The top was down and I could feel the warm air blowing over my face. My right arm was propped up on the passenger side door of the 10-year-old beat-up red convertible and my hand was tapping along to the beat of Santana’s 2000 hit song, Smooth. My mom bobbed her head behind the steering wheel and sang along with me. We were driving down route 1 somewhere between Arlington and Mount Vernon in Virginia.
I don’t have an affinity for roads that look like strip malls and are littered with stoplights, but route 1 feels different. Don’t get me wrong. I would lose out of the number of car dealerships, mattress stores and fast-food restaurants on this drive every time, so it was definitely strip mall-esk, but it didn’t bother me as much as other strip mall lined roads.
We were on our way to my AAU basketball practice. One of the few times I got out of my Catholic middle school bubble. I had a hard time finding “my people” there. I had friends, but never felt a sense of belonging. I was looking in from the outside. Not quite cool enough. I remember a friend talking about the band TLC. I asked if she was talking about The Learning Channel. I never lived that one down. After her doubling over in laughter and me laughing along like I was in on the joke, she told me no, the band with T-Boz, Left Eye and Chili. I also remember the time one of my basketball teammates at school spread a rumor to the whole class that I had had sex with my 4th-grade boyfriend. I hadn’t.
Luckily, on this AAU team, things were different. I felt different. The first year we played together, the guy who coached us was an alcoholic. He would come to practice smelling like beer. He wasn’t necessarily mean, but he was a bad coach. We bonded over that though. We had a common enemy and it brought us together.
The second year we played together and a few new people joined. That year, we had one of the best coaches I’ve ever had, Coach Foster. He loved us almost as much as he loved basketball itself. This year it wasn’t a common adversary that brought us together, but instead, it was the love of this coach that bonded us.
This is not a winning championship team story. We lost far more games than we won. I remember one specific tournament in Richmond. We walked into the gym and our opponents looked like a varsity high school team. If they had been boys, they would have had facial hair. We, on the other hand, looked like the middle school team that we were. We played hard for each other and for our coach because he loved and cared for us. And then we still got worked by the other team.
At the end of practices, we had to shoot free throws and the whole team would have to run if we didn’t make them. But Coach somehow made it lighthearted. It didn’t feel like punishment. He coached us to get better so we wouldn’t miss next time and let us know he didn’t care any less about us if we missed. He did enjoy making us run though. My mom came early to pick me up one practice and hung out to watch. She was standing next to Coach chatting while we were running. He was holding the whistle between his teeth and he blew it for us to start more sprints. Then he looked at my mom with a huge smile on his face and said, I love this game.
I only remember one other game from that season. We came to the game with only eight players. It was a close game, but the other team started to pull away near the end. With a minute or two left, one of our players had sprained her ankle and two others had fouled out so we had no subs. The game had gotten physical and I was dribbling down the sideline. Somehow I ended up being shoved to the ground and out of bounds. In the process, someone’s knee got jammed into that spot in your quad muscle that makes your whole leg seize up. I got choked up because it was such a deep hurt. I laid on the ground for a few seconds and in that time, I saw my teammate who had sprained her ankle trying to walk around and warm up in case I needed to come out. I got up and was able to limp to the free-throw line for my shots so that my injured teammate didn’t have to come in. We ended up losing the game. On our way out of the gym, I was walking with Coach and he looked at me and told me how proud he was of me for staying in the game and playing through to the end. That is the first time I remember someone other than my parents telling me that they were proud of me. That made me really believe it and allow myself to feel proud of myself too. I’ve never forgotten that feeling.
After that season, the club we were playing for disbanded and the players split up to other clubs. We would run into each other occasionally at tournaments and play against each other. The core group of us got together two more times after that last season. One was for our Coach’s wife’s funeral. She was our assistant coach and she was in the Pentagon on September 11th. After that, I stayed in touch with a few of the players on social media and Coach Foster remained a close mentor of mine. Then in 2008, we all saw each other again. This time, it was at Coach’s funeral. He never fully recovered after the death of his wife. I’m not sure what his medical diagnosis was, but everyone knows that he died of a broken heart.
That’s the story of my 13th year. Those are truly the only moments I can remember from 7th grade. But even now, when I drive down a strip mall-esk road, I think of that ride down Route 1 to practice in Mount Vernon with my mom in her beat-up red convertible and I think fondly of that road littered with stoplights, mattress stores, car dealerships and fast-food restaurants. It was the road to finding my people. To finding a place where I belonged. To finding my first mentor. It was the road to learning that being a great coach meant having unconditional love for those you are leading, so that they can have unconditional love for each other and sacrifice for each other and feel like they belong to each other. I learned that that space of belonging is called a team and that I never wanted to not be part of one again.