I stress manners with my sons, 5 and 7: "Don't grab," "Wait your turn," "No shoving." We were doing OK until they joined their first organized basketball league. But the problem wasn't the boys; it was me.
I figured my boys would play basketball eventually. It's in their blood thanks to their dad.
One of Joey's first baby gifts was a LeBron jersey for 0- to 3-month-olds. My boys watch basketball, decorate their walls with basketball posters and play NBA2K13 on Xbox. We've removed furniture from our basement for their Little Tikes hoop: "Reverse jam!," "Fade away!," "Buzzer beater!" When we shopped for a swing set, we left with a basketball hoop for the driveway instead.
I've used their passion for the game to my advantage: "I bet Dwayne Wade eats his broccoli," "Russell Westbrook probably goes to bed without a fuss," "I've heard Chris Paul cleans his room without being asked."
Teaching opportunities come from basketball: "How many more points did Phoenix have?," "List all the players who start with the letter J," "Show me on the map where the Nuggets play." I print basketball coloring pages because the boys create posters and make tickets for 'games'.
But I hesitated to let my boys join a team. Part of me wanted to keep them home, keep them mine, keep them little. They are growing up too fast. If they're old enough to play real basketball, how old does that make me?
Plus, so many of my friends, it seemed, had surrendered their lives to their kids' sports schedules. Sitting in a gym, on cold hard bleachers all Saturday, every Saturday didn't sound like fun. I complained to my husband, who was dying to sign them up.
But the boys begged. My husband begged. And eventually, like always, I caved.
As the first game neared, I got nervous. The boys bragged about the spin moves and lay ups and rebounds they planned. They practiced celebrations for imagined success, including exaggerated fist-pumping and finger-pointing. "No!" I scolded. "You'll do none of that!" I lectured about sportsmanship and the importance of being humble. "Nobody likes a show-off," I warned them.
To encourage their sensitive sides, I turned to books. I read gentle stories to them every night: Kevin Henkes' "Kitten's First Full Moon," Jon J. Muth's "Zen Ties," Philip C. Stead's "A Sick Day for Amos McGee." But they kept bringing home basketball biographies from the library. Finding Sports Illustrated for Kids in their covers made me worry even more.
The first game arrived.
When Joey swished a beauty of a shot, he did nothing to embarrass himself. I, however, yelled in a way-too-loud voice, "Money!" It took everything in me not to high-five the crowd. I cheered, yelled and went nuts the entire game. Where was Kevin Henkes when I needed him?
After the game, I started coaching my boys. I'm not sure what made me think I was qualified to dish out advice, but I said things like, "You need to drive with your shoulder," "Use your elbows," "Don't be afraid to stuff someone." So much for all those lectures about manners.
People started talking about my boys: "He's baby Shaq!," "No. 16 is like who let the dogs out!" These comments fueled my bad behavior. I hardly noticed when my husband stopped sitting with me.
Why I cared so much about winning is a mystery. Maybe the writing life has dealt me so much rejection that I'm pumped about Dopirak success, even if it's not my own. I thought pushing would motivate my boys. Or at least, they would know I love them.
Luckily, before long, another mom caught my attention. She ran up and down the sideline (in heels, no less) screaming at her kid. At one point, she yelled, "Don't pass it! Shoot it!" What about teamwork? I wondered. She looked ridiculous. And worse, her kid looked miserable.
Watching her made me check myself. I zipped it for the rest of the game, and when we got in the car after, I only said, "Great job!"
That night, an email arrived from the basketball association:
Youth sports develop life skills, promote a healthy lifestyle and increase self-esteem. Unfortunately, as many as 50 percent of youth will quit organized sports by age 12 because of too much pressure and competition.
A survey• among youth athletes revealed that 31 percent wished adults weren't watching their games -- they said mostly because adults yell too much, are too distracting, make players nervous and put pressure on them to play better and win.
• Source: 2012 i9 Sports Association, national survey of children, ages 8-14, who play team sports.
I swallowed hard. No way did I want my boys to consider quitting a sport they love because I've morphed into a lunatic. I vowed to cool it.
At the next game, when Joey missed a shot, he looked over at me. My heart dropped. Was he nervous I'd be upset? I made a silly face at him. Our eyes stayed connected. He waved to me. I waved back. And that's how we went from there.
In one season, we've come a long way. My boys have bumped it up on the court. I've toned it down in the stands. After scoring 15 points and getting 16 rebounds, Joey said, "I can't stop smiling." And neither could I, largely because I didn't yell even once during that game.
When I read "Kevin Durant: Basketball Superstar" to the boys at bedtime, a page stopped us: "Durant is close to his mom, Wanda. When he looked into the stands, he saw her dancing. She was relaxed, which helped him relax and have a great game."
Joey said, "That's like us." I smiled, rubbed his fuzzy buzz cut and rocked us in our glider. Then I opened Katherine Applegate's "The One and Only Ivan," never so happy to share a sweet book with my sweet boys, fully realizing how much I need it, too.
Kate Dopirak is a writer and former elementary school teacher who lives in Franklin Park (www.katedopirak.com). Her first book, "You're My Boo," is forthcoming from Beach Lane Books. First Published October 11, 2013 8:00 PM