Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Teaming up


We are here in Minneapolis, a cadre of volleyball parents from Texas, cheering on our sons at the 2011 USVA Junior National Volleyball Championships.

Where we live, boys' volleyball is a bit of an oxymoron, a head-scratcher. "Boys?" people ask. "I never think of boys playing volleyball."

But ours do. They live it, and they breathe it, and they have worked amazingly hard to get here. They are stunning and passionate players, their prowess even more pronounced in competitions such as these. They are playing against teams from California and Florida and Puerto Rico -- against boys who grow up playing this game that has so engulfed my Charlie and his teammates -- and holding their own with aplomb and grace.

On a glorious July 4 morning, I sit in the lobby of the Minneapolis Convention Center, finishing my oatmeal from Starbucks before entering the cacophony of referees' whistles and spectators' cheers. A  white-haired man joins me; he tells me his two grandsons, whom he's here to watch, play in California.

"Ah, California!" I say. "When we see that's where a team we're playing is from, we quake a little in or boots."

"They've always played," he says. "My daughter-in-law strung up a net outside, and they play all day long."

I wish him luck, then stand to leave. I show the attendant at the door the red wrist band that identifies me as a paying patron, and carry my coffee to Court 14. Our boys are playing three matches here -- the first at 9, followed by others at 10 and noon.

At home, winning is almost a given. Here, although the boys are smart and they are skilled, as passionate about the game as they are to one another, it's a bit of a tightrope. Every team is here because they are better than good; every team believes that no matter what their ranking,  they stand a chance.

We are ranked 23rd among the 17-year-old players. Our opponents this day are ranked 8th and 4th; I didn't even see what the kids from Puerto Rico are ranked, but they are virtually unstoppable.

Still, we believe; what choice do we have? So we moms do what we can to make our sons' dreams come true and, in the process, their dreams turn into our own. One day, we wear white shirts with our sons' names and numbers and maybe a photo ironed on them. On another, we wear black t-shirts emblazoned in red with our team name, HIGH INTENSITY.

One mom made signs for us to hold, each a letter spelling out T-E-X-A-S-!. Another brought red and white pompons for us to wave.

We scream and we shout so much that now, as the tournament draws to a close, my voice is hard to understand, raw from yelling.Our calls run an emotional gamut. "Get mad!" we scream, followed seconds later by, "Have fun!" and "Wipe those smiles off their faces!"

"Lighten up!" we juxtapose with "Hang tough!"

We get scared and we get silly, screaming "Remember the Alamo!" when our team is losing, and "Channel the Mavs!" -- hoping the momentum which propelled Dirk Nowitzki in many a fourth-quarter playoff game will somehow rub off on them.

At one point, a mom turns to me and says, "I don't even know what I'm saying!"

In blinks of an eye as our boys play, I find myself stepping back or floating overhead,  holding in my heart all that matters right this very second, and just how important these moments and these games are. At the same time, I am looking through the boys' eyes a year, two years, a decade ahead -- looking back and remembering these precious days as a time when passion and teamwork were everything, when success was measured in spikes and blocks, in games and matches and post game how-can-we-do-better-next-time? discussions.

When your kids are young and just starting to play sports, you recite the parental mantra: "It's not whether you win or lose; it's how you play the game." As they get older, they learn, and you let them start realizing, that winning is great. Losing? Not so much.

Yet. Yet. Yet. Watching our boys -- their efforts; their attitude; the way they keep talking each other up; the way they put an arm around whoever might have be kicking himself for letting the ball fly out of bounds or hit the ground; their breathtaking and, in the end, heart-twisting effort --  you realize this:

Yes, winning is very, very very nice. But sometimes, it's exceeded only by -- or at least runs neck-and-neck with -- how you play the game.