This Just In: Kirkus Review for The Rock of Sarraka

The sequel to The Last Akaway is ready to go. (That’s Dixie you hear yelling, “Finally.”)

True enough.

But anyway, we just received the first review for The Rock of Sarraka and we wanted to share it here first.

The official release date is November 15. It’s available for pre-order on Amazon, if you’re interested. In the meantime, over the next month, we’re going to try to do some fun things over social media. And yes, this is Gary. I’m trying to be better at social media. Did you see us last night on Facebook Live? (That’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.)

So follow us on Facebook (www.facebook/brodyboondoggle), Twitter (@garykarton) and / or instagram (garykarton). And be on the lookout for some sample chapter, cool videos, and contests for free books. And please share and like as much as possible.

Actually, now that I think about it, that last sentence should go way beyond social media. Just in every day life, let’s all agree to share and like people as much as possible. I guess social media has some value after all.

Anyway, we’re very excited about this first review and the release of The Rock of Sarraka. More to come soon. Have a great day.

Kirkus Review


The Rock of Sarraka

The threat to the existence of Sarraka, a land of magic and spirit animals, grows dire in this second book of a middle-grade fantasy series.

In Karton’s (The Last Akaway, 2014) first installment, young Brody Boondoggle encountered a magical Akaway. When a strange hunter seriously injured the creature, Brody learned that he must open the portal to her home in Sarraka to save the Akaway and rescue her realm. This sequel, with stops at a prison in Mexico and an extended sojourn in Sarraka—“the place we go to when we let our minds wander and just be free….Like a zip line directly into your imagination”—delivers more challenges that 12-year-old Brody and his motley group of family and friends must face. Brody continues to use his gifts from the Akaway, the last of her kind: the power to connect others to their own spirit animals and the ability to take on the characteristics of any creature (living or extinct) himself. During a dangerous rescue operation in Mexico, Brody visualizes a seal while swimming in the freezing Pacific Ocean (“Just thinking about the harbor seal’s skill and grace in the water gave Brody those abilities, too”). Nefarious video game mogul Uncle Skeeta, his greedy nephew Rudy, and the bitter Felonious Fish return, determined to steal the Rock of Sarraka, the land’s “power, its spirit, its heart.” In this lively, offbeat tale, comical crustacean Punching Crab supplies a key contribution; Brody’s older brother Jake (still wrestling with his disbelief in magic) and their eccentric Grammy are again crucial to the mission; and La Tarántula, a new villain (or is she?), makes a chilling entrance. Some dynamic newcomers play significant roles, including Rosalina, whose spirit animal is an armadillo, and her mysterious brother, Myles. Karton’s unforced blend of action, comedy, and messages—word definitions, observations of human behavior, encouragements to eschew distracting screens for real life—whizzes along to a satisfying cliffhanger, assuring readers that at least one more adventure for Brody and company is in the works.

A rollicking mix of humor, suspense, and well-placed lessons promoting an unfettered imagination and active, real-world engagement.

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The New Kid in the Fake Mustache

Brody came home the other day and said, “Dad, there’s a new kid at school you’re really going to like.”

The kid’s name is Jason. Brody described him as not very tall or too athletic looking. In fact, if you judged Jason by his appearance, Brody said, you might assume he was probably a little shy and not too tough.

That’s until you hear what he did, and then you might assume he is confident and strong in all the right ways.

Apparently, Jason spent the entire day wearing a big goofy-looking mustache.

When Brody finally asked him about it, Jason simply shrugged and explained, “My little sister has been getting bullied. People are making fun of the way she looks. I decided to wear the mustache so that they would laugh at me instead.”

Brody was right. I do like Jason.

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A Killer Job

At 6:45 this morning, I was in the kitchen making my standard smoothie when Brody walked in, opened the refrigerator, and said, “Do you love your job?”

“Define, ‘love.’”

“You get out of bed every morning, thinking, ‘I’m so excited to go to work today,’” he said.

It’s interesting because I was just thinking about this topic. On the way back from the dog park the other day, Dixie gave me the latest update on her ex-boss’s husband, who just took a job as the president of a university. “He’s working like crazy,” she said. “And he loves every minute of it.”

I love that. The same way I loved the way Peter Parker turned into Spiderman. It makes me believe incredible things are possible, which of course, leads me to daydream about what else can be possible, superpowers, and the meaning of life.

But when I’m not daydreaming, there’s another part of me that wants to know, am I asking too much? I have a great job. I know I’m lucky to have it. I get paid and treated fairly. Is it fair to want more? How many of us truly love our job? To the point that we would do it for free. I think that would be so cool. That’s what I want for my kids.

