Op/Ed

Faith Gong: Basketball, a love story

PHOTO COURTESY OF Faith Gong

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, a holiday that originated as the feast day of St. Valentinus, who was beaten and beheaded in Rome on February 14, 269 for refusing to renounce his faith. How this brutal event became a celebration of romantic love involves some tenuous associations and dubious legends: Valentinus performed secret marriages for Roman soldiers when the emperor forbid marriage, Valentinus wrote a letter to a girl he’d healed of blindness signed “your Valentine,” birds begin to couple up around February 14. Valentinus is also the patron saint of epilepsy and beekeepers, neither of which are often associated with romantic love. I suspect a more likely explanation is that by February 14, in the middle of chill grey winter, most of us in the Northern Hemisphere are so starved for a little romance and color that we’ll jump on any excuse for eating chocolate, donning pink and red, and sending cards and flowers to loved ones.  

On the other hand, if St. Valentinus was so devoted to his faith and God that he was wiling to undergo imprisonment, torture, and death, maybe he’s not such a bad exemplar of love — not the lovey-dovey smitten-ness we elevate on Valentine’s Day, but a long and deeply rooted devotion. 

Like the love my son has for basketball.

Around the time he turned two years old, my son began noticing basketball hoops everywhere. Driving through town, we’d be startled by periodic shouts of “Basketball!” from the backseat. 

We are a family that tends to be short in stature; none of our children has yet cracked the 50th percentile for height. We also tend to be unathletic. My husband played basketball recreationally with friends as a young adult but hasn’t played in years. I have some happy memories of playing “HORSE” with the neighborhood kids, but those days ended decades ago. I used to enjoy watching basketball, mostly because it’s the only sport I find simple and exciting enough to make it worth my time. But it’s been years since I had the luxury of considering whether watching sports was worth the time I no longer had. 

All this to say: My son’s early infatuation with basketball came out of nowhere, with no clear influences.

Shortly after he started tracking every basketball hoop in town, we went to a local park with friends. A couple of the older boys had brought a basketball along to shoot hoops. My son was fascinated and tried to get in on the action. The other children were kind, but at two years old and approximately one foot tall, he didn’t get far. That didn’t deter him. 

After that, I put a basketball in our minivan’s trunk so that it would always be on hand if a park had a hoop. My son continued to be two years old and one foot tall for the rest of that year; it never deterred him. Instead, he insisted that I shoot baskets while he watched. Thankfully, he didn’t care whether I made any baskets; he was just delighted to be on the court watching my sad attempts. We could do this for up to an hour, and he never lost interest. 

The game-changer was the night we visited a family that had a plastic Little Tikes adjustable-height basketball hoop in their living room. My son never left that hoop all evening; no food, friends, or film playing on the big screen TV could distract him. 

For his third birthday, he got a Little Tikes basketball hoop of his own. He is now almost four-and-a-half, and not a day has gone by when he hasn’t practiced basketball on that hoop — and demanded that various members of our family play with him. One of his favorite things to do is to dunk and hang on the rim, so the hoop lists forward a bit now. He also likes to practice falling and getting back up, getting fouled for the free throw, and having my husband do a play-by-play narration or teach him basketball slang. (“Daddy, say, ‘Not in MY HOUSE!’ again!”) One Saturday morning, he woke up before the rest of the family and went downstairs on his own. Minutes later, we heard thud-thud-swish. The first thing he did was to practice basketball. 

This level of commitment inspired my husband to install a more permanent basketball hoop at our house. As longtime readers may recall, my husband, Erick, is a sucker for big-ticket items that make our home a fun place for our kids to hang out with friends. Over the years he has built a treehouse, bought a large trampoline, constructed an ice rink, and erected a yurt (complete with a foosball table.) So it’s hardly surprising that the vision of an outdoor basketball hoop morphed into an outdoor basketball court (with a pickleball option.) 

It made sense: Our driveway isn’t paved, so simply hanging a hoop above our garage would mean a playing surface of potholed dirt and gravel. My husband found a high-quality adjustable hoop system and installed it himself alongside the crushed bluestone court he had built next to our driveway. I drew the line at lights — but he may still wear me down! 

During the warmer months, our son played daily on “my Mega-Slam hoop” (he should get an endorsement deal.) And just last night, because the snow is melted now, he ran outside while I was walking the dogs and insisted that I shoot hoops with him in the cold twilight until it became too dark to see. (Those lights really might come in handy…)

It was only a matter of time until he started watching basketball as well; it began with watching highlight reels with my husband. I noticed that our son kept shouting “Kuminga!” whenever he dunked the ball, and I asked my husband about it. “Oh, Jonathan Kuminga, the Golden State Warriors’ power forward,” my husband said. Kuminga has now been replaced by LeBron James and Michael Jordan; one of the biggest bribes we can offer our son is the chance to watch one of their career highlight reels. 

He went to his first live basketball game this winter at Middlebury College and was enraptured. Since his sister is a cheerleader for her high school, he’s also attended numerous high school games; he’ll stand for the whole game, riveted, cheering with the crowd, wearing the basketball jersey and shorts that he got for Christmas. He’s worn this jersey and shorts almost every day since Christmas, and over his pajamas at night; we have to hide them in order to wash them. 

When he gets home from games, our son will stand in the bathtub to wet the soles of his feet, and then slide around on the wood floor in an attempt to replicate the squeak of players’ sneakers on the basketball court.

Because our son also loves music, I made him a “basketball playlist.” His dance to MC Hammer’s classic “U Can’t Touch This” is amazing, and we’ll often say, “You should be a dancer!”

“NO!” he’ll insist, “I’m going to be a basketball player!”

And I hope he can be, although the genetic lottery is not in his favor. “Maybe he’ll be a coach; he’s bossy enough,” his sisters say. 

Then again, basketball may not last. Plenty of us had childhood obsessions — dinosaurs are a classic one — that went extinct. In another decade, we may tell my son, “Remember those years when all you did was play/watch/eat/sleep/dream basketball?” and he’ll shrug, embarrassed. 

But for now he is in love, and like the best loves it is both infectious and uniting. He has brought basketball back to our family, and gathered our family together around basketball, whether playing or watching. And like all great love stories, I can’t wait to see what happens next. 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and two quirky dogs. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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