by Vanessa Poe
“All the world’s a stage” wrote Shakespeare, and in the modern world sports have become our entertainment, the court a stage as it were. We will descend on a court of sorts, this stage, this battleground, is a Catholic school elementary gymnasium on a beautiful spring afternoon. If ever one is to go to battle, do it in the spring.
At exactly three pm on a Tuesday in lovely Glendale California two dueling elementary school aged boys teams met to battle it out on the basketball court. St. Dom’s and St. Nick’s were not long time rivals, in fact the two had never met before. This was fourth grade basketball and it was the first year either of the teams had played in the archdiocese league. The parents assembled and exchanged sighs about the amount of homework and the upcoming auction where each family has to shell out hundreds of dollars to fund the various programs the school keeps insisting it is about to offer. This was home turf for St. Dom’s and there were ten boys doing some strong drilling just as the coach had demanded.
Coach Perez was a cop, not just any cop, but LAPD. This is why the parents never said anything when he yelled too much, which was always. Or when he berated the kids, which happened more than most were comfortable with. But, this being the generation of kids just after the “helicopter parents” generation, no one wanted to say anything for fear of being ostracized as a “softy, whose child was ruining America”.
“What are you doing? Are you stupid?”, he yelled as one boy tried for a three pointer and missed, terribly. “No. No. No. No.” He’d say as he slammed the clip board against his legs. Then, he’d turn to the crowd, “this is why I drink.” Everyone would laugh, but it wasn’t funny.
Coach Nguyen, from the visiting team, was recovering from skin cancer. A native of Los Angeles, he moved here when his mother was pregnant with him from Vietnam, he had spent a lifetime in the sun and it finally had taken its toll. He had beaten the advanced melanoma, but not without the sleepless nights and the long drives for chemo. He lost all of his hair, but admittedly, this was not as bad for a man as it was for a woman. The most irritating thing about it was the white blotches on his face. Even if he felt great, and compared to what he had felt like last year at this time, he did, he looked sickly. Most people still treated him as a “patient” and he loathed it. Frankly, coaching was the best thing he’d done in the two years since his diagnosis. However, the chemo had rendered him soft spoken and most of the time you had to strain to hear him. If and when he called your name as a player, you listened, out of respect, but also because you just didn’t want to wear him out.
Typically school lets out at a quarter of three. By the time you drive through the traffic, and in Los Angeles there’s always traffic, the soonest most visiting schools arrive at St. Dom’s was by three fifteen. That gives a fifteen minute warm-up to the visiting team. The games start of three thirty. Coach Perez was a stickler for the three thirty time. And this particular day was no exception. “Coach, I have three thirty!” He said as he stormed across the court. “Let’s go!”
“My team isn’t here yet” explained Coach Nguyen. “Just give us a few more minutes” he said softly. “You have five players. That’s enough to start.” said Coach Perez as he tapped his watch on his wrist. “I have somewhere to be so I need to start on time.” He said. “Look, “ started Coach Nguyen, “just give me a couple of minutes, they are almost here.” “You look,” replied Coach Perez, “rule book says we start at three thirty and you have five players, so we’re starting.” Coach Nguyen’s arms went limp, his clip board rested on his lap. Coach Perez’s clip board was held up right. “Why are you being so mean?” asked Coach Nguyen tenderly. Coach Perez laughed and walked away, unable to hold Coach Nguyen’s gaze into him. “I got somewhere to be, that’s all Coach.”
Coach Perez walked up to his team. The ten year olds stood at attention. “Let’s play ball!” The team shouted and ran on the floor. The visiting team, St. Nick’s stood about a full head shorter than the boys from St. Dom’s. The ref stepped to the center of the court. Both team Captains stepped forward. Everyone’s head hung and there was a silence that fell over the gymnasium. “Our Father, who art in heaven”, the ref started and everyone joined in. It was a Catholic school tradition to say the Lord’s prayer before any sporting event. One wondered if the calling upon the Lord had any affect. And so they invoked the Prince of Peace and tossed a coin in the air. The ref threw up the ball and the game was in motion.
Basketball is a glorious sport. It’s fast paced, dramatic and pretty low on the injury scale. All in all it’s a wonderful game to play as a team. St. Dom’s won the ball in the tip off. Jimmy Calahan took the ball down the court. He was by far the best thing St. Dom’s had to offer. He went straight to the basket and put it in. Two points on the board. St. Nick’s brought the ball down the court. Braden Mills was on the defense for St. Dom’s. His father, Tom Mills, had already declared him a “shoe in” for Notre Dame. The kid’s whole life was looking bright before him. Sure enough, he swiped the ball out from under the St. Nick’s player’s hands and ran it down the court, easy lay up, and the score was four, zip. Coach Perez could hardly stand it. “That’s right! That’s right St. Dom’s Knights! Do not stand down! Do not stand down!” The boys were beaming.