When I left for work this morning, Brody came with me. He walks Halea as I walk to my neighbor’s house. My neighbor gives me a ride to work every day. I put my bike in the back of his car and then I bike to the dog park to meet Dixie and Halea, daydreaming the whole way. I love that ride, even if I’ve already been in two crashes – the one with a four-year-old girl was her fault.

“How about you, Brody,” I said just before we got to my neighbors. “What kind of job would make you wake up every day saying, ‘I’m so excited to go to work today?’”

Brody paused for just a second, a perfect beat actually, and then said, “An assassin.”

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Tales from the Dog Park

Every morning she’s right there by my side. When I get out of bed. Definitely when I make Brody’s lunch. When we’re shooting baskets.

“Don’t worry,” I continually remind her. “We’re going today.”

But it seems like she doesn’t believe me. Not until we jump in the car, drop Brody at school, and finally arrive.

The dog park. One of Halea’s favorite places. And one of mine.

I love the dog park for many reasons. I love it because Halea loves it. She runs and plays and sniffs, and for one hour every day, I feel like I’m actually giving her the attention she deserves.

I love it because of what I see when I’m there. All different kinds, shapes, and sizes of dogs playing together. It’s like a John Lennon song. They don’t worry or judge or take things too seriously. They just enjoy what life has to offer and find new ways to have fun. Not a bad way to go through life.

I love it because I get to be anonymous. I’m there at pretty much the same time with pretty much the same people every day, but I rarely say more than a polite “hello” or “how are you?” And since my bulky winter coat or socks and sandals make me look like a homeless person (or so I’m told), I don’t sense that many people are too excited to talk to me either.

So instead of socializing, I wander. My body wanders up and down the half-mile strip while my mind wanders off to a million different places, as free as Halea, as if time and space mean absolutely nothing.

For my body, it’s as refreshing as diving in the ocean. For my mind, it’s as peaceful as driving through the night.

And every now and again, it’s something more.

The other day something happened that started as a bad thing but ended up much different. It started as a horrible thing, actually. I let my guard down for a second and found myself in an actual conversation—with a person. I get the chills just thinking about it.

I couldn’t even tell you her name, which is pretty weak because she knew mine. I do know her dog though. His name is Arthur and he’s one of my favorites. Polite, goofy, and loves to play with Halea.

“Hello, Mr. Karton,” is pretty much what he’s saying when he greets us at the gate, tail-wagging when we first arrive. “How are you today? It’s great the way you wear the same thing every day. Makes you easier to smell. May I have the honor of playing with Halea today?”

But by then, it’s usually too late. Halea is already gone, smoking cigarettes, or doing the doggy equivalent, in the back of the shed with a different dog. I can’t remember his name but he’s everything Arthur isn’t. He’s tough, rugged, kind of like the bad boy of dogs—maybe that’s why all the female dogs love him.

He wouldn’t call me Mr. Karton, that’s for sure. He’d say something like, “I’m taking you dog. Deal with it old man.”

But truthfully, I have to admit, I kind of like him too. Still a few months ago, bad boy moved away and over time Halea has came to appreciate and love Arthur as much as I do.

That’s why it was a shock when the woman who brings Arthur every day (I don’t like to say owner or mom), approached me and said, “We’re moving to Pittsburgh.”

“Arthur, Halea, and I are going to miss you guys,” I replied.

“We’re taking Arthur,” she confirmed.

“Then I guess we have nothing else to talk about,” I deadpanned.

The woman laughed, not knowing I was serious. She’s actually pretty cool though. She’s a new mom. Home alone most days with a three-month old baby, and it’s been pretty obvious she’s been desperate for any human interaction lately.

“Congratulations on the baby.”

“Thanks,” the woman answered.

“How’s it been going?”

“Amazing,” she said. “She’s an angel. I’m loving every minute of it.”

Ask any parent about their kid and the first thing they’ll always say is, “They’re amazing,” or some form of that idea. I do it myself sometimes.

But anyone who has ever spent time raising children knows that’s not the truth. In fact, your kid might be “amazing” every now and again but most of time, raising kids is like playing golf. You spend most of the time hacking your way around the course like you have no idea what you’re doing but every now and again you make a great shot that makes it all worthwhile and keeps you coming back for more. That’s why kids are so adorable when they’re sleeping. It’s critical to their survival. Like making a 25-foot putt on the 18th hole.

Normally, I don’t say anything more when parents tell me how great it is to raise their kids. Because it’s basically just small talk, which I like about as much as not noticing that there’s a hole in the bag when I’m picking up poop.

