One of the things we don’t hear enough about is good sportsmanship. Perhaps it’s simply not as exciting or titillating as bad sportsmanship. It doesn’t sell.
If a television affiliate has a choice between starting its sports broadcast with footage of a brawl that broke out between two rival teams or a hard-fought, well-played, close contest that ended with sincere handshakes and fist bumps, which do you think they’ll go with? Here’s a hint: there’s a reason for the existence of the hoary media aphorism “if it bleeds, it leads.”
That’s a shame, but I understand. I’m as guilty as anyone who’s inherently fascinated by a salacious or violent story. Allow me in this instance, therefore, to contribute to the other side of that sad, cynical ledger. I want to share with you a little tale of the sort that, while true and very impactful, often goes unacknowledged. I suspect this is so because such events typically occur out of the limelight and partly because they happen with boring regularity. In other words, to borrow another hoary aphorism, they are stories of the “dog bites man” variety.
This past Saturday evening my 11-year-old son Luke and several of his buddies on the Greenville fifth-grade basketball team participated in a brief exhibition during halftime of the junior varsity basketball contest between Greenville and Wayne high schools. (Their sixth-grade counterparts did the same at halftime of the varsity contest). Luke had been looking forward to this for days. A chance to run up and down the GHS hard court in front of a packed house? Are you kidding? That is the stuff of 11-year-old dreams. Their coaches, two extraordinarily generous and dedicated men (Dave Ernst and Aaron Shaffer), divvied up sides ahead of time, gave the boys their instructions, and officiated while the lads barreled up and down the court. The ten minute scrimmage gave the youngsters an opportunity to perform in front of a sizable crowd and provided the hometown folks a glimpse of the types of skills and hustle future Green Wave players are working on. Win-win!
The boys held a center court tip and were off to the races. They sprinted up and down the court, they defended with abandon, they ran their offenses with as much precision as their adrenaline level and well-scouted defenders would allow, they dove on the court, they passed, they dribbled, they set picks and cut hard to the hoop. They had an unapologetic, unabashed blast. Oh, the quality of play wasn’t quite ’76-77 Portland Trailblazers (I realize I date myself terribly here). I didn’t spot any (likely) future Steph Curries or Michael Jordans. But there on the court, on full display, was great enthusiasm and drive and dedication. Great joy.
About a minute or two into the exhibition one of the players dribbled around his back and a huge whooping, celebratory sound emanated from a group of young men gathered together at floor level, to my right and milling in a hallway just off the court. One of the kids made a nice cut and received a well delivered pass in stride and the same young onlookers cheered with gusto. When the shot was missed they let out a sincere and supportive groan. Who are those guys? I wondered. I spied them now, and discovered to my surprise they were completely into the fifth-graders’ display. They continued to cheer each body-sacrificing dive to the floor, each strong block out for a rebound, each floating jump shot or layup that found the twine. When the buzzer sounded and the Greenville 5th graders left the court, smiling but gasping for oxygen, the same young men greeted the boys with broad smiles and spirited high-fives or fist bumps as they passed by. A couple of hours later when I finally reconnected with Luke I asked him about his team’s cheering section. “Who were those guys,” I asked—aloud this time.
“Oh, yeah, they were so cool, dad. They were awesome. They talked to us before we went out and talked to us after. They said stuff about what we did, like what we did good and everything, and they really cheered for us. It was the Wayne Varsity team, and one of their guys—Trey something—he and his friends even let us take pictures with them and everything. ”
That would be the #1 team in the state, the Wayne Warriors, who are loaded from top to bottom with several athletes destined to play at the next level (and perhaps even the next after that). “Trey something” would be Trey Landers, who’ll be suiting up for the UD Flyers next year. (For the record, Wayne’s coach, Travis Trice Sr. split his time between two pretty darned good programs (Purdue—go Boilers!—and Butler) a couple of decades ago and his eldest son, Travis Jr., played for some guy named Izzo when his Wayne days were done. Last I knew Travis Jr. was in the NBA developmental league.
When all was said and done that evening, our Greenville varsity and junior varsity bunch left everything they had on the court—they fought hard and never quit. By every account I’ve ever heard, our boys and coaches are a terrific set of role models and a class act themselves. As a community, we can be proud of them and point our youngsters in their direction and say, “Take a careful look at how they work and how they conduct themselves. Please emulate.” We shouldn’t take that for granted.
But I want to thank the Wayne contingent as well, for their sportsmanship and gracious encouragement of a bunch of 5th graders they may never lay eyes on again. I’ll never forget it and Luke and his friends won’t either. Let’s celebrate classy behavior like that. Let’s—for once—give it a little overdue airtime.