Coach Nguyen shook his head and in his soft voice called out to his team, “Stay in your zone, stay focused”. No sooner had the words left his mouth when Jimmy came up and stole the ball and put up an easy two points. The score was six to nothing. Coach Perez nearly shat himself with glee. Just then the rest of the St. Nick’s team arrived. They stumbled in and a few of the parents were displeased that the game had started without their boys. Coach Nguyen called a time out to acclimate his team. They huddled up. Coach Perez took this opportunity to remind his team that it was because of all of his hard work that they were, “creaming the pants off the Lions.” He actually boasted, “I don’t hear a roar boys, I hear only a whimper. Now get out there and destroy!” The boys hooted and hollered as they ran out on the floor. The new team stepped on the floor and suddenly there was a disturbance in the force. The late players stood a full head over the St. Dom’s boys.
“St. Nick’s you have the ball.” Called the ref and one of the late kids threw it in. It seemed to only have been in bounds for a mere second when the first basket for St. Nick’s went in. Six to two read the score board and there was life back in the game. Coach Nguyen didn’t flinch. He made no adjustment to his temperament. He called out plays in his timid voice and no matter how loud the crowd roared or whistles blew, his team heard him and executed the plays flawlessly. All the kids on St. Nick’s team had nicknames like Froggie and Road Runner. Road Runner was the point guard and he never lost the ball. Road Runner brought the ball down the court. He called out the play and his teammates responded. Coach Perez did not stop yelling, “Jimmy, get up there, kid, what the hell!” Jimmy got up on Road Runner and attempted to slow him down at the very least. Road Runner faked him out and took it right down the center to the basket. The visiting team parents erupted with roars. Coach Perez slammed his clip board down and shook violently. “Come on you guys!” he shouted. Road Runner and the pack put every basket in that they attempted. They took every rebound from the St. Dom’s team. The boys hung their heads in shame.
By half time the score was forty six to six. As the St. Nick’s boys walked to their locker room for half time, the parents yelled things like, “I can smell you Lions, you smell good.” The St. Dom’s boys had already started their somber walk to their locker room when one parent stood and yelled, “go think about how you’re going to come back out and redeem yourselves!” Coach Perez slammed the locker room door shut. While the warring teams were off in their dens, the parents remained somewhat neutral. Things had normalized and talk began again about homework, the hot lunch program, and summer vacation plans.
The buzzer sounded and St. Nick’s team emerged first from the locker room. They took the court and began to practice three pointers. No one missed a single basket. Coach Nguyen stood on the sidelines and beamed with pride. The Knight’s came out of their locker room with puffy eyes and red faces. They had already lost and had to come back and take it, take it like little men. Something happened as the last kid left the locker room and just before Coach Perez came out, that old door slammed shut again, and this time it got stuck. The ref and a few of the dads ran over to help out but to no avail. The ref walked up, “guys, according to the rules, we have to start the second half or we consider this a forfeit on your part.” Coach Nguyen and dads looked at each other. They were at a crossroads. On the one hand, the boys had been slaughtered and maybe it was time to throw in the towel. On the other, the coach was locked up and maybe it would free the boys a bit to just enjoy the game, no matter who was winning, it was about playing after all, wasn’t it? No one seemed to be able to remember for sure anymore. Coach Nguyen looked at the dads, “Give the boys their due shot”. The dads nodded in agreement. The Captains stepped forward and the ball was tossed up in the air. St. Dom’s had the ball. Jimmy brought it down the court. Coach Nguyen yelled out a play, “Operation rob the bank, Froggie!” he called in a tone that had not yet been heard from him and Froggie stepped out of the way as Jimmy floated towards the basket and put in two. For the first time since the first quarter the Knights had made a basket. It was exhilarating. The roar from the visiting team gave the Knights an extra bounce in their step and they floated down the court to defend their domain. The visiting team crowd stood on their feet and began chanting, “defense! defense!” The home team crowd stood and joined in, “defense! defense!” Braden Mills blocked a pass and Jimmy took the ball and ran it down the court. Two more points for the Knights. Everyone cheered. Froggie walked up to him and high-fived him. What fun!
The boys ran back and forth maneuvering plays and making baskets. The St. Nick’s Lions held their lead but St. Dom’s was in the game. That, according to Coach Nguyen, was reasonable, “You should never feel like there is no hope”, he was to say later. The boys had fun. The parents had fun. Everyone cheered for everyone. And in the distant back ground Coach Perez wailed and pounded on the locker room door. Everyone counted down the last few seconds on the clock. Jimmy had the ball, Froggie came to defend him and they danced all the way down the court. Jimmy loaded his shot and jumped up. Froggie jumped up with him. But Jimmy dug down deep inside himself and topped even his best attempt. The ball swished. St. Dom’s didn’t beat the Lions, but they had played their best and they had enjoyed themselves. The buzzer sounded and all the boys hugged and jumped and high-fived. In his gentle Lion roar Coach Nguyen announced that all the families were invited to his house for Pizza. Everyone packed up and congratulated one another. On the way out they talked about homework and the hot lunch program and how stunning all their boys were.
The lights were turned out in the gymnasium. The doors were shut and locked. Coach Perez was still wailing, but no one heard him anymore. For his was an ancient cry that had no place in the modern world. The Prince of Peace had returned. The lion had become the lamb and vice versa.
Poe is a CSUN graduate student focusing on English Literature.
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