But since I’m such a huge fan of Arthur and since this woman was leaving for Pittsburgh and since I knew that I would probably never see her again so this decision would not lead to an every day conversation, I decided to say what I always want to say to parents like this: “You know it’s OK not to love every minute of it. It doesn’t make you a bad parent or a bad person.”

And that was all it took. Given the opening, she started barking like a pack of dogs when they see what they think is a homeless person wandering in the dog park.

“I’m exhausted.”

“The house is a mess.”

“I’m not exercising.”

“I feel like every decision I make is the wrong one.”

“I just didn’t know it was going to be this hard,” she said summing it all up. “I just haven’t figured this out yet.”

I’m the first to admit that I don’t know much. But one thing I do know is that more parents feel like this woman than the ones who say “they’re loving every minute of it.”

Now she was just looking at me. I was going to tell her how in a lot of ways, I’m the same way. How I scrutinize way too many decisions—did I really need to battle with 10-year-old Jake because he wouldn’t eat his baby spinach. Sometimes you make yourself believe that if they don’t eat baby spinach right now, they’re never going to eat baby spinach and that means they’ll never grow up to be healthy and strong.

You think every little decision is so important until you realize that kids are always changing. Everything is a phase. The problem is, like most things, you have to come to this conclusion by yourself, through experience. Nobody can tell you. So I didn’t try. Plus, I didn’t want her to be even more depressed by making her think she was like me.

Instead, I told her about something beautiful and genuine and organic. I told her about Dixie.

How she’s thoughtful and empathetic. How she does nice things for no reason. How she doesn’t hold grudges or worry or take things too seriously. A dog bit her when she was two. I really think she’s part dog.

How if you need her, she’s there. Whether it’s a women’s weekend for one of her best friends who just needs a break, or for her father in Japan, who’s having quadruple bypass surgery, or just a woman in the neighborhood who needs a margarita.

I know she’s not perfect (a gambling problem comes to mind), and so does she, which is only another reason why she’s perfect to me. And she would hate that I’m writing this but that’s just another reminder that you should think more carefully before agreeing to spend the rest of your life with someone. I told you she’s not perfect.

So the question is, “how did she get this way?” Of course nobody knows for sure and who we become is made up of a lot of different experiences and influences. But I didn’t say that either. I just said, “whenever you feel like you’re not doing the right thing, think of this.”

Dixie was an accident. Her mom got pregnant at age 18. Her parents were as different as two things that are really different. They were divorced before her second birthday.

As a child Dixie spent most of the year with her mom in Buffalo. Her mom was still young, so Dixie would often fall asleep under the pool table at a local bar or in the pile of jackets on her bed because the party was still going on. Remember this was a different time.

She spent summers with her dad in Hawaii. Dixie was five-years-old the first time she flew from Buffalo to Hawaii by herself. One time, when she flew back, there was nobody waiting to meet her. Her mom forgot to pick her up at the airport. Eventually, her mom came running down the terminal, screaming, “I’m here, I’m here.”

One of my favorite stories about Dixie’s childhood is when her mom decided she didn’t like Buffalo anymore and wanted to move to Olympia, Washington. Just like that Dixie had to sell all her stuff.

Three weeks after Dixie started fourth grade in Olympia, her mom decided Buffalo wasn’t so bad after all so the hopped on the first bus back east. It was on that three-day ride that Dixie learned to play poker with all the old-timers in the back of the bus. Again, a different time.

For the next several years, Dixie had to watch Peter Malloy ride her favorite bike around the neighborhood.

“I loved that bike,” Dixie said.

So Dixie never really had a ton structure as a child, or parents who scrutinized every detail to make sure her life turned out OK. But she did have one very important thing:

“I always knew I was loved,” she said.

Even when her mom was calling her a “little shit” for putting all the Hersey Easter egg tinfoil wrappers in the radiator, Dixie still knew that she was loved. She was always told that she was smart and strong and could do, or be, anything she wanted. It made her feel good and I don’t know anyone who has more confidence or self-esteem. That’s the way I want my kids to be.

The woman listened to the story and then said unbelievably, “You’re married?”

But seriously, she gave her baby a big hug and said, “thank you.”

Then we explained to Halea and Arthur that this was the last time they would be hanging out in the morning. One of my great dreams is to have a real conversation with Halea, and every now and again I let myself believe that she just might understand me because for the next 10 minutes, she played with Arthur like she knew she might not see him again. The only thing that makes me happier is seeing Jake and Brody get along.

Later that night Jake and I were having dinner. We’re on our own for a couple weeks because Dixie and Brody are in Japan to be with her father.

