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Staying true to 'a simple game'

Not too long ago, I attended my first Princeton basketball game. It was the Friday the 13th serial killing of Brown. Like many of you, I was somewhat reluctant to go, but after being shamed by everyone from the 'Prince' to Dick Vitale for not supporting our nationally ranked team, I jumped on the bandwagon and headed down to Jadwin Gym. I figured it was my duty. Besides, who knew the next time I'd be able to see Princeton beat Brown at anything?

I don't remember the exact score, although I think we left the Brown players wishing they could P/D/F the game along with all their classes. I remember more orange in the crowd than a Tropicana convention, though I resisted the mob urge to buy a "Go Tiger" shirt. ("Smart Fan" I'm not, though, and I didn't resist the mob urge to jump up and down on the bleachers in later games.) I don't remember much in the way of witty heckling from the crowd. (For example, after a Brown player missed everything on his first shot, we chanted, "Airball! Airball!" every time he touched the ball. Then he hit a three and we all became very confused, until he was taken out and we got to yell with satisfaction, "Sit down you suck!")

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What I remember most, however, was the transcendent level of basketball Princeton played in the first half. I have basketball in my blood; I've played and watched it all my life, and that first half Princeton played basketball the way James Naismith must have dreamed it, five men as one. They played defense like they were attached to each other on a string. They passed and moved and hit the open shot. They made the game look absolutely simple.

Watching them made me think of my dad.

"It's a simple game" was one of his favorite basketball sayings. He'd usually bring it out after running my high school team through the full-court press, demonstrating how far we could go if we just ran the system right, worked as one. He was a basketball coach. He could see the game in his head – how beautiful and pure it would be if we just followed that simple vision.

My dad played Division I basketball for La Salle University before he coached at my high school. He taught me the game in one-on-one sessions in the dusk of summer Saturdays, shooting driveway baskets in the suburban twilight. He loved teaching basketball, whether it was to his son or to any of the players that competed for him over his 18 years of head coaching. He was respected by his coaching peers and by his players – and by me.

Though he resigned from head coaching a few years before I arrived in high school, he rejoined as an assistant coach when I made the team. He said he wanted to spend more time with me.

Those three high school years were rarely easy. Any athlete who has played for a parent knows how difficult it can be. There was a tension underneath us, his frustration in me and mine in him. Sometimes I didn't want to hear what he had to say, didn't want to hear him point out another mistake as I stood sweating at practice, hands on my head. Sometimes I thought I could do it myself.

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During my senior year we had an extraordinarily talented team. I wasn't the best player on the team, necessarily – or the quickest, or the most athletic, or the best looking. Maybe I was the smartest, but in my case the smart failed to take from the strong. Anyway, our team was one of the oldest clichés in sports, a gifted group of individuals who couldn't put it together as a team. That year we tore ourselves apart.

Throughout that season – that long, frustrating string of Friday night disappointments – my dad kept his faith in our team, in the basketball he knew we could play. He'd diagram it for us on green pre-game chalkboards, the clear vision he could see in his head. 2-3 zone. 2-2-1 press. He laid it out for us; we just had to execute. We didn't, and our team suffered the worst verdict in sports: failed to live up to potential.

So as I watched Princeton demolish the hapless Bears and play out the basketball vision my coach-father held, I thought about him – about my dad. I'd like to watch a game with him sometime. I know the coach would love it.

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