For dad who analyzes sports, time with young athletes at home is best
Watching his kids grow up with sports reminds Ken Berger of his youth. It also puts his job analyzing sports and raising boys in perspective, and matching those two up is a challenge, but one he welcomes.
The ball is always bouncing back there, in their bedroom. The best times are when you come home from wherever you've been -- some game, practice, meeting or road trip -- and hear that ball bouncing on the carpet and caroming off the plastic backboard and into the basket.
The little one, Zachary, does exactly what I used to do. He announces his own little sports fantasies to an audience of one. "Carmelo, passes to Amar'e -- HE PUTS IT IN!!!" He's too innocent to know that Carmelo doesn't pass to Amar'e, and I'm not going to be the one to tell him.
So many years ago, I'd emerged from the bushes in the backyard with a Wiffle bat and introduced myself to sellout crowd in my best Bob Sheppard voice. Zachary impersonates Mike Breen.
The big one, Jason, matches his blue headband with his Knicks road jersey and has recently taken to making a shooting sleeve out of two blue wristbands. The two of them once even went so far as to take a black Sharpie and decorate their arms for the "big game." Tattoos.
They absorb everything.
I taught Jason how to jab step, pump fake and shoot a step-back jumper, to create room to launch it over the taller kids. He has no idea how happy it makes me to see him do these things, and I wish he knew that I don't care whether the ball goes in. When he's a father someday, if the Internet still exists, I hope he reads this and understands.
On Father's Day, I'll be in San Antonio. I'm not complaining; it comes with the job. And when the job is sports, everyone has a fairly skewed view of what that means. It's not all it's cracked up to be -- like most jobs, I imagine.
I have no choice but to imagine, because I haven't had a real job in about 20 years. I stocked groceries and bused tables, but that was a long time ago. I'm beyond lucky to do for work what most people do for play. But the responsibilities that come with sports and fatherhood are no different than they are for any other dad. More complicated, maybe, but no different.
My heart breaks when I see one of my kids fail. I see the disappointment in his face and hear it in his voice, and wish I could go back to my own childhood and teach myself the lessons I now try to impart. I wish I could make them understand it's not that important; it's only sports. It's supposed to be fun.
My dad taught me how to throw and hit a baseball, how to take a handoff and cradle the football protectively in my arms like a newborn. He taught me how to shoot a basketball, how to hit the cutoff man, how to throw a bounce pass. Like most dads then and now, he worked long hours and made every possible effort to be there at my Little League games. I can still see him in his suit, standing next to the bleachers at the Beach Fields in West Islip, N.Y., cheering me on.
Whenever he was there, I sensed his presence and his pride, and I tried harder -- too hard. Somehow, I had convinced myself that I was letting him down if I swung and missed or got tagged out at third. I see my kids doing the same thing now, and I can't stop thinking about what I could've done better to teach them that it's OK to fail. I analyze sports for a living, and yet I can't figure out how to make them understand that I expect nothing other than honest effort and a positive attitude.
Of course, Zachary is 5 and Jason is 8, and when I was that age, I didn't understand those things, either. It's one of the cruel ironies of fatherhood, the realization that they can't possibly know what you didn't know.
My father died on Thanksgiving Day in 2005. Jason was not yet 2; Zachary was not even an idea. So many of my memories of him are tied to sports. When I covered the NFL and my father lived in Massachusetts, I'd meet up with him in the parking lot in Foxboro or for dinner at a favorite seafood place in Providence. He couldn't believe that sports had become my work; that I got paid to go to games.
I know now that the best games, by far, are the ones I fly home for -- the ones on some dusty field at Cunningham Park in Fresh Meadows or in the basement gymnasium of the Y in Forest Hills. There, I stand in foul territory or on the sideline, so overcome with pride and happiness that I could melt. As Zachary might put it, my father was me from the future.
The only advice I can offer -- not that I'm really in a position to give it -- is to cherish those moments. Soak them all in. Be encouraging and positive. Be a cheerleader, but don't expect too much. If you can get your kids to understand how to fail and still walk off the field with a smile, please tell me.
Also, don't be in such a hurry. Do everything a little slower. Learn to say no to work sometimes, put off paying bills for another day and always pack your suitcase while they're sleeping. Every minute when they're awake and you're home is precious, the most valuable commodity you have.
I don't know what I'll do with myself when the day comes when they're all grown up and that ball stops bouncing in their bedroom. Neither will you. For both of us, I hope that day never comes.
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