I opened the refrigerator and there was an entire package of baby spinach. Dixie bought it before she knew she was taking off. To be honest, I can’t stand baby spinach either.

“I’m going to eat this so it doesn’t go bad,” I told Jake.

“I’ll help,” he said.

I just looked at him. He just looked back.

When he was a kid I used to say, “Do you know how much I love you?” and he would spread his arms as far as he could. Or he would say, “To the moon and back.”

He’s really not a kid anymore. He’s a teenager, and that means there are times when I’m focusing more on the fact that I just missed a three-foot putt and not as much on the drive I just bombed right down the middle.

I think that’s normal. And I think it’s fine. And many times necessary. But it’s not everything.

“Do you know how much I love you?” I asked him, knowing full well he was not going to spread his arms as wide as possible.

He actually didn’t say anything. He just nodded so subtly that maybe he didn’t. Then he drowned his baby spinach in ranch dressing and ate the whole thing.

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Redefined Winning

I almost feel guilty winning, or I should say scoring more points than the other team in the championship game. That’s what we did yesterday. The Warriors beat the Hoosiers, 27-24, to win the championship.

When the final buzzer sounded, the team and the fans stormed the court like it was the last scene in Hoosiers—no pun intended. The Hoosiers (from Arlington not Indiana), who beat us 35-14 in the regular season, were ecstatic to see us–and not the Gladiators–show up before the game. You could see it in their eyes. When the game ended, you could see something else in their eyes. Maybe they’ll be stronger because of it. Maybe that’s winning?

For me it felt weird and still does. As someone who has coached the losing team in the championship game for four straight years, I guess it was nice to win one. But now that I did, I know that I didn’t need it.

The truth is—and I know this sounds corny and lame—but now more than ever, I truly believe that scoring more points doesn’t define winning. Especially not for kids, who are still growing and learning and trying to figure everything out.

And that’s what made this season so perfect. We redefined winning.

I knew we had won 45 seconds into yesterday’s game. That’s when Jahlil, a true gentle giant off the court but one of our most aggressive defenders on it, picked up his second foul. Just one week earlier, he was in the same position and was so upset he got a technical for spiking the ball and yelling at the official.

But yesterday was different.

“This is good for you,” I told him in front of the whole team during the next timeout. “This is your chance to prove that you can stay cool for the good of the team.” Then the rest of the team agreed to pick up the slack defensively so Jahlil didn’t have to risk another foul. And they did. That’s winning.

It’s winning when Ethan, the kid who at the beginning of the season was kind of psyched to win an easy championship at the 7th grade level, played through a jammed finger and continually knocked down that jumper from the elbow. The one he’s practiced over and over and over again.

It’s winning when Mylik, the shortest guy on the court, blocked a three-pointer from their biggest. The refs called a foul but that didn’t matter. We were enjoying it too much.

Jalen, another of the shorter kids on the team, was also one of four kids who admitted that he didn’t want to play against the 8th graders and there were a few games when he showed it on the court. It could have been those 8:30 a.m. tip-offs too. So it was winning when he had more rebounds in the playoffs than he did the entire season. And also when he chased down that one guy who had an open layup. He didn’t catch him. But when Jalen came flying down that court at full speed, we had won.

It’s not winning when Matt nailed three-pointer after three-pointer with a shot as smooth as Glen Rice but it helps. For me, the winning came when he missed a layup in the last minute that would have iced the game and at the next timeout, the team surrounded him and told him it was a good shot and he’ll make it next time.

It was winning when Chris, who never complains about anything, complained. The ref called traveling on one of our guys. I heard the protest and looked down the bench to give my usual, “no arguing” stare. Then I saw who it came from and was shocked. So quiet, mild-mannered, never-show-emotions Chris, got my “that’s pretty sweet,” stare instead. He smiled back. I can still picture that smile now. That’s winning.

Myles left his home in New Zealand to live with his grandparents here in Arlington for a year. He plays rugby and cricket, not basketball. He scored one basket all year and it was awesome.

It was winning when Jake and I made eye contact when we were up by 8 points with about two minutes to go. I know Jake wants to win but I also know that’s not why he plays. He plays to compete and that’s what he does. I have no idea what Jake was thinking in that moment and I don’t want to find out for sure. Because in my mind it will always be a moment that we shared, when we both thought that same thing at the same time: Hey, we might actually win this. Two minutes later, we did.

It wasn’t winning for one of my favorite kids who missed the playoffs because he’s been causing trouble at school. “I have to do something before he’s either in jail or dead,” his mom e-mailed me. He would have loved to be there.

