Wednesday, June 22, 2016

They Make Me a Better Sport

We're old school Dubs fans at my house.

I am a poor sport.

It's tough to admit, but it's true. Part of the reason is something I noted about a month ago while waiting to hear back about a job interview. Some people can do that thing where they say, "Don't worry about things you can't control." I'm the opposite. I only worry about things I can't control. Why would I worry about anything else? I control all the other things so there's little to worry about there.

Being a poor sport doesn't come through as much when I'm playing, though I have been known to be a bit of a hot head when I feel an opponent is playing dirty. It comes out in spades when I watch rather than play. In fact, I've come to realize over the years that watching brings out the worst in me because I can see everything, but control nothing. It's why during my rugby days I played better as a scrum half, in close to the action, than as a wing standing on the outside with a great view, but little minute-to-minute impact. I never got in trouble playing scrum half. I was constantly in trouble as a wing.

I don't coach anymore, I didn't have the right temperament.
I quit coaching a couple years ago when I realized I couldn't stop yelling at the referees. Yelling at referees is terrible to begin with, but for me it was especially egregious because I am a referee. I was haranguing guys I worked with, guys I had to face at the ref meetings. I couldn't stop. So I had to recuse myself until I could work on my issues and be the kind of coach I expect when I referee.

So why am I writing about this? I may have found my salvation, and it's my kids.

There are a few things that being a parent has changed for me that I would not have changed on my own. I eat more vegetables and cook healthier meals now, not because I have internalized that it's good for me, but because it's good for them. I drive slower and more patiently, not because I don't feel the road rage, but because I want them to be safe. I don't pick up my phone when I'm driving, not to save my life, or yours, but because I want to be able to say to them "See, you can drive without FOMO." Having them with me is also making me a better sport, at least when I'm in front of them.

It started with the 2012 NFC Championship Game between the Giants and the 49ers. San Francisco lost on a muffed punt in overtime that led to New York's winning field goal. I was bummed, but Buddy was heart broken. For the next three days our morning commute was consumed with him crying, begging for them to replay the game so the 49ers could win. That's when I had to institute The Rule. The Rule is that when our team loses, whether as fans or as players, we can be sad about it for 24 hours, then we move on. As a fan The Rule is useful because it acknowledges our emotions and our need to grieve, while also allowing for the fact that sports fandom is kind of a silly pursuit.

Go Buddy, go!
As Buddy and Lou have gotten older and begun to engage more with the sports world, I have had to become better. The first big challenge came last year when Buddy started playing Under-9 (U9) touch rugby. I tried my best to just be a parent. I didn't want to be a coach, I didn't want to referee. I wanted to be a parent and let him experience what it's like to hear other voices.

Really, I wanted to not want to be a coach or ref.

The truth is I desperately wanted to do both. It killed me to see coaches who were caring and well meaning, but didn't have a ton of experience with little kids, devise drills and practice sessions that failed to hold their team's interest. It was all I could do to swallow my frustration with how the games were officiated. None of this is because the coaches or refs were truly inadequate, but because it is so hard for me to watch imperfection, even in games where they don't keep score. (A note on keeping score, you can say you don't keep score, but the kids all know the score.) The next challenge came this month as my Golden State Warriors carried a three-games-to-one lead in the best of seven NBA Finals, that then became a three all series with a deciding game seven to come.

Generally it had been easy to rant and rail at basketball games like a typical fan because they usually start well after the kids' bedtime. I became notoriously obnoxious on Facebook during the playoff months of April, May and June. I also had more riding on this than the average fan. A Warriors win would mean trip home to California for me to work the victory parade. I had worked the parade the year prior and I was over the moon at the idea of doing it again. With game seven in Oakland, and with the two-time MVP on our side I was confident our team would win, could win. Might win. OK, I'm generally a pessimist, but I figured they would win despite my reservations.

2015 Warriors Championship Celebration

It was Sunday night before the last day of school and I offered the kids the chance to stay up and watch the game. Early on I realized the biggest challenge of the night would be in keeping my comments measured in order to be a good example for them. So while I complained about things on Facebook, I tried to remain calm while Buddy snuggled next to me on the couch. (Lou elected to go to bed before half time).  At one point in the first half Kyrie Irving hit a tough shot and had a foul call go his way on what was, in my mind, not even close to being a foul. It was bad enough that it happened, but then he danced. He danced because he was happy. He was happy because he was playing better than he ever had in the biggest game of his life. But it burned me up and I said, "Someone should punch Kyrie Irving right in his stupid smug face."

Nope. That is not what you say in front of a seven-year-old kid.

I got up. I got a drink of water. I went to the bathroom. When I came back to the living room they were showing the replay of Kyrie's dance. I sat down with Buddy.
"Hey Bud, a minute ago I said someone should punch Kyrie Irving in the face. That's not true. I shouldn't have said that. I was frustrated, but no matter how frustrated you are you shouldn't say that someone should get punched in the face. Do you know why I was frustrated? Because he was dancing and taunting his opponents. It's rude. If you're ever doing really well in a game, don't dance. You can be happy, you can high five your teammates, but don't do things to taunt the other team. And if someone taunts you, or dances, don't think about punching them. Use whatever emotion you have as motivation to do better. Then, if you win, go back to the locker room and dance your butt off. But always show respect for your opponent."
Other than a couple instances of "That's not a foul!" I was well behaved the rest of the game, even as the Warriors let a seven point half time lead slip away. Buddy did implore me to stop begging for coach Steve Kerr to take Anderson Varejao out of the game. Honestly, it was a brutal few minutes for both us. For me because I could see Varejao single handedly losing the game. For him because he had to hear me cry about it.

In the end the Warriors lost the game and the series, and I lost my trip to Oakland. The game ended up being a classic, won by Irving on a shot with just a few seconds left. I apologized to Buddy. I thought he'd be up to see his first championship win. "It's OK dad," he said, "I got to see my first championship game, and I got to stay up and see it with you." And with that he demonstrated that he was already a better sports fan than me, which is what I want for him. We talked about what the game meant for LeBron James and the city of Cleveland. We talked about how that game will likely go down as an all-time classic. With that we started our twenty-four hour mourning period with a hug, a wan grimace, and headed to bed.

Let's get it again next year.

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