My little team of six and seven year old girls played valiantly in their final basketball game of the season, but the superior opponents, each girl six inches taller than my tallest girl, were too much for them. We pulled ahead four to two, but they soon came back and matched our score. With only 20 seconds to go before the final buzzer, the other team scored again.

My team worked hard to get the ball down the court. With just seconds to go, the ball was passed to Cathy. She shot and the ball rolled around the rim twice, then fell out just as the buzzer sounded.

We had lost, but my girls had never played a better game and I was proud of them. I brought them over and told them that. I told them I thought they were the greatest girls in the world. We lined up for a final picture. As I looked across my little team, their toothless grins a tooth fairy’s dream, I thought they were the most beautiful team ever, and I knew I’d miss them.

As the others scurried off to their families, Shara hung back. She motioned to her mother, her sole supporter at every game. Her mother came over and handed her something. As soon as the other girls were far enough away, Shara shyly approached me. She held out a white envelope.

I knelt down in front of her. “Is this for me?”

She smiled and nodded. It was the first time I found her without words. I opened the envelope and pulled out a beautiful, handmade thank-you card. I could tell by the detail, that Shara had spent a lot of time and love on it. My heart felt tight as I read it. “To the greatest coach in the world. Thank you.”

Little Shara – my feisty little Shara. I could still remember one game when she had kicked at one of her own teammates and I had pulled her out for a while. I could still remember the look on her face as she yelled at me. “You hate me and I hate you, too!”

I had knelt down in front of her and said, “No, Shara, I don’t hate you. I actually love you very much, as I do all of the girls, and you are very important to me. I know you are a very good girl and can do better than this or I wouldn’t have taken you out. You have to promise me you will try to do better and you must apologize to Tanya. If you do, I feel I can trust you and I will put you back in.”

That is the first time I ever saw any soft emotion in this tough little girl. Her big brown eyes filled with tears and she nodded. I put her back in and she immediately went to Tanya and apologized. She was much better throughout the rest of the season. She would still strike out once in a while, but she was quick to try and make it right. She started looking toward me often and I realized she was seeking my approval, so I was always quick to yell, “Good job, Shara!” When I did, her whole countenance would brighten.

Now, as I held the card that she had worked so hard on, my heart tore at me, knowing I might not ever see her again, and knowing she was seeking my love and approval one last time. I looked at her and smiled. “It’s beautiful, Shara. Thank you.” I thought a minute and added, “You will always remember you are important to me won’t you?”

She didn’t say a word, but just nodded and threw her arms around my neck and hugged me tight. I hugged her back, and then she scampered off to join the other girls.

I stood and Shara’s mother approached me. She looked at me with the same big brown eyes I saw in her daughter, the same smile, the same wisp of hair hanging over her forehead.

“Thank you,” she said. “Shara really loves you. She talks about you a lot. Her father abandoned us a couple of years ago and I’ve struggled to take care of us. Of course, even when he was here he was abusive. It’s good that Shara can see that there really are good men.”

She thanked me once more and moved to join her daughter. As I looked after her, I felt in my heart that it was I that owed a thanks for the girls whose lives had touched my own, for I had learned more than I taught, received more than I had given, and been loved even more than I had loved.

For, when it was all said and done, it really wasn’t about basketball at all.

 

Daris Howard, award-winning, syndicated columnist, playwright, and author, can be contacted at [email protected]“>[email protected]; or visit his website