And I don’t know if it was winning for Steven, although I doubt we would have won without him. Another one of my favorites, Steven watched the entire semifinal game from the bench because he was suspended from school for acting in a way that seems so foreign to the Steven who hangs out with us. It actually worked out well for me because I like watching basketball with Steven. After the game, he came back to our house and wrote an apology note to the person in school he offended. Then, he convinced his mom that he wouldn’t get into trouble at school anymore, so she let him play. I guess time will tell.

Who knows what winning really means for kids. I haven’t quite figured it out yet although it’s been my single mission for the last 13 years. But after this season, I think I’m getting just a little closer. I think it has something to do with creating an atmosphere where kids aren’t afraid to make mistakes, and then getting out of the way so they can make mistakes.

And in that respect, I think we all won.

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The Exception or the Rules

I still think about last year’s team party. I have been coaching pretty much the same kids on our house league basketball team for four years and we were celebrating the end of another great season. Well, if you consider losing in the championship game for the fourth straight year great, which I actually do.

It was an unseasonably beautiful day in February. Sunny, warm. The kids were playing. The adult beverages were flowing. Everyone was in a great mood.

Until I got there. You’d think a guy carrying four pizzas would make people a little happier.

“Coach Gary,” said one parent speaking for them all. In an instant, I was surrounded. “We gotta talk to you.”

To understand the next 3,720 words of this story (I won’t blame you if you stop reading now), you have to understand the following rule in our house basketball league.

It’s called the “Equal Time Rule,” and it’s pretty straightforward. Basically, every player on the team must play one full, uninterrupted quarter in the first half of the game (they can play either the first quarter or the second quarter) and each player must also sit out at least one entire quarter at some point in the game. The rule was apparently created because a few coaches routinely played only their top kids throughout the game, which is accepted on travel teams but is not really in the spirit of house league play.

The Equal Time Rule might not seem like a big deal but it comes up more than you would think. Like last year in our semi-final game against the Bandits. The Bandits had only eight players for the game. It’s considered an advantage to have less than 10 players because you’re allowed to play your best players three quarters. Of course, everyone still has to sit out at least one entire quarter.

The Bandits’ best player is Vincent, a super nice kid and a great athlete. Vincent was on the bench for the first quarter so that he could play in the second, third, and fourth. No problem. But when one of our players kneed one of their players in the man-region in the first quarter (by accident, it should be noted), the Bandits needed a sub. They put in Vincent, who played great for the rest of the first quarter. He played great in the second and the third quarter too.

We were leading by seven points, heading into the fourth quarter, a comfortable margin considering they wouldn’t have Vincent to help. He played the first three quarters and, according to the “Equal Time Rule” had to sit out the fourth. Pretty straight forward. Unless it’s not. Vincent didn’t sit out the fourth quarter, which I didn’t even notice until the parents gently reminded me. And when I say ‘gently’ I mean screamed their brains out.

“Number 22 has played all four quarters,” they took turns yelling. And in the interest of full disclosure, Dixie took her turns as well.

Now these parents are awesome. We’ve become a family over the last five years—if only for two months a year—and they know me and accept me for who I am. They know I care more about competing than winning. They know I care more about sportsmanship than gamesmanship. They know I don’t pay attention to the other team. They know that half the time I forget my glasses so I can barely pay attention to what we do. I’m like Mr. Magoo asking the players on the bench ‘what just happened?’ People think I have so much restraint because I never yell at the referees. The truth is I can’t see any of the calls so I have no idea if they’re good or bad.

But this is the playoffs so even the parents who normally tolerate me, argue that this is the time when winning matters most.

“Come on. They’re cheating. You gotta do something.”

And after they said it enough times, I turned around and calmly said, “I can’t worry about that. It’s none of our business.”

“Well, it should be, “ yelled another parent. OK, it was Dixie, who was clearly the leader of the mob.

In the end, the ref didn’t get involved, and we won the game, which we all know makes everything better—pretty much.

“Coach, why didn’t you do anything?” asked one of the parents.

I gathered the kids around and I explained loud enough for everyone, including the parents to hear, “Listen to me. You’re going to hear a lot about how the other team didn’t follow the rules during this game. Ignore it. That’s not our concern. We only worry about our team, and what we can control. We should be thanking them for playing their best player the whole game. They’re doing us a favor because now we’re playing against better competition. That’s the way you get better. You got me?” If I had been watching The Wire at that point, I would have said, “You feel me?” which might have been inappropriate, so it’s a good thing I wasn’t.

Either way, the kids nodded. The parents didn’t. They were probably paying more attention.

The championship game versus the Predators was the next day. Before the game, the other coach and I were talking. I explained what happened against the Bandits.

“That stinks,” he said.

