A little over 25 years ago, I watched a little girl shooting baskets all by herself.
She was 6 years old. The hoop was at regulation height — much too tall for her — and she was using a regulation-size basketball.
She missed. And missed. And missed — over and over again. Her shots weren’t even close. She didn’t yet have the strength to throw the ball up that high, let alone make a basket. It was a hopeless endeavor.
But she kept on shooting, all by herself. She missed shot after shot for nearly a half hour.
And I began to wonder what kind of relentless little creature I was dealing with here. How can a human being be content to keep trying to do something that she is so clearly incapable of doing? How can someone handle that kind of constant disappointment?
I guess to her, each shot was just another opportunity.
She was my daughter. As her father, I made an executive decision to lower the basket for her. She didn’t seem happy about it. She wasn’t shooting at the “real” basket anymore. But she started to make some shots, and it was good.
Eventually I taught her how to shoot a basketball, and she learned how to shoot well — better than most. Better than I ever was.
A few years later, in high school, she wasn’t given the opportunity to show that skill off all that much. She played, and she played hard, but she wasn’t a star, and when she missed once she wasn’t often given a second chance. Such is the nature of high school sports.
When she didn’t have the “hot hand” she was quickly pulled from the game and placed on the bench.
At the time, I thought that was lousy coaching, and I still do. I’d seen enough basketball to know that a shooter needs to get into a rhythm, that even the best shooters miss about half of their shots, and dammit, who do you think you are, putting my little girl on the bench?
I considered taking a meeting with the coach, where I could very carefully explain some of these things to him.
Shut up, Dad. That’s what she usually told me. Stay out of it. Don’t embarrass me.
For her, just getting the opportunity to shoot always seemed to be enough.
And when she didn’t miss, man, it was sweet. Those rare occasions when she’d drill three or four 3-pointers in a row, that was worth all the frustration.
As far as I know, she doesn’t play much basketball anymore. She turns 31 today, and I’m not sure how I feel about that.
I recall a time almost 30 years ago, when I spent a day with a 1-year old girl, doing the kinds of activities that 1-year-olds do. We played, we laughed, we read books, we made silly sounds. We had fun.
That evening, before the 1-year old’s bedtime, I noticed she was repeating, word-for-word, some of the same things I had said earlier in the day. I noticed her mannerisms — the way she moved her hands, the way she turned her head — were perfectly accurate imitations of my own. She was mimicking my facial expressions as well.
This frightened me more than a little bit, because it got me to thinking. If this little, impressionable person hangs around with me enough, she will act the way I act. Did I want a child to act the way I act? And also, what did I say today? Because I really hope I didn’t curse out loud or make an inappropriate comment.
There was a time when her grandparents were visiting, and we were all watching cartoons with her. She wasn’t quite 2 years old. The cartoon had a couple little squirrels in it, and they were hoarding acorns, and at one point thousands of acorns started falling and pouring into a house, completely filling it with nuts, from floor to ceiling.
This seemed to be very upsetting to my almost 2-year-old. She turned to us with a worried look and said, in an excited, 2-year-old voice, “God damn!”
Her grandparents looked at me. They looked at me with disapproval. I had taught their granddaughter how to swear. Not a proud moment for me.
I promise I taught her some good things, too. I don’t remember them all, exactly, but I’m sure I did.
She turned out OK, despite my best efforts. She’s out in California, on her own, and she’s good at what she does. She communicates with me often, by phone call or text message. We threaten to come visit each other, and we laugh a lot, about a lot of different things. It always feels good to get a message from her.
But it isn’t the same. She’s not here next to me. I can’t tell her “happy birthday” to her face today. I can’t give her a hug.
I miss her smiling sweetly at me to keep me from getting angry, and impressing me with the way she keeps her wits about her when most others would be frantic. I miss that she’s not here goofing off in order to make me laugh at those times when I really don’t want to.
She’s not a kid anymore, but she’s still my kid. Sometimes you want your kid with you.
She’s not here to say, “I love you, Daddy,” at a moment when I most need to hear those four words.
I miss that when she’s going through tough times, I can’t talk to her coach and straighten him out. When she’s hurting, when she’s struggling, when she doesn’t have the “hot hand,” all I can offer is kind words of advice, from 2,000 miles away.
“When you’re in a slump, just keep shooting,” I told her once. “Find your rhythm. Even the best shooters miss half their shots.”
I think that was good advice, and a good analogy, and I think she takes it to heart. Each shot is just another opportunity.
But I can’t lower the basket for her anymore. That’s what I miss the most.