First of all, let me say that I am a nerd. I’ve been a nerd for almost fifty-eight years now.
All those years ago, back in South Ozone Park, the greatest shame of both Brother X and Brother Not X was that I had absolutely no athletic talent. When choosing a team to play stickball on Sutter Avenue, Brother X and Brother Not X would pick the hot shots, the almost-hot shots, then the girls, until there was nobody left but me. Brother X would say, “How about we make Kevin the first base umpire?” Not home plate, mind you, which required serious decision-making, but first base umpire, which mainly required guarding the mailbox on Sutter Avenue that we used for first base.
In fifth grade I was shamed into joining the Saint Anthony of Padua Bowling League. When the season ended that May, we went to the annual sports dinner. Brother X and Brother Not X accepted their Best Player trophy and Best Team trophy. Finally, Father Fusco announced, “We have one more trophy to hand out.” It was a statue of a boy standing on top of a bowling ball, unable to lift it up, his bottom sticking up in the air. “The trophy for lowest bowling average in the history of the Saint Anthony Bowling League, with a season average of 37, goes to Kevin Thaddeus Paulson."
I never joined another organized sports team. In high school, however, I did become the captain of the Math Team.
The great thing about adoption is that you don't rely on genetics. And as it turns out, I won the post-adoption genetic lottery as my son Zane is the fastest boy in school.
Not Aidan. Oh, he’s very smart about things like bats navigating by echolocation but on the sports field he has always stood in Zane's shadow.
Basketball season started in November. I knew my limitations. My extent of basketball knowledge was that the Aztecs had invented the sport, and that you were supposed to get the orange ball into the red hoop. But there were no coaches available for third grade.
Lionel, one of the other third grade dads, walked up to me and said, “Hey, I don’t know much about this sport either; you want to try coaching the boys in basketball?"
And I replied, “What, did they run out of straight dads already?"
He said, "This is about the boys. I don't care whether we win or lose, but I do care about the time that we get to spend with the boys." This was one of those moments, for me. He wasn’t asking the gay dad at the school. He was asking another dad. I was hooked.
First coaching session, we told the boys to practice dribbling and practice being friends. One of the shortest teams in the league, they lived by the motto, "It's not the size of the dog in the fight. It's the size of the fight in the dog." They ended the season six and one, the best record in the Catholic Youth Organization Orange League.
Here is the lesson that I learned this past weekend: The job of a father is to believe.
We've had a rough non-sport season. Zane got suspended four times; Aidan, not getting as much attention as Zane, went on an Attention Deficit Disorder of Atomic Proportions.
So there we were on Sunday morning, the final game, and I was sweating when to give Aidan his ADHD medication so that it would peak during the game. If I got the medication timing wrong, my son would be the ultimate daisy picker.
I walked up to Coach Lionel. I said, "Hey, don't feel like you need to play Aidan more than a quarter." There’s something about sports that brings out the straight man in every gay man. I admit it. I wanted to win.
Coach Lionel looked me in the eye and said, “I’m playing Aidan in the first quarter. And the second quarter. I’m going to keep playing him because he knows what to do and I believe in him."
Aidan plays defense. Aidan did not shoot the winning basket. But he remembered everything we had ever said to him about zones and screens, and he stood there, unblinking, as their forward tried to drive him down. He did what a Fisher-Paulson does best: He stood his ground.
We were down 8-5 at the half. It was time for one of those Knute Rockne speeches, about winning one for the old Gipper. I asked, "Who are we doing this for?" and they yelled "FAMILY!" And in that moment, the outcome of the game no longer mattered. What mattered was that these Irish and Latino families looked at the Fisher-Paulsons as part of the family.
And the bleachers erupted, shouting, "EAGLES! EAGLES! EAGLES!” We caught up 11 to 10. They fired off a shot at 11 seconds to go, and we were down 12 to 10. With two seconds to go, nothing left, no holds barred: Sir Jonathan took the shot of the year, and, amazingly, the Eagles won 13-12.
I shouted, I jumped and then I walked up to Aidan. "Aidan, thank you. Thank you for showing me it doesn't matter how much you know about basketball."
Aidan asked, “What really matters, Daddy?”
I looked at Coach Lionel. He had known the answer long before I did.
“Believing in your own son. When you do that, even a nerd can coach a winning team."
The Catholic Youth Organization awarded us a trophy, and we took pictures of the boys with the trophy, then one by one. And finally I said, “I got to get a picture of Aidan and me with this trophy, as I am not likely to ever be this close to a championship again.”
One of the mothers looked at Coach Lionel and me, and said, “Oh, we’re signing you up for coaching for the next five years ...”