“Do you think I should have said something?” I asked.

“I would have,” he said. “The rules are the rules.”

We had played the Predators twice in the regular season. We had 10 players each time and still won both games. The first by three points, the second by one.

We only had nine players for this game, so two of our better players, Jahlil and Jake, were going to play three-quarters each. Again, a huge advantage, and I was pretty confident that we would win this game as well.

But when the game was about to start, Jahlil wasn’t there.

“Where is he?” I asked one of the parents.

“He went to the wrong gym,” she said. “He’ll be here as soon as he can.”

I quickly rearranged the lineup. Jahlil finally arrived, in the middle of the first quarter, right as one of the Predators twisted his ankle and had to come out of the game.

They replaced him with their best player, of course. That same player started the second quarter, and the third. When he came on the court for the fourth quarter as well, our fans erupted, yelling and screaming so loud that the refs stopped the game.

They talked to the league official, approached the other coach, and then came over to me.

“One of our players went in for someone who was hurt,” explained the coach of the Predators. “But he only went in for a few minutes and he came right back out. Is it OK I put him back in?”

“No problem,” I said without thinking.

And in my mind, it wasn’t. It’s not my job to enforce the rules. I feel like an idiot complaining about what’s fair and what’s not, so I just stay out of it. I know if we play our best, we’ll be fine.

Well, we didn’t play our best. And we didn’t win. And if winning makes everything better, then we all know what losing does.

After the game, several parents informed me that the Predators’ best player, the one I let play the last quarter even though it was against the rules, scored their final eight points.

I was reminded of that fact again and again at the party.

“Listen,” I said with all the parents gathered around. “We didn’t lose that game because of that kid played the fourth quarter. We can’t teach these kids that it’s OK to blame somebody else for what happened. There’s always something we could have done better. Jahlil showed up late. I could have sent an e-mail reminding everyone where the game was, and I didn’t. We have to take responsibility for whatever happens. That’s how they’re going to learn. That’s what’s going to make all this worthwhile.”

“Then you need to take responsibility for letting them break the rules,” responded Dixie, again speaking on behalf of the parents. “We could have done a lot of things better but at least we were playing by the rules. What if the other coach came up to you and said, ‘is it OK if our baskets count for three points now? Thanks so much man, you’re such a good guy.”

“We didn’t lose the game because of that,” I repeated.

“But that’s not the point,” one of the parents responded. “We need to teach our kids to stick up for themselves. And they’re not going to learn that lesson if you just let people break the rules.”

Maybe it was the three beers I had consumed. Or more likely it was all those times in my life when I thought I was so right only to realize later how wrong I was. But I was starting to wonder if maybe I didn’t do the right thing. After all, this was the championship game.

“I just don’t think I can ever go up to the referee and tattle that another coach isn’t following the rules. I just don’t think it’s my job,” I told Dixie later that night, and the next night, and the next week, and the month after that.

“Are you still thinking about that?” said Dixie. “I know you did what you thought was right.”

“But you don’t think it was right, do you?”

“No, I don’t,” she said. “The rules are there for a reason. You don’t get to break them. You shouldn’t even be put in that position.”

But I was then and I was again today, one year later.

This year, our 7th grade team played up in the 8th grade division. That was ultimately my decision. As it turned out the choice was this: Either crush other 7th grade teams by 20 points or lose to 8th grade teams by 20 points.

What I learned a little too late is that it’s not that these 8th-grade teams have better basketball players than us. They don’t. But they’re so much taller. Had I done my homework and consulted a geneticist, I would have known that the year between 7th and 8th grade is a big one for growing. That size difference makes it really tough to compete.

We were 0-5 after our first five games. We weren’t just losing. We were getting crushed. By 23 points, 17 points. By 22.

With two minutes left in our fourth game, I called a timeout. We were losing 37-18.

“OK guys,” I said in the huddle. “Our goal is to lose this game by less than 20 points. We have two minutes to go. We can do this. We’re right in this game.”

With 30 seconds to go, the other team drained an 18-footer to take the lead by one (or 21, depending on your scoring system). There was 20 seconds left, we broke the press, dribbled around a screen. The crowd was going crazy—well, not really, mostly they were depressed that they were wasting their weekends on the blowouts, but in my imaginary world, they were going crazy. The kids of the bench were counting down, “five, four, three.” One more pass and then…another pass, and then another. The clock expired. We didn’t even take a shot.

At the end of one game I sat next to one of the better kids on our team, who had his head down on the bench as if we really did just lose by one point.

“What are you thinking?” I asked him.

He didn’t look up. He just said, “That I’m not having any fun.”

That stung.

