Tales from youth basketball
The girl had everything.
She was well-groomed, successful, personable, and fun. With her perpetual smile, it appeared the girl never had a bad day.
But, that is only how it seemed because those of us who knew her were aware of the barriers that life had put in her path.
My journey into the Bridget saga began on a Saturday in January as I was visiting gyms with basketball games for girls. I was an overseer for the City girls program.
All of the game administration requirements seemed to be in order at the gym where fourth graders were playing so I turned my attention to the court and immediately noticed Bridget. But then, how could any basketball “lifer” not notice her high energy, prototypical power forward frame, and how she was picking rebounds and steals like they were dandelions.
As good as she was in getting the ball back for her team, she wasn’t permitted to keep it for long. It quickly became obvious that her coach had no intention of letting her dribble or be a part of his offensive scheme.
I’ve found it common among novice coaches to permit only the “good” players to handle the ball which retards the development of skills and, sadly, sends the message “you’re not good enough” to young players who are just getting started.
When it came to Bridget, I had a completely different opinion than her coach. I knew for a fact that I was looking at a player with the potential to become a star and a college player — if she wanted to.
I traced her attention to her parents in the stands and I approached them at halftime and explained my assessment and how my Summer league had hand-picked coaches who would develop Bridget’s potential.
John and Patti were warm and friendly people but that didn’t stop John from responding, “Are you kidding? They don’t even let her touch the ball.”
I told him I would personally oversee her Summer league experience and she would indeed get the ball and the skill to know what to do with it. When sign ups started in mid-March, they were among the first to respond.
Fans at our Summer games marveled at Bridget’s energy and enthusiasm. Despite watching her all Summer long, there was one thing they never knew.
Bridget had Type 1 diabetes.
Her Summer league coach praised her development and as the season came to a close, I received a call from John. He asked if I still believed in his daughter’s potential and I told him I certainly did. “In that case, can you give her a spot in the tryouts for your fifth-grade travel team?”
Although I was concerned about the physical demands of year-round competitive basketball for a player with diabetes, I had a different concern to discuss with him first.
“John, I believe in Bridget’s ability but she does some off-beat stuff during games that are out of focus for competitive ball. I know she does it to keep everyone loose, but that won’t work at the level we play.”
There was a brief silence before her father pleaded with me to save her a spot until he could talk to her when she got home from school. He called me again that afternoon and said she had promised over and over that she would conform. John lobbied hard for his daughter and explained how she had begged just for a chance to try out.
What he didn’t know was that there were two reasons I had already made up mind to give her a shot. One was that I just could not resist her immense energy and potential. The other was that I had just cut the father of our top rebounder, and as expected, he had taken his daughter with him.
The gamble payed huge dividends because Bridget showed up focused and her tryout was stunning to the point that I was asking myself, “What was the name of that rebounder I just cut?”
Even so, there was still a problem nagging at my conscience and I felt that it was likely going to be a deal-breaker.
As the tryout ended, I pulled her father aside. “John, I don’t think I’ve ever been so surprised by any player in any tryout. Bridget was astounding!.” I gathered my gumption and continued. “I fully believe in your daughter but I just don’t know if her diabetes will permit her play year-round basketball at a high level. I . . . I just don’t know how I can know that. I certainly don’t want to hurt your daughter.”
John smiled. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a neatly folded piece of paper which was a full medical release by her doctor.
“You see Bobby, I believe in my daughter also.”
Just when I thought I had finally gotten a terrific prospect, he continued, “But, there is something else you have to consider and it’s not something that either your or I can control.”
My heart sank.
“You have other players on the team. How will they react when they see us putting a needle in her vein? Are they going to be grossed out? Shun her? Quit the team? And that’s not all. You’ll have to cover those same issues with the parents. And before you approach any of them, you first have to resolve those questions for yourself.”
He was right.
My head hurt..
Two hours later, I was blessed with a great idea. I arranged to talk to two players from Summer league who had been on Bridget’s team. I asked them what they thought of Bridget’s insulin issues and if any teammates had shunned her or reacted negatively.
Both of them laughed. “Are you kidding? We love Bridget. We never had a problem with any of that and if anyone would have, we would shunned THEM, not her!”
I was convinced and I told John I would take the “hits” if any player or parent disapproved. Ultimately none did. They accepted Bridget and adored her as much as her Summer teammates had.
John promised to be at every practice and every game to monitor her. “I can tell when her ‘numbers’ are down and she needs help. I promise, it won’t be a problem for you.” He was right. It never was.
I have a question for you as a reader: Have you noticed how often when you do the right thing, you get a good thing in return? It might take awhile and it might be in a different form but it eventually comes.
The return for me doing the right thing in accepting Bridget was as immediate as it was pertinent.
Before that day ended, I received a call from a girl who was with our cross-town rival but wanted to play for us. To look at her, you might have imagined Olivia as a budding blond cover model but that is not how opposing coaches and players saw her. To them, she was the deadliest three-point shooting forward in the northern half of our county.
