Who’d a Thunk? They Were Actually Listening

by Eddie Mayrose

It was a long and difficult season. I had been coaching the fifth grade CYO basketball team in my parish for five campaigns and that year’s version was, by far and away, the smallest. There was not a single team in the league that didn’t have three players taller than our biggest guy and it showed in our winless record.

We played hard every week, ran our offense, trapped all over the floor on defense and rarely lost by more than five or six points. But, we did always lose.

I learned a lot from that team; still, to this day, my favorite. We came to practice twice a week and worked hard — running drills, improving skills and supporting each other. We, as a group, became so focused on getting that first win that we bonded like no other team I’d ever had. Personally, I felt like I was right in there with them, a member of the team rather than its coach; wanting more than anything to see these determined ten-year-olds enjoy some measure of success.

Don’t misunderstand. This was a talented bunch that saw eight of its nine members go on to play in high school. They were just so … so small. When games would get tight in the fourth quarter, they couldn’t get a rebound, no matter how hard they tried. Yet, they’d show up at practice two days later as if it was the season’s first.

Whenever I hear a coach describe a losing season the way I just did, I wonder if  he described the moral victory in an effort to sugarcoat an otherwise fruitless endeavor and it wouldn’t surprise me if my own recounting is viewed in much the same way.  It shouldn’t be.   Last Saturday night, fully a decade after we played our last game together, I was given the greatest gift for which any coach could hope.

My son Ryan, who was on that squad, threw a surprise birthday party in our backyard for his girlfriend (Happy 21, Simone!). While we were waiting for her to arrive, I had a chance to catch up with Steve Mondelli, one of Ryan’s oldest and closest buddies. Now 6’2” and heading into his senior year at Oneonta State, he was as tiny as the rest of his teammates back then. We’d been talking for a few minutes when a lightbulb seemed to go on above his head.

“Oh, Mr. Mayrose, I knew there was something I wanted to tell you. You’ll never guess what I did this year in college.”

And, as he told me, every loss from that long ago season washed away.

This would probably be a good time to mention that I am very devoted to St. Jude Thaddeus, patron Saint of lost causes and desperate cases. As part of my coaching program, I would require that each boy bring a quarter to practice. If they practiced in such a way that made them bad teammates, my idle threat was that the quarter would be used to call a parent and take them home. If not, it went into the till for St. Jude.

We attended mass together on the feast day of St. Jude and said a quick prayer to him before each game. At the end of the season, I’d write a check to the St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis on behalf of every player. I was always happy to introduce the kids to St. Jude and it was very important to me, but I never harbored any illusion that they shared my devotion. Until Saturday.

As it turns out, Steve is a member of St. Jude’s Giants at Oneonta. Not just a member, actually, but a newly elected member of the Executive Board. I was smiling from ear to ear as he told me about the process by which he was selected.

“I had to go in for an interview, which made me a little nervous. Then they asked me how I came to know about St. Jude. I told them about my fifth grade basketball coach, the masses, the prayers, the donations; I just got on a roll.”

He then went on to tell me of all the work the group does, quoting statistics about how many children are helped each year by the hospital and how he’s keeping his fingers crossed that the Board will make a trip to Memphis this year to visit the hospital. It made every difficult loss of that season worth the while.

I’ve written a number of times in this space how my life has been influenced by the generous, kind men that gave me the gift of their time and expertise when I was playing ball as a kid. I’m grateful to all of them, and equally proud of my friends that have followed that example by giving back to their kids. What I’ve mentioned far too infrequently, though, is how much those kids give to all of us that are lucky enough to coach them. How they can light up your day by simply calling you “coach.” Or, even 10 years after the fact, let you know that they cared enough about you to simply pay attention. There isn’t a championship in the world that can top that. Thanks, Steve.

Eddie Mayrose appears every Sunday on the Fantasy Sports Network with Craig Mish at 3 p.m. Sirius channel 210, XM channel 87. He can also be seen, with Tom DeAngelo, on “Down in Front,” a weekly sports talk show available to Fios customers in Brooklyn and Queens. Check local listings.

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