There are few kids on the team, Jake being one of them, who I don’t worry about. I know without a doubt that this competition is good for them. But for the others, for most of them, I’m starting to truly believe I let them down. That I made the wrong decision to play in this division. We’re not going to win any games. We’re not even going to be close. You can’t coach tall and as much as I try to convince the kids and parents that this is really a gift, that if they work hard and keep trying, they’ll get much more out of it than winning by 20, I’m actually starting to wonder. Maybe they won’t appreciate the challenge in all this. Maybe instead, it’s going to break their spirit and they won’t want to play anymore.

“Don’t even try it,” said Dixie after she saw me moping on the bench. She knows me too well. “You didn’t make the wrong decision. Of course they’re not going to love it. But who cares. It’s so much better for them. They can suck it up.”

I started our next practice with a story. Twelve and thirteen-year-old kids just love it when you tell them stories about your childhood. This one was about my best friend when I was growing up. The one I spent all my time with. The one who crushed me in every single thing we did. Basketball, football, golf, grades. In tennis, he wouldn’t play me with his right hand until I beat him when he was playing with his left. I never beat him. But I got really good at chucking my tennis racquet for distance. He was better. He beat me at ping-pong using a shoe as a paddle. He batted lefty at Whiffleball and then insisted on taping the games so we could watch them over and over again. I have to say, I liked taping the games too. But the point was, it was demoralizing. All I wanted to do was win, and as hard as I tried, I never could.

Until one day I did. I went to college at University of Rochester in New York and he went to Michigan. I was completely shocked to make the tennis team as a freshman because I stink at tennis. I couldn’t even beat my friend, and he was playing lefty. I didn’t lose a ping-pong game in four years, even though I started every one thinking I would.

“The point is,” I told the team, “It wasn’t until much later that I realized that even though I didn’t get many victories against my friend, I was better off for trying.”

I’m one-hundred percent positive that nobody on the team could repeat that story back to me but we had a good practice nonetheless.

Before the next game, I redefined success. EJ, you need three assists today. Miles, you need to be more aggressive: four fouls. Chris, these guys are big, you might not never get a rebound but I want you to box out five times. Jake, no unforced turnovers, and so on and so on.

We lost that game by nine points but there was a spark. In the next game, we were leading the only undefeated team in our division heading into the fourth quarter before losing at the end. The spark got brighter. The next game we only lost by four. The spark turned into a flame, which was continuously flamed by more and more enthusiasm as the team realized we were actually getting better.

It wasn’t until our last game that someone informed me that we’ve had all 10 kids show up for every game this year, which many people view as a disadvantage because if everyone shows, you can’t play your best players extra minutes. And to be honest, in that way, it is a significant disadvantage. But in another way, it was also cool. We were the only team that had all our players for all our games during the regular season. To me, it showed that nobody was giving up, or running away. Even though I know there were times when we all wanted to. Well, maybe not Jake.

The last game of the season was tied with 10 seconds left. I called a time out. I never got one of the drawing things competent coaches use, so I drew up a play on my shirt like I used to do in our annual Turkeybowl football games. My best friend beat me in those too. Our last shot didn’t hit the rim. But we won in overtime: A wining streak.

The next day I got a call from Marta, who is in charge of the league.

“Thank you very much for playing up this year,” she said. “I know it hasn’t been an easy season. I don’t usually do this but I’ll give you a choice. Do you want to move down to the 7th grade league for the playoffs or stay at the 8th grade level?”

I thought for a second. We would probably win if we moved down. Or at least make it to the championship game. That might be good for a bunch of the kids.

“I think we should see this all the way through,” I told Marta.

“OK,” said Marta. Then she explained that there was one team in the 7th grade level, the Trashmen, who had won all their games by 20 points. She was going to move them up to our division for the playoffs.

“You’ll play them in the first round,” she said.

We jumped out to a 12-2 lead against the Trashmen and never trailed. Jake iced the game with four free throws and all of sudden, we were on a two-game winning streak.

Today was the semifinals against the Gladiators. We played them twice in the regular season. They beat us by 23 the first game and 9 the second game. Their best player, Tim, also plays on a travel team. Each team is allowed one travel player. We have none.

But we saved our best game of the year for this one. Everything was working. We were playing unselfishly. Running the floor. Boxing out guys who were literally a foot taller and even though Tim was his dominant self in the first quarter, we hung tough and were only trailing by 2 points, 13-11.

As usual, I wasn’t even thinking of the other team. I pretty much knew we weren’t going to win, but I loved the way we were competing. Before the second quarter, the league official, Charlie, and the coach of the Gladiators approached me.

