A Weekly Column
Joseph Walker


My teenage son Jon’s city league basketball team has fallen into a distressing pattern of late.  They start each game slowly, often getting behind by 10 points or more, then they come rallying back in the second half, usually winning at the end.

The players on the team seem to be content with the situation.  The games are always exciting, with new stars saving our collective bacon every week.  As long as we eventually win, that’s all that matters to them.  The only person who is distressed about it is me, because I’m the coach, and I’m not sure how many close calls this old heart of mine can handle.

A few weeks ago we were making our requisite second half comeback against a team that had completely dominated us in the first half.  Thanks to some intense play on our part and a little over-confidence on the other team’s part, we had narrowed a 20-point lead to one point with fewer than 20 seconds to play.  In an attempt to get the ball back we fouled one of the other team’s players, and it just happened to be a young man who had missed everything – the rim, the net, the backboard, EVERYTHING – on only his previous attempt.

I liked our chances.

I called a time out and the team huddled around me.

“He’s going to miss, so we’ve got to get the rebound,” I said confidently.  Then I mapped out our strategy for bringing the ball down the court and scoring the winning basket.  It was a great plan except for one thing: the kid on the other team made both of his free throws.

Suddenly we were down three instead of one, and that great plan I had just formulated didn’t make sense anymore.  Since we were out of time outs, I shouted some instructions, but we ended up turning the ball over, fouling the other team again and losing by four.

Jon was devastated.

“Oh man,” he said after the game.  “Can we get a hamburger?”

Devastation only lasts so long when you’re 17 and there’s fast food on the way home.

So, OK.  Jon was evidently coping with the devastating loss. I, on the other hand, had a hard time getting to sleep that night.  I wasn’t angry or upset – my team had played well against talented competition, and I was proud of their resilient comeback.  I didn’t yell or throw things – I generally reserve those histrionics for when my professional team plays poorly, which they seem to do more often than not these days.  I just couldn’t sleep.  I paced the floor wondering “what ifs.”  What if that kid had missed his free throws?  What if I hadn’t wasted my last time out BEFORE he shot his free throws, but had waited until I knew what the situation was?  What if we hadn’t turned the ball over and had been able to find our best shooter for a three-point shot?

What if?  What if?  What if?

You can make yourself crazy wondering “what if.”  Believe me.  I’ve wrestled with the question enough through the years to know what kind of toothpaste it uses.  What if Mom and Dad had decided to stop after seven children?  What if “No Pants Vance” (uh, sorry – long story) hadn’t treated Anita so poorly just before I came along in her life?  What if I hadn’t on a whim taken that first journalism class in college?

“What if?” is a great question if you’re looking forward.  It opens your eyes to possibilities you might not otherwise consider.  It can even be useful looking back in a “lessons learned” context. But there is little enlightenment or satisfaction in looking back and agonizing over the various and sundry “what ifs” in our lives.

“Living the past is a dull and lonely business,” said novelist Edna Ferber.  “Looking back strains the neck muscles and causes you to bump into people not going your way.”

Especially when you’re up late, pacing the floor and wondering “what if.”

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— © Joseph Walker

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