Sports and 4th Grade Boys

1987 NBA Finals: Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Father Knows Best, But Not Sports
My father, Robert V. Tieche, was a brilliant engineer who was fundamentally uninterested in professional sports. So growing up, televised sports played about a big a role in my early life, as did, say, Cuban Immigrants.

Which is to say, since I was raised in Ohio, not at all.

For some boys, their earliest memories of their Dad are dotted with the Yankees or Giants or Reds, or whatever. Not mine. I can honestly say that in my entire life, I have never once seen my dad sit down to watch one minute of any sport on television.

This would prove to be extremely deleterious to my coolness factor when I reached a certain age.

There comes a time in every America boy’s life when acquaintance with professional sports becomes crucial to fitting in. For me, it was fourth grade.

I was reflecting on this the other day when my son (who is 10) asked me when I first started liking sports. It was exactly his age, around 4th grade. I even remember the moment. I had a teacher named Mr. Turner who was fanatically into sports. He was even part owner of a comic book and baseball card store in the area called The Paper Tiger.

One day, he announced that he was going to start an after school club where anyone who was interested would stick around and play this game called Strat-o-matic. It was a sports-based board game based on probability, statistics and dice. I am not doing a good job of explaining it, and it probably sounds really geeky and boring, but keep in mind this was before Nintendo and X-box, so we didn’t have a lot to compare it with. All I remember is that one day, Mr. Turner announced he was having an informational meeting in his classroom during lunch recess. The buzz around the 4th grade was palpable.

As I ate lunch, I soon realized that every single male classmate of mine was going to this meeting. So after I ate my final pretzel stick, I walked down the hall to Mr. Turner’s room. I was not prepared for what I saw.

Dungeons and Dragons for Jocks
The room was crowded, and I don’t mean Macy’s on Black Friday crowded. I mean That scene in Miss Saigon at the American Embassy Please Sir, Take My Baby crowded. Sitting at a simple card table were six boys, three on each side. There was a board between them, with some cards and some dice.

Mr. Turner was sitting between the boys as everyone else huddled around. They said the game they were talking about was basketball. One side was the Celtics and the other side was the Lakers.

Chuck Grissom turned to me and whispered, excitedly.

“Ooh, good game,” he said.

This made no sense to me. Again, I had zero knowledge about professional sports. It would be akin to a normal person walking into a hardcore Dungeons and Dragons meeting, and having someone turn to you and say,

“Ooh, that’s a level 9 Paladin versus a Stage 4 Elf with a Daggar of Alkazla.”

I mean, if someone came up to you and said that, you would be, “I’m sorry, what the hell are you talking about? What’s a Paladin.? What’s a daggar of Alkazla…and why are you wearing a pony tail and leather boots?”

Wait. How can “heat” be a mascot?
What was confounding to me was not just the deeply specialized language, it was that everyone else seemed to know what these words meant. I had half a mind to say:

“Excuse me, guys. First of all, it’s pronounced Kel-tic not Sell-tic. Read your Beowulf. And second of all, I think there is a typo on your cards, because, after all, there’s no such thing as a Laker. I mean, what would that be? Someone who makes lakes? A lake digger? I can see someone digging a pond, but a lake? You know who makes lakes? God. God is a lake-er. And while we’re on the topic, since when are there lakes in the greater LA metropolitan area? Los Angeles has to get its water pumped in from Arizona, and let me tell you, when Arizona has more water than you, you’re in trouble.”

But I kept my mouth shut and just marveled at the energy in the room. It really was as though everyone else was in on a secret and I was totally clueless. The boys kept talking – I could only pick up snippets of the frantic conversations. Something about Magic and Birds. And I was like, “What the heck was this, a cult? Is there witchcraft involved? If I see one person come to school with a live chicken, I am seriously telling Mrs. Hess.”

The Rite of Passage
It’s tough to emphasize just how alien this experience was to me. My father had never once watched or mentioned or even indicated his awareness to the world of professional sports. And yet, here were all my peers whipped into an absolute frenzy about this.

I knew that if I didn’t want to be on the outside looking in, I had best find out about these Magic Birds. It wasn’t long before I learned that you had to learn the lingo if you were going to be accepted into the cool group of boys.

And that’s when I slowly became aware that in school, there were criteria that were slowly being established as to what “cool” was. There was, already in all of us, a list of attributes and skills that was being communicated to us young men about what it was we were supposed to be interested in so that we could gain acceptance.

But to tell the truth, I didn’t really like sports, and I wasn’t really any good at them. But here’s the thing: no adult male ever sat me down and said to me, “You know what, David, it’s okay if you’re not good at sports and don’t like them. God makes every young boy different, with a different set of gifts and abilities. Let’s just keep looking until we find yours, okay?”

But that’s not the message that gets sent. I suppose at one point, once you’re past those turbulent and difficult adolescent years, you see the utter foolishness of basing one’s masculinity on the release of one’s jumpshot, but when you’re 10 and right smack dab in the middle of it, it’s tough to get perspective. Needless to say, I didn’t fit in very well with the athletic kids. I always lost at tag, and I was always in square D in four square, and tetherball – well, I still don’t like to talk about that.

So that’s why I gravitated toward the arts. Theater and writing music – mainly because I didn’t royally suck at those things. And I liked them. I think a good life strategy, in general, is to spend your time doing things that you like and don’t royally suck at.

Which is, ironically, a lesson illustrated mostly plainly by one of the greatest athletes of all time, Michael Jordan. Nothing could stop MJ.

Nothing except a slider from a Double-A farm league relief pitcher.

Stay in your lane, Michael. Stay in your lane.

And that’s what I told my son. Stay in your lane, buddy. If you don’t like sports, that’s cool. And if you’re no good at sports, that’s cool, too. You’ll find your niche. We’ll find it together.

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