Wednesday, August 14, 2019

"Who Wants To Play Tackle Basketball?"

He started by arranging our two basketball stanchions to form a small court amongst the wood chips, then, holding a jack-o-lantern face ball under his arm, called out, "Who wants to play tackle basketball? Who wants to play tackle basketball?"

He was one of the oldest, biggest kids on the playground, a boy who I know likes the occasional rough and tumble game. His calls attracted several younger children, curious about what this exciting older boy had up his sleeve. One of them accepted his offer, "I want to play."

"It's tackle basketball," he warned, "You're gonna get tackled."

The look on the girl's face told me that she had no idea what he was talking about, so I said, "I don't think she knows what tackling means." Then to her, "Do you know what tackling means?"

She shook her head, so I explained, "Tackling means that you're going to get grabbed and knocked to the ground."

The older boy confirmed my definition, "Yeah," he nodded vigorously and in a voice that he intended as persuasive, "that's what's gonna happen." 

She thought better of it, so he went back to his call, "Who wants to play tackle basketball? Who wants to play tackle basketball?"

Now he was attracting a crowd, including many children his own size, but still had no takers until finally one slightly younger, smaller boy said, "I want to play," putting himself forward. I again defined the word "tackle" and he said he understood. The two boys stood facing each other for a second, then the older one wrapped up the younger boy, taking him to the ground, then rising to stuff the ball through one of the hoops. As the younger boy dusted himself off, the older boy declared to the rest of us, a look of pure joy on his face, "That's how you play!"

Several children said, "I don't want to play," but the younger boy re-engaged and the game took on the pattern of the older boy tackling the younger one, then scoring. Meanwhile, the other children began to assemble court side seating for themselves, arranging milk crates and other objects to serve the purpose.

As the game became more intense, I said to all assembled, "If you play rough games you might get hurt," mainly by way of managing expectations because I knew that tears at some point were going to emerge to start marking the limits of just how rough and tumble this rough and tumble play was going to get. And sure enough, moments later, the younger boy was crying. I invited him to sit in my lap, a place he's been before while crying over his bumps and bruises.

During a pause, the older boy said to me, "I can't play this at home. My mom does not like tackling." I imagined that this might have a lot to do with the fact that his two years younger sister was his most likely tackling target.

Eventually, a couple of other children, after having watched for a time, wanted to test their skills, joining in for a round or two before retiring back to the audience. The older boy continued to instruct and encourage the others. At one point he initiated the ritual of high fives all around after he scored (and he was the only one who ever scored). At another point, one of the children brought a long stick to the match, to which he responded, "No weapons in tackle basketball." He told them that he was the referee and began to blow his pretend whistle at intervals, usually for violations of previously undisclosed rules. When one girl said, "I want to play, but not get tackled," he blew his whistle on her, saying, "It's tackle basketball. You have to get tackled." If you cried, everyone decided, you had to go sit on Teacher Tom's lap until you weren't crying.

Then the moment came when everything changed for the older boy. Two kids wanted to play at once. Up to then, it had been one-on-one. Made cocky by all his success, he agreed, saying, "It's you two against me." He still managed to tackle the other two and score, although it looked to me more like a bout of straight up wrestling. It then became three-on-one as another kid joined, and it was at this point the odds were evened. Then it became something of a free-for-all.

After a time, however, the crowd began to thin, then the opponents stopped responding to his challenges, and after a solid half hour, the boy was once more left alone on his tackle basketball court. He was tired and dirty with a look of exhausted joy on his face. "I'm definitely going to play that again tomorrow!" he said as much to himself as to me.

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