Victory in Defeat by William Klein

It was the event of the year at our school — Staffulty vs. Students Basketball game. Staffulty is what we call the faculty/staff at our school. I told my friend Ryan if I score two more points, I’ll be the “all-time scoring leader in the history of Faculty/Student games.”

The former record holder was Shmeagol Lipshitz, a 93-year-old substitute, who has held the record for 20 years. They kept him around as a ringer for his basketball skills, and he played up until his death ironically on a basketball court. He laid it all on the line for the students and accounts note that he was still clutching a basketball when they carried him off the court.

Ryan asked me what was his point total?

I told him “1,399.”

“You’re in.”

Ryan’s one of the most dedicated teachers I know. Aside from being the head basketball coach for years, he’s an accomplished basketball player in his own right and played at the college level. He’s one of those teachers who looks for every opportunity to teach whether it’s on the court or in life. “We can’t lose with these games,” he told me. “They win and they’ll never forget it. We win and we remind them that there’s still more games to play in life and hard work to be done.” Sage advice.

I may have exaggerated my credentials as this was my final game with the school and really wanted to inspire confidence in my coach. Ryan’s a quick read and knows his talent level and who would be good match ups. I didn’t think he would see me as a good fit. The old knobby knees and tight back give me a gimp that resembles an old codger who’s seen better days on the farm.

The students filed into the stands of the old St. Vitus gym. The gym is a classic throwback. You feel like you’re stepping into a time warp. My teammates noted that you needed to stay away from “the valley.” Instead of it being a ten-foot shot, it slopes and becomes an eleven-foot shot. You can see the slope in the floor from the bench and the cracks in the concrete floor where many a player has misjudged the slope during a hard fought game. The gym is a classic throwback to the sixties. Painted in a pasty light blue, dimly lit, a stage that doubles as an exercise room was filled to capacity with students. The balcony was filled and the rafters were adorned with pictures of our senior stars from volleyball and basketball.

The students laughed at my antics trying to look like a pro in warm ups. Brick. Airball. Brick. No never mind. “I’ll show them,” I said to myself.

The faculty was off to a quick start as it was a blowout in the beginning, but our 2nd team which included me let them back in the game, blowing a lead of 10 points. They had some senior starters who played their hearts out. It’s the most hyped event of the school year and considering the fact that the faculty usually wins due to ringers, the gauntlet is set. Every class wants to be the team that unseats the “Faculty champs.” There is a great deal of smack talk throughout the year. “You won’t beat us” said Crawford, our assistant athletic director and health and phys ed teacher, to some seniors. “You guys always talk smack and end up losing.”

At the half, they were up by two or three points. We looked dazed. What happened? How’d they get us so good? This was going to be harder than we thought. The star senior for our opponents, Miguel, was playing every single second of the game. He darted and spun, maneuvered and jettisoned into the air like a college superstar playing school children. He was joined by four or five stars from our basketball teams, Desean, Trevon, “Big Mike,” Jada and Simera.

One of my students, Brigido, came to the bench at the half.  He said, “Mr. Klein, I’ve got five bucks on you that you’re going to score.” My adrenal climbed ten points as I told him, “Best bet you ever made.”

I’m too old to be playing basketball all out — full court, run and gun, but I wanted my students to see that I was in it to win it.  I’m not too old to go out and compete. 

True, I’m tired and run down from the year. The last month of school feels like that last thousand yards of a marathon. Where you see the runner wavering and the crowd watches to see if he’s going to get across the finish line or drop from exhaustion. The last month the students are done. The faculty is done. Checking out. There’s a fantom fog from the year. The stories that hang around like smoke and hover in the classroom are ready to be waved away and cleared out. But the smoldering embers of triumphs and ashes of tragedies still linger. I wanted them to see that I was still alive – there’s life in seemingly hopeless causes. I’m still moving forward. Still playing, having fun and competing, scoring small victories. I’m still in it and showing from my example, they can too.

The second half was back and forth. We were up by 10 in the third quarter and held the lead with about five minutes left in the game. I hadn’t scored but played some decent ball. Then it happened. There it was a lane to the hoop. I had the ball and started driving. It was a slow motion movie as I dribbled down the lane.  It was like they let me have it. I bounced one off the glass and had my two points. Pandemonium. It may have been in my mind, but it was pretty wild nonetheless. Game didn’t stop. I looked to Ryan who was giddy with laughter and raised my hand in the air in triumph. I did it, Smeagol’s record was broken.  There was still work to be done. I wanted to go out on my final game a victor. We maintained the lead. I took the bench letting the rookie stars in to cap off the victory. Suddenly, the students fought back one basket at a time. Our best against their best.

With 50 seconds left they were up by two. We looked at each other in horror. The kids are winning. We will never live this down in the classroom. “Trust me,” I said. “It’s going to be an even longer year if we have to live this down for the next three weeks.” This was understood implicitly by the other teachers. We pressed. They fended us off for a bit but scored to tie the game. There was a foul and two shots from our star at the line with 15 seconds left in the game. The crowd that was filled to capacity to witness this grudge match was pretty much gone, as the director of student life announced there was ice cream and a bouncy house if students wanted to leave. The senior class all stayed, though. This was their moment.

Our star player is our boy’s assistant basketball coach, a superstar high school athlete who stands at 6’4” and was the all-time leading scorer at another Catholic High School. He made the first and missed the second. We were up by one. Ball in as the seconds dissipated into air. The seniors inbound the ball. 3, 2, 1 as there was a mix-up on the far side field of play right in front of the athletic office. Ryan ran off the court and grabbed the trophy in pure delight. We celebrated the greatest victory the faculty has ever seen at the school.  Marcus, Dean of students and official referee blew a whistle and grabbed the microphone. There was a foul.  Put two seconds on the clock. They inbounded the ball. Even the last tickets sub-seconds seemed like long. Game over. Ryan handed me the cup for pictures. 

The students were gracious as we shook hands. They had no idea that this game was theirs for the taking; something to savor in its own right. I sense that they knew something was being taught. Everyone in that gym had something to learn. Every game teaches us something different we can’t learn in the classroom. Every dribble, every shot, every pass offers a new chance at victory one play at a time – even in our defeats.

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