A minute thirty-six left to play in the biggest basketball game of the season and I still couldn’t manage to focus. The crowd was so big, so loud; it wasn’t what I expected for a house league basketball game. I guess it was our own fault; our team had created so much hype around this game that even my own parents wanted to watch. They hadn’t been to a game all year, and yet I could see them through the huddle, sitting at the top of stands, distancing themselves far away from the sea of high school kids. The buzzer sounded, and immediately Coach looked us straight in the eye and repeated what he’d been saying all year, “Boards and defense. Boards and defense will win us the ship.” And there we were, in the championship game, somewhere we said we’d be when the season started. The amount of time, hard work, and effort put into this team wasn’t about to go to waste. The Blazers had come too far to let this game slip. We just needed to seal the deal.
I remember dashing through my high school doors and into the parking lot one night when I was a freshman. I saw my mom’s car, I yanked the handle, and hopped into the passenger seat, giddy with excitement. “Mom!,” I said, “I actually made the team!”
Making the high school freshmen basketball team was quite the accomplishment for me. I had worked so incredibly hard to make it, so I was overcome with a huge sense of pride. Unfortunately, tryouts aren’t always kind to people. Kids got cut from the freshmen team that year. Once it happens, kids do one of two things. They either quit the sport all together, or if they’re still passionate about it, play basketball somewhere else. That’s where house league basketball comes in. Kids who want to play basketball for fun with their friends sign up. It’s an easy way to stay active and play basketball without the coaches yelling all the time. You get to pick your teams and your team name. Games are played once a week and are located locally, which makes it hassle-free.
I had a great freshman year with the basketball team. Sophomore year, however, I wasn’t so lucky. I was cut from the team. At the time I was so angry with myself; I wanted to quit basketball forever. I soon regretted my decision to not play somewhere else. I did nothing during the winter my sophomore year. I was bored, and to be honest, I truly missed playing basketball. Later that year was when I first heard about house league; I was just itching to handle the basketball once again.
The story of my house league experience begins during my junior year, a week or so before Halloween. It was my eighth period class, U.S history, and this particular day was just like any other. Note taking followed by some more note taking. In any case, it got to the point where I’d finished and could finally pull out my phone and wait for the bell to ring, signaling the end of class. Next to me I had my buddy Digan, and for some reason I began thinking about my plans for the winter and how I didn’t have any. I could try out for the high school basketball team again, I thought to myself, but that seemed like a lost cause.
“Digan,” I whispered, “You tryna make a house league team this year?”
This kid was a good ball player. He had the funkiest shot I’d ever seen in my life, not like it mattered though. His feet wouldn’t leave the ground, and yet the ball still managed to drop right through.
“Of course,” he said, “You tryna be on it?”
“Yeah,” I said, “let's make a deadly team.”
“Oh, we’re winning it all this year, not a doubt in my mind.”
And that was that. I had solidified my spot on a house league basketball team. In the past Digan had played with a certain group of guys, but they never were able to get over the hump and win a title. Digan and I faced a decision. We knew if we wanted a chance to win, we needed to upgrade our roster. Unfortunately, it would mean that some kids would have to be released from the team that had participated last season. I felt bad for those guys, but losing was not an option any more. Over the course of the next few months, we began our search for a superteam.
The recruiting season started with re-signing the core players from last year’s squad. There was Joey who was an elite ball carrier, Mannix who could steal the ball like no one I’ve ever seen before, Porello who was solid, and Corlett who grabbed rebounds like Shaq. Including Digan and I, that left four spots up for grabs.
Recruiting is a difficult task, and I give credit to the coaches at the professional level whose jobs depend on it. One school day, we focused our attention on signing Cole, a player who never gave up on a play. Probably the least difficult person to sign, he was quick to join. Then there came Friedman, our big man. Since we’d be competing in a league full of senior teams, we needed a big guy to take them on. With two spots remaining, we began our push for the final pieces of the puzzle, former basketball players, Daly and Stoch.
It was one day, maybe in late November, when I saw Daly strolling down the hallway in school. Perfect opportunity.
“Daly,” I called out, “How bout that house league?”
“I don’t know. I’ll let you know the day before rosters are due.”
“Alright I guess.”
This was more or less the conversation between us for several weeks. It finally got to the point where we were annoying him so much that he finally submitted and said, “fine”.
We got Stoch on board a few days later. He was excited, I was excited, everyone was just excited to lace up the basketball shoes once again. However, there was a problem. Who was going to lead the team? Timeouts weren’t magically going to be called in crucial situations. They needed to be executed by a person who knew exactly what to do and when to do it. That’s when Coach Sasso was brought in. Coach had been on the team in previous years, but injuries plagued his young basketball career. Looking professional before every game, Coach was there through thick and thin, leading us to victory.
“Seal the deal tonight!” was the last thing I heard from my house as I shut the door and walked towards my car. The drive was a blur as a started to reflect on all the fun memories I shared with the team. I saw myself sink my first deep three-pointer and promptly point to the sky; I saw a Spurs player launch a shot into the rafters; I saw Porello get tossed from a game. All those memories and more followed me into the gym on that frigid March night. They were with me when my shot was non-existent. They were with me during the time-out with a minute thirty-six left to play. And they were there when I sunk two crucial baskets as the time was winding down.
Yeah, we won the game. The Trail Blazers from Park Ridge, Illinois had done it: beaten the undefeated, senior-led team, the Celtics. Everyone thought it wasn’t possible, everyone except the eleven guys wearing either a suit or Trail Blazers uniform. But even as I reflect on it now, two months to the day after we hoisted the trophy, I realize it wasn’t about the points or the win/loss column. It was about a team, a house league team from a small town in Illinois who had a brotherhood larger than basketball.