Over the course of the past few months I’ve had the privilege of
witnessing the game of basketball, and sport in general, in its
purest form.

Around the middle of November, Aaron Lee, the Sports Director at
the Lussier Family YMCA, dropped me an e-mail wondering if I had
any interest in coaching a sixth-grade boys’ basketball team as
part of the Y’s annual league.

Originally, I had reservations about taking on a team because of
my time commitments at the Herald, my relatively busy class
schedule and hitches that could arise in getting to and from
practices and games.

Ultimately, however, I opted to take advantage of the
opportunity, and it wound up being one of the better experiences of
my life.

This group of nine 11- to 12-year-olds, better known as the
Diablos, rapidly became my weekly release from the statistically
centered, at times negative contemporary sports world.

While I spent the first four days of my week analyzing the Big
Ten’s scoring leaders and following the latest developments in
Dwayne Smith or Boo Wade’s legal situations, I always had the
weekend to fall back on as a refresher course in why sports are so
great.

After games, nobody on the team asked me how many points they
scored or rebounds they recorded. There wasn’t any finger-pointing
after a loss. There wasn’t any taunting after a win. It was just
basketball.

Don’t get me wrong. Part of what I love about the game is
watching Devin Harris drop 38 points on Minnesota or hearing the
Kohl Center crowd do the “left, right” cheer after Velimir
Radinovic draws his fifth foul. But sometimes it’s just nice to
watch a game without all the added hoopla or implications.

And although the notion of an enjoyable practice would likely
confound Allen Iverson for the better part of a year, some of the
guys on our team actually looked forward to our little Friday
tune-up sessions.

The opportunity to hone their skills, hit the team-record number
of free throws (Todd and Aaron finished with a tie, 11 for 15) and
to be the last man standing in our weekly game of lightning,
actually seemed to make practices as intriguing and interesting to
them as our Saturday games.

These practices also became the source of my greatest
satisfaction as a coach.

One of the guys on our team approached me toward the beginning
of our first practice and told me he’d never run an “actual play”
before. He struggled a little bit to get the hang of things during
the first week or so, but by season’s end he was swinging the ball
around, boxing out and making the sound pass with greater frequency
than most of the players in our entire league.

I didn’t distribute any tangible end-of-the-year awards or
announce who demonstrated the greatest talent in any particular
facet of the game, but Zach was, without question, our most
improved player.

Beyond personal achievements, though, the guys just exuded a
passion for the game and universal spirit that I believe is lacking
at times at the professional, collegiate and even high school
ranks.

As many people who have ever played competitive basketball at
one time will probably tell you, some of the most memorable and
entertaining years of playing the game are when you’re young.

As evidence of this, just look at the sheer number of kids who
go out for basketball when they’re in junior high. Then check back
on those same athletes once they hit high school, and see how many
of them still have an interest in the game.

You’ll likely find that many of these players are no longer
lacing up their sneakers.

Tryouts, playing time and the development of other interests
many times have a hand in this trend, but much of it can be
attributed to the game’s increasing level of seriousness as the
years go by.

While the nine members of the Diablos and their parents all had
a vested interest in winning and we did finish 10-3, nobody got too
down on themselves if we came up short at the end of a game. After
one of our losses, Aaron, one of our two floor-savvy point guards,
actually approached me and said with a little grin, “Man, we just
need more practice.”

It’s this kind of attitude that made being around these guys
such an enjoyable experience.

Our relationship began distanced by age and unfamiliarity, but
before long we were discussing the ins and outs of NBA Street, and
they were teaching me why I once loved to play this game.

They may have been learning the intricacies of running a
three-man offense and a 1-3-1 trapping defense, but I was the one
who truly learned the most during these past few months.

So, while the Diablos may have taken home silver medals after
last weekend’s season-ending tournament, the memory of those nine
guys for me will always remain second to none.