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March 15, 2016

A Player Named Hand Grenade

A Player Named Hand Grenade

TEAM TUESDAY – This story will clearly flag my intensity issues. Yet it will also speak to how badly I wanted to win the game. It will speak to how personal it was to me, even after my prime and even if it meant that I would not be the star.

Years ago I moved home to Troy, NY, after my mom became ill. I was an entrepreneur by day, pedaling my girls’ sports series and writing away, while taking care of my mother. At night, if I went out, I either went out dancing or to the gym or to the summer league for a game at Siena College or at Hudson Valley Community College. I pieced together my team based mostly on the young free agents looking to use the summer to prep for college ball. I was 28 years old. Most of my teammates were 18-20 years old. One in particular was a shy guard from Shaker High School named LaToya Franklin who was heading to Springfield College to study and play ball. Even though she rarely spoke or showed much emotion, I knew she could move, handle and shoot. I picked her up along with a handful of friends she knew. One strong player was Brooke Rutnik. I’d trained Brooke a bit and thought it would be able to play with Brooke and LaToya and whomever else wanted in.

Our toughest comp was usually the Siena players or a mix of the RPI and/or Union players. Tanya Hansen, former great from Rutgers turned Albany police officer, jumped on a team, too. Tanya was a few years older than me. I was the next oldest by far in the league. I brought my mom to the games and sat her on the bench so that she would not wander off. I said nothing to the players on my team about what she was going through. They knew she didn’t say much, and that she was attached to me like my child. Often she was in or near huddles, or in the coaching seat on the bench.

I believe my team either won the finals or was in them every summer for three years while I was home in my late 20s and early 30s. All I know is that I was a lightning rod when I walked into most games. Little did they know that I was just glad to get out of the house. I think they’d heard I was a decent player, but they didn’t buy it. Not most of the young Siena girls. Not the RPI or Union girls. While they were getting all fired up to play against the old lady (me) and my team, I was figuring out how to get my team to outplay their team.   The only problem this one summer is that my team was leaving for school with every passing day, including Brooke, who was our strongest player, and we were down to five players. One player, whom I will refer to as Hand Grenade, hadn’t showed much, and when she did, she was the biggest ball hog and streakiest shooter LaToya and I had ever seen. Somehow we kept her in check or we prayed for her to be on. Everything was manageable until we hit the final game.

Early into it, Hand Grenade caught the ball every time and launched. Every time. I’m talking four shots in a row. It was a bad joke, almost as if we were on an episode of Candid Camera. Three of her shots in a row didn’t hit anywhere near the rim. It was so bad that the RPI girls were sagging off, and watching her launch and air ball. They were laughing at her, and then at me as I said, “You got it, Hand Grenade” and then “Let’s get a better look, Hand.”

They stopped guarding her and they double-teamed me or whoever else was the threat. They just let her launch and burn. The only problem is that she did not feel any heat of embarrassment.   None at all.   She shot the next ball as if she was at shooting practice by herself.

In the meantime, I was one bad move away from subbing her out and telling the ref that we were playing with four. I’d also gotten myself into foul trouble. On top of it, one angry blonde Union player was in my face, talking trash, and pushing me around as I tried to chase down every one of Hand Grenade’s shots.

As I almost broke my back on damage control duty, I turned to LaToya as the clock ran down. As the blonde continued to bark at me, I told LaToya with my eyes that there was no way we were losing this disaster of a sporting event. Blonde got in my face again, and just before I popped, I saw my mom on the bench and she smiled at me. Mom had no clue what was going on or maybe she did and she, too, thought it was a test that didn’t exactly appear as a scenario in any of Wooden’s books or in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. I’ve read them all. They never tell stories like this one.

In front of a crowd of maybe nine spectators, the game came down to a tie score with seconds left. I didn’t even call a time out to set up a play. I basically went up to every player quickly and told them to get me the ball and not her.   I would take care of this. Then I went up to LaToya with my back to my teammates and said, “Give me the ball and I am going to get it back to you to win the game. Got it?”

Her eyes filled with fear. She nodded.

“And if you even think of giving the ball to her, I will kill you.”

LaToya looked at me as if I should check myself in.

She gave me the ball on the play. I did what I had to do by drawing the defenders close enough to kick the ball back to her at the top of the key. Then I accidentally, of course, threw myself in front of the blonde so neither she nor her teammate could get anywhere near LaToya.

Toya shot, hit and we won the game.

The thing about being female is that we followed the code of conduct by not ripping our teammate’s head off (as many men would have done several times over). It was so bad that if I was a guy, I honestly think I would have gone up and grabbed the player or shoved her or fouled her on every play – something crazy – because she was acting as if she was on a narcotic.

Making matters even more interesting is that after we won, her parents and other parents thought it would be great to all go out to eat to celebrate.

LaToya and I met in the parking lot minutes before the meal. Erica, another good player on our team, joined us. Mom was the fourth in our group therapy session. We all looked at each other and just burst out laughing. We were speechless for a second up until the point where we all rehashed how much the other team was laughing at her, laughing at us, laughing at the jam we were in.

The incredible part is that we somehow held it together.

Even when we went out to dinner and sat there with Hand Grenade, none of us said anything. Her parents said, “Hand Grenade usually makes so many more shots. Tonight she was a little off.”

I saw LaToya in NYC two years ago. I started this sentence, “Do you remember that game when …” I didn’t even have to finish. LaToya said the player’s name, and we replayed it all, blow-by-blow all over again. One of the worst games we’d ever been part of had become one of the most legendary.

For about an hour on a night that would be part of many during the toughest stretch of my life, the game gave me room to break out of my caregiver role. I lost myself in the trials, stress and tribulations of how to deal with Hand Grenade without completely blowing up.

Thank you, Toya, for hitting that shot.