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A Man's Life: Becky's Got Game

by Richard Goodman
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Last Saturday, I watched my 11-year-old daughter Becky play in her first school basketball game. My heart is still pounding. This unbearably exciting game, with not one, but two overtimes, was won by my daughter’s school, 18 to 16. In a game where you thought it couldn’t get more dramatic, more nail-biting, it did, again and again.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say right off that my daughter scored 10 of her team’s 18 points. Assume pride. Assume elation. But please do not assume blindness to her teammates’ triumphs. I won’t deny the huge pleasure in watching my daughter do well, but my happiness at watching the girls play was far wider in scope than just my own daughter’s five—albeit incredible —buckets.

What you see when you go to a game in which sixth-grade girls play, and play as well as they can, with unbridled purpose, is a kind of dream fulfilled. You want your daughter to be strong in a man’s world—and let’s not kid ourselves about whose world it still is. You want her to be strong, because she needs to be strong, even if it means your handiwork turns on you and contests every minor directive you issue. You want her to be strong, and see what she can do, because what better pleasure in being a parent is there than watching your child find and exhibit belief in herself? What clearer sign can you have that, with a little luck, she’ll be okay on her own in this wide world?

I could see her and her teammates discover that on that basketball court. Whoever said basketball is just a game? Whoever said it didn’t see what I saw in that little gym on a Saturday afternoon. Didn’t see a team of girls snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in their first game. Didn’t see their astonishment that they actually had done it. Yes, it’s real, they cried, we won, we won, we won!

They certainly didn’t see my daughter’s face when she scored. It was an alternative energy source. It glowed with such unabashed, unrestrained pride, without a single watt of modesty, that all the parents’ faces in the audience responded in kind. My daughter’s mom—my ex-wife—was there, cheering our girl on. My ex, a lovely person, can sometimes be restrained in situations like this, perhaps worrying that in a team context too much exuberant response to our daughter’s individual triumphs smacks of braggadocio.

Not me. Not Dad. Dad is a screaming mental hospital escapee, unfettered by concerns of bragga-anything, arms straight in the air, leaping upward. Did you see that?

MY DAUGHTER’S A REDHEAD and has that classic fire redheads are supposed to possess. (I think I can write about her this directly and perhaps get away with it, at least for now, because when she’s a teenager, I know
I won’t have a chance.) To see her sweating, her hair sopping against the back of her neck, her face flushed, mouth dry, panting, but loving it, was something. This is an 11-year-old! Still in the thralls of squirtdom! And it was she who made the lay up that brought the team back from the brink of defeat.

But it wasn’t only she who shone. I saw one of her teammates metamorphose right before my very eyes. This is a tall, swanlike girl who had doubts about her ability to play well. You might describe her as gawky, though you can plainly see she will be a real, rare beauty. She scored twice, two hard-fought baskets, sorely needed. She let out a shriek after each basket she made, and, after each, loped down the court, raised her arm high, and made a Baryshnikov-like leap in joy. Oh, this was a moment in which confidence was born before our very eyes. You knew this girl would never think about herself the same way again, that now there was proof lodged in her own heart that she was a heroine.

MY DAUGHTER’S SQUAD PLAYED A READY, willing, and able team of girls, on average shorter than our team,
but not short in determination. They were quiet and resolute, well coached, played clean, and never complained. Worthy opponents! They had a star, too, an unlikely little girl with a ponytail and glasses who couldn’t have been more than four feet tall. She dribbled and moved with the fearlessness and ability of a master spy.

It was she, who with a mere 20 seconds left, sunk not one, but two foul shots—swish!—to tie the score. When, at last, my girl’s team beat her team, I felt something of what the Greeks felt about the great Trojan hero Hector’s defeat, a sense of quiet admiration to have beaten such a mighty adversary.

But in those remaining 20 seconds, game tied, I saw something remarkable. I saw the coach on the sidelines shout, "Give the ball to Becky! Give it to Becky!" To my daughter? Yes. To her. He was singling out my daughter. Then one of my girl’s teammates tossed her the ball. This, now—though we weren’t thinking this, couldn’t remotely think this—was a classic (there’s that Homerian reference again) situation, the kind only sports can provide. As the clock ticked pitilessly closer to the final 0, my daughter took the pass. She turned toward the basket. Then I saw a look on her face I know I never had in my brief, and rather inconsequential career in high-school sports. It was a look of rarified focus. It was the kind of focus that is more critical than talent in a situation of absolute chaos. And she had it, undeniably. I was amazed. It didn’t come from me. It was her.

Everyone held their breath. My daughter, both hands on the ball, shot. And....


It went in.


She did it! They won.

Her teammates leapt into the air as if they’d had giant springs under their seats. They rushed out and embraced Becky and then embraced one another and anyone else who wandered by and screamed with 100-percent, undiluted joy. Up and down they jumped and jumped. And they shouted, "We won! We won! We won!"

Afterward, I waited for my daughter to change and come out of the locker room. She was thrilled, and rightly so, and she bathed in the praise of her parents, friends, and even strangers. I had to be careful about showing too much enthusiasm, though. She will sometimes check me. "Dad!" she’ll say, if I go overboard. But she couldn’t see inside my heart. She couldn’t monitor my great, garrulous pride. She couldn’t know how strong I felt in the presence of her newfound strength. I was grateful, and I still am, to the game.

Richard Goodman is the author of French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France and has written
for the
New York Times, Creative Non-fiction, Commonweal, Vanity Fair, Harvard Review, the Michigan Quarterly Review, The Writer’s Chronicle, and the French Review, among other publications. He teaches creative nonfiction at Spalding University’s MFA in Writing Program, and his new book, The Soul of Creative Writing, will be published in Spring 2008 by Transaction Publishers.

Read more about Goodman's work here.

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