by Dawn Hunter
The administration has a habit of sending me vibes of dissent. They don’t approve of my meticulous screening process when cutting down on the dozens of students, all of whom typically show promise. Deciding to place one guy on JV instead of Varsity isn’t so bad, but when it comes down to it, there are always the talented players who get shafted on account of there not being enough space on the roster. I’m committed to these kids. Yeah, I want – I need – the best on my team, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that I owe some of these rejected athletes something more: an explanation for why they were one point of measurement away from displacing the next guy. This year, I won’t be doing that. “You’re wasting time,” the bigwigs tell me. “We need those kids physically on the courts practicing, not running through your head while you try to come to terms with your job. It comes with the territory. Some make it. Some don’t.” “You’re not the ones who have to tell these confident boys that they’re inadequate,” I would reason. But they’d always beat me out in the end. “We’re not the ones being paid to do it. But we are being paid to make sure the athletics programs run smoothly. I like you, Terry. You know I do. But we’ve all got our responsibilities and they need to be seen through. “ They were right. That’s what hurt the most.
James Johnson was always a good kid, really popular with his classmates. Even as a teacher, I could see that. I’d be hard-pressed to call to memory a day I didn’t hear other students mention him. He’d transferred over in the middle of last year. Played Varsity at his old school. Unfortunately, a delicate domestic situation riled things up with him, and he ended up here mid-season. I’d seen him play and knew he had skill, but we sure as hell weren’t about to shoehorn him into the team’s established chemistry. That was a disaster waiting to happen; even I could see that. But this year is different. The papers are all laid out in front of me and the athletic director’s voice echoes in my ears. Even should I choose to draw out the selection process, I still must do so within the constraints set upon me. James Johnson, one of the top players on his previous team, versus Sean Crosby, freshman all-star. Everyone who tried out performed under the watchful eyes of three coaches, but it’s up to me to make the final decision based on the evaluations, a responsibility that I’d just as soon relinquish in moments like this. I move back and forth from one file to another, reviewing and re-reviewing the details, extrapolating every strain of knowledge I can from them. Speed. Height. Agility. Control. Teamwork. Accuracy. Weight. Strength. Leadership. Choices. Above all else, choices.
* * *
Antonio Gaston just left my office furiously disappointed. With all the yelling and banging, I was starting to fear that he might lash out at me physically. Luckily, I was able to somewhat diffuse the situation. However, it doesn’t leave me in the right mindset to confront the boy about to walk in. James Johnson has complete confidence, strutting in with a genuine smile that, surprisingly, doesn’t reek of self-obsession. Most of the athletes are like that. They’ve got talent and know it, and most will use whatever opportunity arises to make that abundantly clear. Sitting down in my first one-on-one with him, I’m stricken mute by the sincerity in his countenance. I have not prepared for what I need to do.
“So…” he starts.
I jump to attention, clearing my throat. “Sorry, I – uhh – your file. It’s fairly impressive. You move well on the court.”
“Thank you, sir.” His smile widens. I see that I might have overdone it, even with just that one compliment. It’s said that bad news is best sandwiched between two items of good news, but something about it seems misleading. I don’t dance around the matter.
“You made Junior Varsity.”
His face sinks. Eyes that were once wide with ecstasy narrow with disappointment. It’s an expression that I’m all too used to seeing. “How? I was varsity!” I imagine none of his classmates know him for losing his cool, but here I am, the first to whom he has revealed this new side of himself. “We beat your team,” he argues. “I’m good enough for—”
“Please calm down,” I instruct, raising a hand. He receives the request well, quieting his voice almost immediately.
“No, it’s like you said. You were Varsity. But you have to understand, that was with the Vikings, at a completely different school. Not only was the candidate pool different, but so was the recruitment process. I’m not saying you’re not capable of playing on a Varsity level, but this is where I need you for right now.”
He’s not content but forces a smile anyway. “Thank you, sir.”
James Johnson is the last student-athlete I’ll be seeing today, and I’m relieved at that. I gave him two points of measure above Sean Crosby. I was the only one who thought he belonged. I’m the only one who still believes it.