THROWBACK THURSDAY – The only Sundays in my life when I was excited to go to church were during the winter hoops season. I wore my tight green St. Jude’s uniform under my church clothes, and thought about our opponent during the entire mundane service. As soon as church was over, we didn’t exit down the aisle. We headed straight into the hallway connecting the church to the gym. It was maybe 50 steps to get to the gym. I could never get there fast enough.
Dad told me on the phone yesterday that AAU has taken over CYO Basketball in the capital district Albany-Schenectady-Troy, NY area. Dad says that kids are now thinking at an early age that they’re special because they’re on an AAU team, and that means they’re going to make their school teams, or so they think. All of our AAU team (10 out of 10 of us played Division I basketball) didn’t know what AAU was until end of grade 8 when we formed the first girls’ team in the area. That’s when we started – eighth grade. Until then we played for St. Jude’s, St. Basil’s, St. Edwards and maybe a team at the JCC (Anita Kaplan Fiedel, perhaps?). Now it’s all gone. All that excitement and all those physical games against girls you threw down against with all of their friends and your friends when you were in grade school and middle school. After years of wanting to beat them so badly (sometimes winning, and sometimes losing) and crying after the losses, we showed up at the AAU tryout and realized we’d have to join the best of the lot to push to the next level.
What I miss most about CYO Basketball is the following:
1) I learned I didn’t have to be a cheerleader. Granted I saw the sexy side of it. I knew what their game was, and as pretty and as beautiful as they were, it all felt so limiting. To be stuck on that sideline? When all of deep thrill and control was felt within the lines? And it’s not as though there were cuts. We had the choice to be either and the girls picked what fit their view of themselves. I was stocky and emotional. I couldn’t fake a smile during an entire athletic contest. I knew where I belonged, and I was grateful that most of my friends joined me.
2) I loved having my dad as my coach. I loved having dads coach our teams. It just meant more to everyone. Some of the dads knew more than others. Some played to win (most did) by slapping on 1-3-1 trapping defenses in small gyms that feel so incredibly small now. Some dads, like mine, did not know how to break a 1-3-1 (with a 2-1-2) offense. All dads, including Mr. Dibacco and Mr. Barnes and Doc Gallivan, treated us like the boys. They didn’t say get out there and look cute and pat us on the head and tell us, “Don’t worry, honey.” They said, “Get out there, kick some butt and win.” They said it directly and they said it indirectly with how mad they got, how much they yelled. I remember it all. And there’s nothing that burns me more than seeing a dad or a coach teach and yell at boys one way, and then smile and do fun things and say “all that matters is that we tried” to the girls while demanding more from the boys every minute of every battle.
3) I love the fact that I have a video of our grade 6 championship game versus St. Edwards. I love the fact that I clearly see three things: 1) how bad I was at that time, and 2) yet how aggressive I was, and 3) how personal it was to me and to my friends. I also was so furious at the refs for calling ridiculous fouls against cute little girls (and I was not cute, so maybe he thought I was the wild one who would hurt the other cute girls on the St. Edward’s team. My teammates from Troy High know this drill for we had the same jam in high school. We were always guilty. They were always innocent, and they played it to a tee.)
This is when I met the Barnes twins, who tortured us with their trapping 1-3-1, which is such an easy and effective way to win at this level. We stayed in each other’s lives as antagonists until the point I wrote them a letter around grade 7. I am not sure who suggested it. Maybe it was my mom or dad. I basically knew that even though I couldn’t stand them when we played (and lost to them), I knew we had more in common than most girls. We loved the game. We started hanging out at each other’s houses and going to camps together. Our battles were so fierce in high school that 1,000 people could not get into our high school sectional final our junior year, and 5,000 were there to watch our final game our senior year.
What CYO did for us is simply keep us with our friends while exposing us to other teams who had serious players rather than all recreational ones. In all this push to make kids grow up too fast or think they are better than they are, we’ve lost what it means to play for several weekends toward a common goal. It also taught us to love our friends even if they couldn’t help us win. So many AAU tournaments are just one weekend. Four games against strangers and you drive home. Even though I am not a Catholic anymore, what I did when I created the Gotham Basketball Association is set out with that intent, that is to build a community where kids felt like they were playing for something with their friends every weekend.
Roosevelt Beyers from Milbank was one of the few who bought in early, and maybe the only founding team coach from the original group (others mostly have moved out of NYC). He said to me last year, “Mo, the kids tell me all the time that they love the GBA tournament the most.” I was shocked.
“They like playing every weekend and traveling to the different gyms and all the excitement and being with their friends.”
The funny part is that I joked this year that we should just have the trophies mailed to Milbank to save us the lugging since they win almost all of them. I was half-joking and half-serious. We could have easily called our tournament the Milbank league or the Mo’ Motion league due to the number of teams we field. But we didn’t. We called it by something that we all share – an investment in treating kids equally, keeping them with their friends, and trying to do things right for as long as we could, knowing soon reality would set in, which isn’t a bad thing.
I just finished editing a podcast with a top AAU coach in the area. We both agreed that grade 7-8 is when you sort of look around and say, “I’m going to have to bump this up if I want to reach the next level.”
Until then, there’s nothing wrong with sticking to a challenging practice routine (two nights a week) and playing with friends in grades 4-6. I’d have to agree that times are changing, and I definitely felt that shift in my intensity and interests in junior high, as did my lifelong friend and our staff coach, Denise Cudden.
“Mo,” she said, “Things are just starting earlier for these kids.”
Okay. I get it and I have to adjust. I’ll give you grades 7-8 to make the change to a new level with a new mix of more serious players, but until then I do think that grades 4-6 needs to be about friends, community, and effort.
Here are some photos of us from back in the day. Dad loved photo day. It gave him a chance to showcase his new sweat suit. It was particularly meaningful for him to coach us because his mom and dad came to only one game during his entire athletic career. CYO meant as much if not more to him for as the years past, he no longer could be on the sideline right next to his daughter. He was always close, but it’s never quite the same as being in the moment with your daughter and her friends.