With Olivia at one forward and Bridget at the other, opponents would have trouble choosing their poison.
Indeed, our success grew with each year and by the end of the eighth grade, our girls had the pelts of some esteemed programs dangling from their travel bags. But for the coaches, the rewards that mattered were those that came when the high schools held their tryouts.
We fully expected that none of our girls would be cut by their high school teams. Sadly, two of them were.
One was Sara, who was not only a double-digit scorer but also the fastest girl in the entire county. She was later contacted by the high school coach who declared her cut as “mistaken identity” by an assistant and he wanted her on the team. He invited her back. She refused.
The other cut shocked me. It was Bridget. Yet again, life had thrown her another barrier and this one was about as screwball as they come.
Yes. You see, it wasn’t the coaches who had cut her. They loved her and right from the first day of the tryouts, they had set aside a uniform for her. When the week-long tryout ended, she was one who received a uniform. However, within hours, the head coach called Patti and explained that he was being required to cut her because the principal deemed that her diabetes made her physically unfit to play high school basketball.
None of us were about to settle for Bridget being cut and we marched to the principal’s office and expressed our opinion. When her father used the term “discrimination lawsuit”, the principal reversed his decision. I must admit, he did so with great grace and humility.
Through the ordeal, Bridget never lost hope and she never lost her smile.
Later, John told me, “I’ve worked all these years to help Bridget with her basketball dreams. Her dream is my dream and I long to see her play high school basketball. There’s no way I would let that principal tear it all down now!”
If that screwball barrier seemed unfair, it was nothing compared to what struck that family just one month later. We were all saddened when Patti disclosed that John had been diagnosed with cancer and his future was uncertain. By the time school started in September, he was wheelchair-bound and by November he was bedridden most of the time.
I stayed in touch with Patti and she told me that John sometimes had good days when he could be upright for hours, but those days were few. I told her to call me if one of the good days happened on a day Bridget was playing and that I would come over and help get him and his medical paraphernalia to the game.
That call came in late January and I did as I promised. We loaded John into his car and Patti drove him to the game. I met her there and wheeled John to the edge of the court so he could finally get to see his treasured daughter play high school basketball.
I nearly cried when I saw his face frozen in bliss. His body was full of pain but his smile made it seem he had already transitioned to heaven.
That was the first time he ever got to watch his daughter play high school basketball.
It was also the last.
A few weeks later, I had some activities with some of our former travel ball players and early on, we all got the news that John had died. When we assembled for our project later that day, Bridget seemed unfazed. Her demeanor wasn’t an act. Bridget always tried to make people feel better and have fun. In fact, that was the motivation behind her goofiness in Summer league. I found myself wondering if I had been a heel for forcing her to change for travel ball.
As our project wore on, Bridget called out to me, “Hey coach, you’re coming Monday, aren’t you?”
Monday? What was Monday? Before I figured it out, she laughed, “My dad’s funeral! HELLO! It will be fun!”
Fun? Only Bridget would call her father’s funeral “fun”. Indeed, it was upbeat and Bridget made the rounds to see that everyone was okay and had all that they needed.
As I meandered the facility, I found myself peaking through the small window of a remote room. There was Bridget, sitting alone. It was the only time I ever saw that girl cry. And, that is one thing I will never tell her I saw.
It seems incredulous, but the bad barriers were not yet finished with Bridget.
As her sophomore season began, she suffered an ACL injury. It healed slowly before being re-injured. She didn’t practice or play at all from sophomore year through her senior season. Nevertheless, she gave her coaches the same commitment she had given to me years before.
She never missed a practice.
She never missed a game.
She never missed a team event.
She was so loved by her coaches and teammates that, even though they knew she couldn’t practice or play, they gave her a uniform, a place on the bench, a place on the bus, and her name on he roster.
As her her senior season was ending, I thought back to the first time I ever saw Bridget. She was nine years old and so full of energy that her legs wouldn’t stand still. Now, she was 17 and still full of boundless energy. The difference was, ACL injuries had her on crutches.
But, remember how we talked about when you do good things your get good things?
Before the final game of her high school experience, the coaches from both teams gathered. Soon, her teammates went to Bridget on the bench. They took her crutches, lifted her to a standing position, and carried her onto the court. The ball was put into play and no one interfered as a pass went to her and she made the only basket she would ever make as a varsity player.
After the game, she hugged me and thanked me and said, “I went through all of those years with you to play less than a minute and score one frickin’ basket.” Then, that awesome Bridget smile broke forth and she added, “But it was worth it!”
I replied, “Well look at it this way Bridget. You have the highest points-per-minute average of any player in the history of your school. So, there’s that.”
She eventually healed enough to play for a college in another area. Later, she transferred to another that was out of the state.
I’ve always thought Bridget could anything. Recently however, I’ve come to realize that there are two things she will never be able to do:
She can transfer out of state, but she will never transfer out of my memories.
And, she will never be able to forfeit her title as the most courageous girl I’ve ever known.