A Big Game in a Little Gym
As I arrived at the elementary school gymnasium and was just about to enter, an eight-year-old boy in a Blazers' basketball uniform ran across the grass toward me and the door. I held the door a second to wait for him, and said, “Hi, Matthew.” He said “Thanks,” and followed me in.
In addition to being polite, Matthew appeared to be excited about his team’s first tournament game, more so than one might expect from the only player who had not scored during the twelve-game season.
Matthew had not lacked playing time, however. He was fortunate to be on a team with a coach who rotated all the players in and out of the games, virtually equally. That was only one of the Blazers' coach’s peculiarities.
Alone in the 11-team league, he had his team play man-to-man defense most of the season, rather than the easier and less demanding zone. This had sometimes fatigued his team and perhaps cost them a game or two, but it prepared them with a capability for playing pressure defense, if ever needed.
Sports competition offers some inspiring moments, but they don’t come all too often, nor do they always come where one might most expect them.
Before this Recreation League tournament game, the sports event I would have most regretted missing was a college football game that I had attended some 24 years earlier. It was an Iron Bowl game matching the Heisman winner on one team against a future head coach on the other—a spectacular football game with four lead changes in the fourth quarter—the last occurring with a 52-yard game-deciding field goal on the final play.
That’s a more typical setting for a memorable sports event, one would think.
Tonight at the little gym, in what at first appeared to be simply another of thousands of games played somewhat ineptly by eight-year-old boys, both the Blazers and the Rockets started slowly. Perhaps to save his team’s energy for later, the Blazers' coach uncharacteristically had his boys play zone defense for the entire first half.
The first quarter ended with the score tied at 2-2. In the second quarter, a Rockets' guard, No. 20, displayed stunning long-range accuracy, shooting over the Blazers' zone for two three-pointers. At the half, the Rockets were leading the Blazers 10-4.
Coming out for the third quarter, the Blazers' coach changed his team’s defense to their tenacious and well-practiced man-to-man, with his crucial assignment putting Blazers' guard, No. 5, on the long-range gunner for the Rockets. The Rockets' No. 20 would not score another field goal and only rarely was he able to escape harassment by Blazers' No. 5 to even get off a shot.
But the Blazers still could find no successful offense themselves. There were only three points scored between the two teams during the third quarter, which ended with the Rockets leading comfortably, 12-5.
As the fourth quarter began, the Blazers' No. 5 discovered that he not only could successfully defend the Rockets' No. 20, he could also steal the ball from him almost at will.
After a flurry of fast breaks and some spectacular baskets by the Blazers' No. 5, the Blazers had accomplished the unlikely and caught up with the Rockets at 12-12. Then came as unusual and striking a sequence of events as this sports spectator had ever witnessed.
In an attempt to slow down the Blazers’ new-found success, the Rockets' coach reinserted one of his better defensive players. What appeared to be a Rockets' communications' breakdown caused them to resume play with six players on the floor—one too many.
After the Blazers' coach directed the referee’s attention to this violation, the referee stopped play and called the necessary technical foul against the Rockets.
Now with the score tied late in the final quarter, the Blazers' coach had the responsibility of designating one of his players to take the two uncontested free throws awarded by the technical foul.
Almost everyone expected the Blazers' coach to select the Blazers' No. 5, who was shooting well and leading the scoring. But the Blazers' coach, instead, sent Matthew to the free throw line—the same polite but inaccurate Matthew who had not scored even one point all year. The spectators were stunned, none more so than the mother of Matthew, who was heard to say, “Don’t make him try this.”
As though it had been rehearsed 50 times and was being filmed on a silent stage for a movie, Matthew calmly stepped to the line and won the game. After his two baskets he casually walked away from the line as if this was an everyday occurrence for him. His mother was in tears as the little gym reverberated with cheering for her son.
The Blazers, after pounding the shoulders and back of their unlikely hero Matthew, made the remaining moments anticlimactic with a few more points. The Blazers won the game going away and thus advanced in the tournament, having shut out the Rockets in the fourth quarter while scoring 13 points themselves.
By far the biggest of those 13 were the two deciding points scored by Matthew—his first points of the season, responding to the confidence in him displayed by his coach.
This rather biased reporter is proud to have held the gym door open for Matthew when he arrived for this remarkable game. He’s also proud to be an ancestor of the Blazers' coach and the Blazers' No. 5.
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