As far as I was concerned, it was a pretty good arrangement. I enjoyed the camaraderie with the players, the workouts kept me in shape, and I had a great seat for all of the games. But I didn’t feel any of the pressure that comes with knowing that the outcome of the game may rest on your bony adolescent shoulders.
I don't know how my dad felt about my bench-warming status. In retrospect, I imagine it was hard for him. Two of my older brothers were high school sports stars. Dad was used to going to games to watch his sons play.
Still, Dad was always there. I'd make eye contact with him during pre-game lay-ups - it would've been uncool to smile or wave. And then I forgot about him until after the game, when he'd come up to me and smile and shake my hand and tell me: "Good game!" Even though I never actually did anything to make the game good—until the last game of the season.
We were playing our archrivals. It was a great day for the Mustangs, as we galloped off to a big lead. We were up by about twenty points with two minutes to play when Coach finally felt comfortable enough to look toward my end of the bench.
"Walker!" he barked. "You're in!"
The next two minutes are still kind of surreal to me. I remember running up and down the court a few times. I remember getting a rebound on defense and then running up the floor as the Pep Club started counting down the last seconds of the game. I remember hearing the guys on the bench behind me shouting "Shoot!" as I faced the basket. I remember watching the ball bounce off the backboard and through the hoop as the buzzer went off. I remember hearing everyone scream and yell like I had just won the game, even though it just meant that we had won by twenty-two points instead of twenty.
And I remember wondering what to do. I mean, I knew what to do when we won a game while I was sitting on the bench. But I was completely unprepared for what to do when we won a game and I had hit a last-second shot - meaningless though it may have been. Instinctively, I looked for Dad. And he was there, where he always was, smiling at me as he always did.
For the next thirty-five years, that was always the case. Through good times and bad, Dad was always there to smile, to encourage, to support, and to love. I came to depend on that, even toward the end of his life when smiling was about all that he could do. It helped to know that, no matter what, Dad was there.
And now I'm the one who is in my fifties, struggling to keep pace with a teenage basketball player in my family. I think about Dad on Father's Day, or whenever I'm tempted to not be there for my children. To be honest, I'm not as good at it as Dad was. But I keep trying because I know how much it can mean for Dad to be there you hit that big shot.
Or especially when you don't.