Playing Ball

Your turn, Mama. Now you make a basket.

My son half bounces, half rolls the basketball to me, across the squeaky indoor court at our local rec center. I dribble the child-sized ball once, twice, then on three it bounces off the soft toe of my sneaker instead of the floor and rolls into a corner. I do not wince or look around to see if anyone caught my embarrassing move. I just run after it, dribble it back to the hoop, and shoot.

It goes in.

You DID it! My son is jumping up and down, grinning. He’s holding up his hand, waiting. High five, Mama!

I never thought I’d be spending time every week chasing after basketballs, practicing my awkward dribble and hesitant shooting style. That’s because I happen to be pathologically afraid of sports. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t consider myself completely inept when it comes to balls. I start to panic if someone invites me to play. Anything. Frisbee games have reduced me to tears, church picnic softball games have inspired me to spearhead the clean-up efforts. Anything to avoid begin asked to join in. Oh, me? I’d much rather collect trash on my hands and knees under this picnic table than frolic in the sunshine, thanks anyway!

It’s too bad, because I love to run around and play, to feel the wild pleasure of chasing and being chased on a windy, bright spring day. I danced growing up, and practice yoga today. It’s not that I don’t like physical exertion or being outdoors or other people. I happen to love all of those things. But there’s a strange deep-down shame I carry around that has to do with fear of fast-moving objects, rackets, and bats; with being responsible to help a team, and failing in that responsibility. Do you remember those awful mean boys in gym class? The memory of them screaming at me in the heat of competition during a sixth grade volleyball game, after a ball smacked the floor just beside me, makes me cringe as I write. Of course I had to step aside! That thing could have hit me!

But then I had Gabriel, who has always been entranced by balls and the people who handle them. His enthusiasm is impossibly contagious. Shortly after his first birthday, even I succumbed to it.

When he was about 18 months old, I joined our local rec center. Gabriel could go to the child care center while I exercised. At first, he was adamantly opposed to this arrangement. But one day, after I picked my grouchy boy up, we walked by the indoor basketball courts on our way out. There were two young men playing together. They were beautiful, lean and muscled, darting and jumping and running to the hypnotic sound of the ball hitting the court. Gabriel and I stood very still in the hallway, entranced. Suddenly he turned to me with great solemnity in his big brown eyes and said: I want to play basketball too.

So now we do. Going to the child care center became a pleasant stopover, complete with new toys and other kids, on our way to the courts. Here is what our routine is like these days: after we drop Gabriel’s sister at kindergarten in the morning, we head to the rec center. After I exercise for a blessed hour all by myself, I exchange my driver’s license for a ball at the front desk and run down the stairs, all sweaty and full of happy anticipation, ready to see Gabriel’s face light up. Even though we do this every time, his smile never fails, his run is always his very fastest, and his shout is always the same: YOU BROUGHT ME A BASKETBALL, MAMA! He sandwiches the ball in between us and hugs around my legs.

And then we run to the courts together. Yesterday we heard the sounds of an experienced player shooting hoops, so Gabriel ran straight to him to watch. He likes to be as close as possible to the players, narrating their game. He made a basket!! Or sometimes: He ALMOST made a basket!! Some people think this is sweet, and some people are annoyed by the distraction. Yesterday’s solitary player welcomed the attention.

What’s that, little man? You gonna shoot some 3 pointers? You gonna play with me?

Gabriel joyfully squatted down and rolled the ball towards the man, then did a little dance, waiting for the ball to come back.

Your mama play ball? He turned to me: you play basketball?

Oh, gosh, no, I said sheepishly. Well, I play with him. I mean, I like to play a little. I’m a pretty good roller.

We eventually played on the adjacent court, occasionally stopping to watch our new friend. We played pretend bowling (I’m the pin, and you roll the bowling ball at me!), and crazy soccer, and Gabriel tossed the ball up so that it would land in the hoop I made of my encircled arms. On our basketball mornings, I am trying on a sporty me, in the safety of Gabriel’s adoring smile. He is my biggest fan. And playing ball is fun. I feel like I am in someone else’s body sometimes, as I skip down the stairs in my running shoes with a ball tucked under my arm to meet my boy.

It’s just one of Gabriel’s gifts to me. Yet another of motherhood’s surprising turns. Do I play basketball? Yeah. I do.

I’m not the only one who has been drawn in by Gabriel’s enthusiasm for sports. Here he is with his big sister in our backyard, who is getting ready to toss a football to their grandfather.

What parts of yourself have your children beckoned forth into the light of day that you never knew were there? Is there anything you once avoided that you now embrace?

What new unexpected passions and pastimes have come along with motherhood for you?

About Meagan Howell

Meagan Howell is a freelance writer and social worker who loves art, books, yoga, friends, music, being outside, and helping to build communities of all sorts. Meagan lives in Maryland with her husband and two children and writes about motherhood at Homemade Time.

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