“Tim has to leave early for his travel game,” the other coach said. “Is it OK if he plays the entire first half and then another player will play the entire second half?”

It seemed reasonable enough at first, except the rules. Since the Gladiators had 10 players, if Tim played the entire first half, then another player wouldn’t play an entire quarter in the first half. That would be against the rules.

I was enjoying the game so much. This had to be a joke. I know Dixie and the kids are going to get me good for April Fools. Was this the beginning?

“What are the rules?” I asked Charlie.

“The rules are pretty clear,” he said. “He’s not allowed to do it. But if you say it’s OK, then we can make an exception. It’s up to you.”

Up to me, I thought That’s insane. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last 42 years, it’s that nothing should be up to me.

“So what do you want to do?” Charlie said.

I asked Charlie and the other coach to come closer so I could talk to them without anyone else hearing. Then I told them what happened last year. The entire story, which was pretty inappropriate because it took a really long time. At the end, Charlie just looked at me, much like the kids during my post game speech.

“So what do you want to do?” he repeated.

I started to say, “Sure, no problem,” but I didn’t. I wanted to say, “No,” but I couldn’t. Instead, I just kept repeating, “What are the rules? Let’s just follow the rules.”

I said it so many times, I sounded like Rainman.

“It sounds like you’re saying no,” said Charlie.

“I’m not saying, No,” I corrected. “I’m saying let’s follow the rules. Whatever the rules are.”

Charlie looked at the other coach. “So it’s a No.”

It didn’t feel right. It still doesn’t. I pulled the team together and we took a quick poll.

“Should we let him play?” I asked, once again demonstrating the decisive leadership qualities that have gotten me to where I am today.

Almost the whole team looked at me like I was insane. “No way,” they agreed.

Then I looked at Jake. Stay tuned for a blog or two about Jake that will put you at ease if you’re teenage son is making you feel like you want to punch him in the face, but as I’ve said many times, put this kid in a sporting event and he’s about as perfect as you can get.

“What do you think?” I asked him.

He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. I could see it in his eyes. He didn’t feel totally good about it either. In some ways we’re so similar that I genuinely feel bad for him. He just walked on the court and played his heart out, just like he always does.

The game went back and forth. We were down by five at one point but then fought back and were only trailing by one heading into the fourth quarter. The crowd grew more and more intense with every steal, turnover, rebound, and basket.

“Use your size,” shouted a dad from the Gladiators as their team got rebound after rebound.

“Size doesn’t matter,” Dixie yelled back.

I looked at the referee. “I don’t know how she knows that,” I shrugged.

The buzzer sounded as their desperation three-pointed banged off the side of the backboard. We won, if you’re keeping track by the score.

“They’ll remember this season forever,” said one of the parents. “So will I.”

When the teams shook hands, I looked the other coach in the eye. It was tough, which is not a good sign. “I feel horrible about that,” I said. And I do. Even as I write this I feel horrible, because I don’t know if I made the right decision.

“I could see how hard that was for you,” Dixie said after the game, giving me a big hug. “But you did the right thing.” All the parents agreed, which was not surprising.

The championship game is tomorrow, well actually today: it’s 4:03 a.m. right now and I really can’t sleep. Whether we win or lose, the fifth annual end-of-season party is Wednesday. The weather forecast looks great. I wonder what we’ll talk about.

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Pretty Cool

“Do you think you’re cool?”

That’s what Brody asked me last night. I was doing the dishes and he just walked up and blurted it out.

“Do you think you’re cool?”

I thought for a moment. “I don’t know, what do you think?” I finally said stalling for time.

“It doesn’t matter what I think,” he said. “What do you think?”

I was silent again, contemplating all the people and things that I considered cool: snowboarding, Hugh Jackman, catchers, ultimate confidence without being cocky, the guy in Man vs. Wild, Omar, Muppus, surfing, long-sleeved shirts under short-sleeved shirts, speaking another language, having a dream, chasing your dreams, Big Head Todd at the 9:30 club, working for the CIA and then marrying a woman from Brazil, Omar, dogs, diversity, good musicals, fixing things, getting struck by lightning and then getting special powers, empathy, every ounce of dialogue in The Wire, playing by ear, wolves, spirit animals, root beer milkshakes.

“Dad,” blurted Brody, snapping me out of my daydream about root beer milkshakes and superpowers. “Just answer the question. Do you think you’re cool?”

I thought for one more second and then said honestly, “I think I’m average.”

“See dad, that’s your problem. If you don’t think you’re cool, you’re never going to get anywhere in life,” Brody responded. “Just some free advice.” Then he grabbed an apple, took a bite, and walked away.

Pretty cool.

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