In fewer than three minutes Adam turned a close game into a rout.  He dunked and hit three-pointers.  He blocked shots and rebounded.  He stole passes and fed his teammates for lay-ups.  And just like that it was over.

After the game I must have looked a little shell-shocked, because one of those smiling scorekeepers came over and put an arm around me.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said.  “Adam does that all the time. He doesn’t turn it on until the fourth quarter, and then only long enough to put the game out of reach.”

But why?  Let’s be honest: you don’t normally associate such grace and good sportsmanship with teenage boys, you know what I mean?  So I asked Adam about it when I bumped into him at the store a few days later.  He gave me that “Well, isn’t it obvious?” look I get from my own teenagers whenever I sell them a little short in the maturity department.

“Hey,” he said, “it’s a game.  It’s supposed to be fun – for everyone.”

He’s right, of course.  But sometimes it’s hard to remember the recreational roots of athletics when our sports pages are filled with hard-nosed business negotiations and crime reports, or when you watch a game on TV and see players talking trash and looking for any opportunity to make an opponent look bad.  That’s why it’s good to know there are still a few athletes like Adam who are blessed with great skills as well as with great humanity.  Good sportsmanship sets them apart from other athletes and makes them marked men and women.

On the field of play, and off.

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— © Joseph Walker

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