You noticed, and you named it.
Over the season, he started to lose his spark.
I am profoundly grateful that you noticed the change.
You even encouraged him… “if basketball is not your thing, maybe something else…”
You had no way to know, it’s not about the game.
It’s about learning how to live in the world.
That day when he got sick in practice, and I covered it by saying he hadn’t eaten well.
That was the day that the new kid joined the team.
The Black kid – and from Chicago – joined mid-season and
The way he was welcomed (or not) seemed to be too much for him to bear.
It forced him to look at all of his friends, his beloved teammates
It is not racism, of course… never that, but rather
The unconscious bias, that goes unnamed and unchecked.
Like how everyone questioned whether he came from Chicago, the big-bad-city
As if that, by itself, identified him as one of the ‘bad’ ones… without ever naming race.
(we have relatives in Chicago too… these suspicions hit close.)
When they played their first game with the new kid – you noticed again.
He was off… jittery, nervous, couldn’t find his rhythm. You wondered why.
In the car on the way home, he confided that he could tell the fan was angry
Because the new Black kid was shooting the ball too much.
The new kid hadn’t been taught that he is only supposed to pass, never shoot,
The way my black son has been trained.
(Well, half-black, and shielded by the cream I added to his coffee.)
For the past three years, he’s been told to never shoot, only pass,
Not because he can’t make the shot, but because even half-black skin is perceived
As something that needs to be contained, held back, so that others can achieve.
His nervous jitter comes from that, and gets worse, when he watches the Black kid shoot – the one who hasn’t been told what the unspoken rules are. Hasn’t been told to only pass.
The new kid on the team, the Black kid from Chicago, is just one more painful reminder
That when he goes to DQ with his white friends, chances are he gets free food
But when he is there with the Black ones, someone always calls the cops.
Yes, even three times in one month, just a summer ago.
And how does a teenager reconcile that, when he is half of each… and 100% both,
And so you see that sparkle fade because he is trying to figure out how to tell the new kid
It might not be safe to be seen together at DQ, even while he is trying to
Welcome him to the team.
The spark is gone, not because of basketball, but rather
Because at age thirteen, not only comes the onslaught of hormones, but also
A new awareness of Baldwin’s rage,* which is tightening in his chest
And giving him a deeper understanding of why
people on the news are screaming “I can’t breathe”…
And he has never… would never… could never…
Lose his love for basketball – or any sport — his one great love is constant motion.
But moving through the world, is so much more than moving on the court
Where it’s easy to learn, that shooting gets you benched.
And so he lost his sparkle instead.
You noticed, and you named it.
Thank you being one of the ones who cares.
© CMK 2021-03-06
*The author James Baldwin is quoted as saying “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”
One thought on “POEM: An Open Letter to the Coach Who Cares”
Sam is blessed to have you as his mom.
You are blessed with the ability to let us in on what you and he have to deal with.
I am blessed, we are blessed, to be let inside.