Seats to the most entertaining show in town aren’t comfortable. If you arrive late, it’s standing room only. There’s no concession stand.
But the hour is free. And rewarding, especially if you’re related to one of the players.
For a couple of months I’ve been enjoying first-grade girls basketball, a spectacle of traveling and fouls and jump balls and missed opportunities. When I’m not cheering for Katie and her six teammates, I’m giggling. And giving thanks for patient coaches and referees.
Patience is required with 6- and 7-year-olds who are new to a sport that requires so much coordination and willingness to follow so many rules.
Katie lacks a little of both.
Despite her slight deficiency of natural ability, she has become expert at dribbling, partly because she practices on the front sidewalk as often as the weather allows and partly because she spends a lot of time dribbling during games.
After the opposing team scores, she always angles to be the player to receive the inbound ball. If successful in her quest, she moseys as she dribbles, slowing with each step as she nears the half-court line.
And then she dribbles some more, surveying the five opponents who have lined up, as menacing as beribboned, 4-foot-tall girls can be. Seeing no obvious hole through the defense, she backs up, still dribbling, as if she has all afternoon to cross that line. (There’s no shot clock in recreational first-grade basketball.)
Meanwhile, her mercifully kind coaches urge her to move up or pass the ball. If I can’t take it any longer, I cheer (or holler), “Katie!” and dramatically wave my arms in the direction of the basket. And I stifle laughter.
Finally she crosses the line or passes the ball, which is then often stripped away by one of the five hovering, vulture-like girls.
Katie shakes off disappointment as she turns, searches for the girl she is supposed to be defending and skips toward the basket, sometimes with arms tucked inside her jersey.
At every game, there’s a jump ball or two. The girls have been taught to grab the ball and not let go. In other words, they’ve been given permission to do what they’ve been trained not to do their whole lives. And they don’t let this opportunity to blatantly steal go to waste.
If a defensive player gets her hands wrapped around that ball and the offensive player is able to hold on, we’re treated to a few seconds of intense tussling and a pair of determined, scrunched up faces. It never fails to make spectators laugh.
Our ever-serene ref (who looks too young to have his own kids and may delay parenting plans for a long while) eventually blows his whistle and calls the team that wins the jump ball. We always cheer.
Of course, we cheer loudest when someone scores.
One of the most beautiful things about first-grade girls basketball is that we all cheer, no matter which team scores. Now, we might clap and holler a little louder for our own girls, but we don’t let a single basket go unnoticed. Maybe because it seems like a tiny miracle each time the ball actually makes it past the half-court line, gets into the hands of someone who is able to hold on and shoot, reaches the rim or backboard and then falls through the net.
Those few baskets are more exciting, more entertaining to witness, than any live college or professional game.
Best of all, after the final whistle I get to hug my favorite player, praise her for working hard and laugh with her as we relive moments from the game.
Even if her team lost (unofficially, as scores aren’t kept), it’s truly one of the best hours of the week.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at email@example.com.