Jackson turned thirteen years old this past weekend, which we spent at a kids’ basketball tournament at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. Jackson is the newest kid on his team. Back in third grade, when all the other boys on the team were in the gym learning to dribble and shoot, Jackson was learning to rally and lob and serve until the day came when I tried to drop him off at the tennis courts and he sat in the back seat sobbing that he didn’t want to play tennis anymore. So after arguing and tugging on his leg for ten minutes and then realizing that I didn’t want to carry a screaming child into the clubhouse, we drove home and waited until 2013, when the basketball switch in his brain flipped on.
The boys on his team have been playing together for years, which could have made them insular and weird about change, but they’re good kids and the culture of the gym where they play will not put up with any bullshit, so when Jackson showed up last March they folded him in. From day one not just the coaches but the kids helped guide him through the unfamiliar drills, and shouted at him to get into position so they could throw him the ball, and included him in all the teasing and jive that goes on with normal kids, and he loved it. He’d found a new home. Even though he’s (his words, not mine) “the least talented player on the team.”
“You’re not the least talented. You have lots of talent. But you are the least experienced kid on the team, and you need to build your talent into something that really helps your team.”
I know: I’m mom of the year. That’s why I’m wearing this tiara.
So this weekend was another in a series of basketball tournaments, and in the middle of it all was his birthday. It was a good birthday, he got a lot of things he wanted, some cool gaming stuff, a nice pair of sunglasses, fancy basketball socks, a heat-sensitive t-shirt. We got a room in a dog-friendly hotel and brought Peewee. We ordered room service and drank bubbly drinks.
“What else do you want for your birthday?”
“To make a bucket during a game.”
Jackson is the kid who gets put in if and only if his team has already got at least a fifteen-point lead. Then he goes in, gets the ball a few times, runs around, and gets called back to the bench and sits next to the coach and watches, and he seems fine with that. He wants to get better, but until then he feels lucky just to be there. He has no illusions.
Their first game on Saturday afternoon was against a team who had no chance, we outplayed them from the start. Our team was more balanced: we have strong guys who rebound hard and we have skinny outside shooters, we have fast kids and kids who make layups and kids who duck and pass, and nobody’s scared and everybody runs like hell. At three minutes before the half we were up by 20 points, so the coach pulled out a couple of the starters and sent in Jackson.
“JACKSON GET IN THE CORNER.” The coach has a voice that inspires instant obedience. Jackson gets in the corner. This is where he makes 70% of his shots in practice. It’s his spot.
“GIVE IT TO JACKSON! GIVE IT TO JACKSON!” All the boys on the bench are yelling, too. In all the games he’s played on this team Jackson has never made a basket. They want him to make a basket. It’s his birthday.
Jackson catches the ball and throws it up. It bounces off the rim. His team rebounds.
“THROW IT BACK TO JACKSON!” Half of the bench are on their feet. There’s a defender in his spot so Jackson moves back, staying behind the three-point line. He gets the ball again. He just sort of flings it up. His form is terrible. The ball goes in.
The bench explodes. His teammates are going out of their minds with happiness, jumping up and down, screaming. Jackson jogs back up the court past me and Jack and we are losing our minds, too. All the parents and shouting. Jackson’s face is shining with happiness. The team mom (whose son is the three-point assassin responsible for the lead that allowed Jackson the time and space to do what he just did) turns to me and says she wishes she had been filming the team’s reaction to Jackson’s shot, it was such a moment for all of them. She looks choked up.
Jackson gets the ball a few more times and shoots but he doesn’t score, so he goes back to his spot on the bench. They win the game. Afterward, one of his teammates hoists him up. Another one of them punches him thirteen times for his birthday, seven times on one arm and six on the other, and he rubs his arms afterward, smiling at the possibility that he’s going to have bruises the next day.
Two hours later I’m sitting in the stands with some of the parents. We’re getting to know each other, and they’re really nice people. They say supportive things about Jackson, and I say appreciative things about their son, too. What court are we supposed to be on next? one of them asks. I pull out my phone to look at the tournament web site and discover that Jackson has changed my lock screen to a photo of some guy’s hairy balls. Because he’s thirteen years old, and balls are hilarious.
These are good people, and I have just flashed a picture of a hairy pink scrotum at them.
I slap my hand down over the photo. I laugh awkwardly and say, “Ha ha, Jackson put some guy’s balls on my phone!”
The parents look at me in confusion, and I realize I should have kept my mouth shut, but now it’s too late and I have to explain, so I begin to babble. “You know, he Googled balls,” I said, as though the reason for their confusion might be that they think I’m telling them that the boy they’d all been rooting for had literally got some guy to lay his balls on my phone. How I would know someone’s balls had touched my phone is a mystery. Like, Oh no! There’s a scrotum print on my screen protector! Or, Oh no! There’s a pubic hair in my headphone port!
One of the fathers looks at me with genuine concern. One of the mothers says brightly, “It’s weird how some things you don’t expect come up in those searches!” She’s covering for me, as though maybe Jackson had been Googling basketballs but Lance Armstrong’s missing testicle came up by accident instead.
I could explain that half an hour earlier Jackson had laughed until he could barely speak when he saw me react to surprise balls on my phone screen, and that I’d forgotten to change the photo. I don’t know these parents that well, would they punish their own son for doing that, for being so disrespectful? It’s totally disrespectful, I agree, I agree so much, and I adore it. Jenny Lawson once gave a speech about how you’re supposed to follow your passion, and her passion was breaking the rules, and if her passion is breaking the rules then being disrespectful is my most secret passion, I think it’s hilarious and necessary and I am terrible with authority, I will never be president. I have an inner thirteen-year-old boy and now I have an outer thirteen-year-old boy, too. I don’t know how much better my life could get. But I can’t explain any of this to the parents because they will think I’m a terrible mother and adult, so I say, “Our next game is on court three,” and put on a sorrowful expression, one that I hope says, My son Googled balls. I’m so disappointed. I hope that the other parents will forget I ever said anything about balls. This gym is full of balls, though. Balls are bouncing over here, balls are flying through hoops over there. Even the girls have balls! Balls are everywhere.
The team goes on to win their next game, and the two after that, and they take home the championship trophy. The ball Googler gets in some more minutes but he doesn’t get any more points, and goes back to being the guy on the bench getting his ears flicked.
I change the photo on my phone back to Peewee’s face and change my password.
I wonder what will happen when Jackson turns fourteen.