“Don’t worry,” the caller always assures me. “I’m not one of those parents.”
When I hear this line, I know it usually means only one thing.
I’m on the phone with one of those parents.
Just when I thought some of the dads were tough, an upper-east-side mom called and said, “Look, my kid may not play in the NBA, but he’ll definitely play in college.”
“How old is your son?”
For me, I look back at my life and see two things.
First, for reasons not fully known to me, I decided to outwork 97 percent of my competition. In my mind, I had to put myself through a regular regimen of self-torture (now known as overtraining), if I truly wanted to achieve my goal of getting a college scholarship. But I didn’t stop after I achieved my goal. At Northwestern University, I had to outwork the same percentage of players to maintain my status as top athlete, while also competing against the best journalism students in the country to maintain my status academically.
Second, I see that I was lucky that I was born into a physically big family, who placed a high value on toughness.
And most importantly, I was born into this world with excellent health, and into a home with two good parents who demonstrated a no-nonsense, no-excuses work ethic every day.
I was in fifth grade when my mother became concerned about my basketball obsession. (In high school, when the nurses at work asked if I had a boyfriend, my mother, not knowing what to say, regularly told them, “She’s in love with Larry Bird.”) She noticed how much attention I paid to my cousin, Pete Holohan, when he played on TV for Notre Dame and later in the NFL for 12 years. Why was I such an enigma? Because the nuns and teachers at my mother’s school believed that girls would drop a lung, heart or reproductive organ if they crossed half-court during a basketball game in gym class.
Yet my mother knew I was happiest when I was competing and sweating, and she had four kids to keep happy, so she signed me up for the very first Sam Perkins Basketball Camp in Averill Park, NY.
On the first day, I looked up and saw the largest human being I’d ever seen unfold himself out of a Carolina blue corvette. Sam Perkins was fresh off his national championship run, and going to be present for three days of camp. As the boys were buzzing around him, I looked around and counted three girls.
Being the minority was nothing new to anyone my age. Back in the 70s and 80s, you either went to basketball camp and got over being one of the few females, or you simply did not go.
I quickly realized I was amongst a group of insufferable souls for the entire morning session – no passing, no talking, no eye contact whatsoever – and it tore me up.
The tension escalated when Sam Perkins was assigned my coach. Afraid to make eye contact, I nodded my head, did everything he said and chased down every rebound and loose ball. By the afternoon, Sam started setting plays for me, which caused a silent fury. By Tuesday afternoon, I realized I had to work three times as hard just to get the ball from my teammates. My efforts earned even higher levels of praise from Sam. Sam patted me on the back and told our team that Wednesday would be his last day at camp.
I wanted to see Sam dunk and shoot for us on our last day. I wanted to thank him for paying attention to me when my peers refused. But that was the part that defeated me to a point where I was so negative and afraid to talk to anyone at camp that I became insufferable. Making matters worse was that I could not go home to my mother and cry about the injustice or the stress or how awful I felt to be hated so much.
Because my mother, one of the strongest nurses in the building, was regularly called upon to push bodies down to the morgue. She spent many second shifts working as a hospice nurse, and often staying overtime without pay because she could not stand the thought of some of her patients dying alone.
I woke up the next morning and I said, “Mom, I don’t feel well.”
I felt it was accurate, so I repeated it.
This irritated my mother because she paid for camp for the entire week. She said I was going. I refused.
She gave up and let me stay home. In my backyard, by myself, I began digging a hole of disgust and soon planted myself in it. Within a few hours, I realized I had made a huge mistake. I knew I had to go back and finish what I’d started.
The next morning, my mother noticed I was on the verge of a breakdown. As she walked me into camp, I saw the one uncoordinated, overweight boy with glasses who was my partner in a few drills because no one else chose him.
“Sam said you quit,” he told me.
I burst into one public mess, which made my mother drag me into a side room. The head of camp huddled with my mother, and asked what was wrong. I was crying so hard that I could not speak. My mother clenched her teeth and told me to figure this out. Then she ran off to work.
I decided at age 11 that never, ever again would I let anyone – male or female – deter me from chasing down my dream of playing college basketball.
The summer after my eighth-grade year, my father accompanied me to a tryout for this new thing called AAU. It was clear from the start of the event that the daughters of the dads who set up the event would make the team.
My father, who doubled as my vocal, intense and firm CYO coach for four years, took me to the tryout. His father served in Patton’s Third Army and worked for the rest of his life at the General Electric plant. His brilliant mother received a full academic scholarship to college, but she did what her father said when he told her that women should be at home. My father was the second of her 10 children. His parents were more concerned about putting food on the table than they were with going to any of his basketball games. They did not attend one game his entire life.
At the end of the tryout, I remember sitting on the floor of St. Agnes Gym and hearing the list of A and B team players. As soon as the A list ended without my name being called, I knew I could not look at my father without bursting into tears.
After hearing about the next A and B team practices, we exited the gym. Several of the B team players and their parents said they would not return.
My father, who, like most parents, was not perfect as a sports dad and in life. He often toed the line of those parents until one of his kids or his wife yanked him back in. Yet in this instance, he somehow kept his composure.
I couldn’t get into our station wagon fast enough. Both doors shut and I stared at the dashboard, still afraid to look up.
“What are you going to do?” my father asked.
“I’m going back.”
My father put the keys in the ignition.
By the end of the summer I was starting for the A team.
These two instances were tests of my desire and grit – one that I had to take without a parent or tutor.
Looking back, I know for sure if my parents had called and tried to fix everything or sell me to a coach over the phone instead of watching me work my can off that entire summer, I would not be the player or the person I am today.
Our program serves 650 kids annually in Manhattan, a place where many uber-successful parents expect only the highest in performance from their children in everything they do. I understand what it means to have your father screaming from the sidelines. I have turned to the parents in the game or to kids who look at their parents during the game and said very clearly: “No more.” Why? Because a child cannot take ownership of story he or she did not write.
I advise parents to enjoy just watching your kid play sports, and instead of praising winning or scoring points, use this magical line: “I love to watch you work so hard.”
That is the regular message my parents gave to me, regardless of whether I was the MVP or the brick-laying and turnover queen. I have been both. I was lucky that while I was playing, I never had to worry about reaching goals set by my mother or father because they were not those parents. I was able to play the game I loved for myself first. And win or lose, they still gave me a hug or kiss at the end of the game.
It was a simple gesture, but it said I was still theirs, and they were still mine, regardless of any score, trophy or medal.
Maureen Holohan is a former high school All-American and All-Big Ten Player, author and journalist. She currently lives in Harlem, NY, and is the executive director and founder of Mo’ Motion Youth Basketball Training. (email@example.com)