Elliott heaved, the ball fell aimlessly short of the basket, and the chance to play superhero passed. But wait, he was fouled. With no time on the clock, Elliott was going to the freethrow line to try to sink three consecutive freethrows and send the game into overtime.
The gym was quiet. Some of his buddies from other teams were now standing around the gym waiting to play the game after his. I stared at Elliott, trying to gauge how much pressure he was putting on himself. I've been a part of sports all my life. I know how meaningless a middle school rec league basketball game is. I also know none of that matters when you're a 12 year old kid standing on that line. Hero on one side. What could have been on the other.
Part of me wished I could go take those shots for him. The other - and more wise part - had to concede that the best free throw shooter in our family was standing on that line. I trusted Elliott knew the chances were next to impossible to stand there and make three consecutive free throws. Still, I began practicing my dad talks.
The game is more than 3 seconds long pal. That missed free throw didn't lose the game.
Hey, just use that miss to fire you up to practice those free throws more.
Or, hey, this is a chance for you to show how to miss shots with as much class as you make them.
I had all my talking points tucked away and ready.
Elliott stood at the line, took a couple of dribbles, looked up at the basket and shot: nothing but net. He looked like he was standing in the driveway shooting by himself, calm, just killing time on a Saturday afternoon.
I sat a nervous wreck. To be honest, I thought it would have been easier if Elliott would have missed that first one. There's no way he can make three in a row. But making that first one leads his teammates to believe yes he can. Making that first one makes the fall from potential superhero to just another one of the young and little guys on the team all the steeper.
Elliott stood at the line, took a couple of dribbles, looked up at the basket and shot: nothing but net. My heart began racing. The line between superhero and what could have been was now big and bold and bright. Where at once it was a line only a worried dad could see, it was now a line everyone in the building was staring at.
I wondered how clearly Elliott could see that line. Could he feel it grabbing at his feet, trying to trip him in the middle of his next shot. Did he know all my dad talking points were now useless, that by making those first two free throws the only talking point I had left was consolation. I knew all I'd be able to tell him now if he missed that next shot was I know it feels like you lost the game with one missed shot, but someday you'll realize that isn't the case. Only I knew all too well a 12 year old never comes to realize that. Dropped passes and missed shots live with 12 year olds forever.
Or - at the very least - until they're 54.
Elliott stood at the line, took a couple of dribbles, looked up at the basket and shot: nothing but net. Elliott's teammates swarmed him. Shoot - I wanted to jump up from my spot in the bleachers and swarm him. But I sat there, taking it all in, feeling happy for a little guy enjoying his moment in the big guy spotlight. I sat there thankful for the moment my 12 year old got to play the role of superhero.
His team ultimately took advantage of those free throws and won the game in overtime. For at least a few days, Elliott had secured the rights to smack talk.
After the game, I asked Elliott, "how nervous were you?"
"I wasn't really nervous," he said. "I practice those shots all the time."
We have that conversation a lot, mostly around sports, But for me, sports is the best metaphor for life I've found. Because in sports, and in life, there's this idea that when no one is looking, if we'll practice and prepare for our turn at the line, if we live life like we're always headed toward a superhero moment - filled with spotlights and nerve twisting and bending silence - when we get to that moment, we'll be ready for it.
I haven't heard Elliott mention that game since. (Even though I have no doubt his buddies have). But I know it's a memory that will live with him forever, which is cool. What's coolest to me, though, is Elliott seems to get it. At least as much as a 12 year old can. He seems to get that practicing the right things doesn't guarantee a superhero moment, but the only possible path to those moments - is practicing the right things.
And for this dad, that's a superhero moment I'm thankful for.