One Mother's Playbook
Many parents dream of sports stardom for their child. It gets more complicated when the dream comes true.
By Catherine Keefe / Photograph by Challenge Roddie
Boom da-boom boom.
I wish I was a little bit taller,
I wish I was a baller.
It’s September 2010 and Skee-Lo’s lyrics rock our silver Suburban. My husband, Jim, hates rap and I’m surprised he’s ignoring the pump-it-up music I’m playing—all the way from our Trabuco Canyon home to the freeway—as the soundtrack for this life occasion. He bites his lip, accelerates toward the onramp. And so begins another Saturday morning on the 405 North.
Jim drives while relentlessly vexing a black click-top pen with his right thumb. I gently place my hand on his knee. He tosses the pen onto the console, twists the volume knob down, and begins to rub the back of his neck.
Sighing, I remind myself I don’t have to own the aura around me.
Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile.
I am calm. I am peace. But I’m also certain that Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk who wrote this in one of my meditation books, never had to watch his child play professional basketball.
We’re on our way to see our 6-foot-9, 23-year-old man-child, James, ascend to the next level of the game. Our only son, a Santa Margarita Catholic High School alum and a recent college graduate, moved back home a few weeks ago. He’s in the car too, silent in the back seat. I turn around to tap his knee at the lyric, I wish I was like 6-foot-9, but he’s napping, or pretending to, head cushioned against the window with a wadded-up blue T-shirt that reads: “UCLA/Impossible Is Nothing.”
The Bruin Family—what UCLA fans call themselves—will tell you that theirs is the most storied college basketball team in the country. With 11 national championships, that’s statistically true. James played Bruin basketball for four years.
I turn back to Jim and smile.
“What?” he asks.
“This is so back-in-the-day,” I say. “Driving to a game in a small gym with James in the back seat. No TV cameras, no sports reporters.”
A voice pipes up from the back: “I know what you mean. This is just so weird.”
Like where it all began.
Third grade, in Mission Viejo, 1996, was the earliest a boy could join a city-sponsored National Junior Basketball team. Jim registered our son and I had no reason to believe this new sport would be different from T-ball, soccer, roller hockey, lacrosse. I opted for a girls’ getaway weekend rather than his basketball debut.
“It’s only a game,” I told the 9-year-old watching me pack from the foot of my bed.
“Yeah, but I’m going to be really good at basketball.”
I hugged him. “I’m sure you will.”
“Some day I’ll put that in Sports Illustrated.” He gazed at my face to judge my reaction.
“That my mom missed my first-ever basketball game.”
I kissed the top of his head.
“I’m sorry. But I’ll see the next one, and the next one. And then the one after that.”
When I recounted this exchange with my friends over margaritas miles away from The Game I Was Missing, we laughed about the ambitious goals of a third-grader.
“Yeah, well, look at Larry Bird.”
“As if any kid from Orange County ever makes it in the NBA.”
In fact, that same year there was a young man from Woodbridge High School playing for the Utah Jazz. I hadn’t yet heard of Adam Keefe, though soon enough his name would be part of an oft-repeated phrase: James Keefe, no relation to Adam.
We have two children whose physical attributes attest to the remarkable whimsy of genetics. Erin, almost three years older than James, stands 5-foot-6, an average height considering I am 6 feet and my husband is two inches taller. James, on the other hand, wore size 4T overalls to his first birthday party. His childhood growth was measured in an off-the-chart trajectory. Yet his height never created any sports advantage. Until he found this new game.
The first time I saw him play basketball, I thought of the scene from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” where Jack Nicholson’s character tries to teach giant Chief Bromden to play basketball in the asylum yard. Head and shoulders above everyone else, Chief simply stands under the basket and repeatedly scores. James was Chief of his Mission Viejo Youth Basketball team.
He pulled ahead of the pack, dribbling and running, head up, eyes on the basket. With each basket, each rebound, the other parents’ cheering from the sidelines began to quiet. Maybe Jim, who was coaching the team, should pull James out of the game, I thought, and give the other kids a chance?
I wanted James to stop being so good.
I didn’t want him to stop being so good.
My son dashed toward me the second the game was over. “That was so-o-o
much fun!” We exchanged high-fives. “I’m gonna play basketball forever!”
Only 3 percent of high school basketball players earn full scholarships to an NCAA program. It never occurred to me that James might want even more. My dreams focused on him earning a degree.
“We have money to pay for your college,” I said whenever he returned from high school with stacks of letters from universities trying to woo him. “You don’t have to pay for college with your body.”
He looked at me oddly.
“I mean, just so you know you have options.”
I remember one day when the whole high school team came over for an after-school, pre-practice snack of burritos and smoothies. James walked into the kitchen and tossed another bundle of college letters on the counter.
“Don’t even ask, Mom. I know I have options, but seriously. Why wouldn’t I want to keep on playing? There’s not a better job out there than getting paid to play your favorite sport.”
He busted a hip-hop move then mimed a slam-dunk over the kitchen table. One of his friends put an arm around my shoulder and said, “Mrs. Keefe, you don’t have to worry about a thing. James is gonna play in college, and then he’s gonna go pro, and then he’s gonna buy you an Escalade.”
UCLA Coach Ben Howland finally helped me understand when he pointed out during one of our recruiting meetings that, “Every college player wants to play pro.”
Less than 1 percent of high school athletes make it professionally. Was my child in this small group? I was even more surprised on the drive home from UCLA that afternoon when James said, yes, of course he wanted to play beyond college.
“Wants to,” I said. “Not gets to.”
“Yeah,” he said looking out the window. “Wants to.”
He stayed silent for the long drive home.
I remembered his invitation to NBA Top 100 Camp when he was 18, and I wondered, “Really? Pro?” It’s not like James hadn’t been telling me about this fantasy from the beginning.
One thing about having an athlete in the family is that even a mom can slowly begin to think in terms of wins and losses.
UCLA students wear blue Bruin T-shirts with slogans on the back: “UCLA: Champions Made Here.” “First to 100.” At Pauley Pavilion, no banners announce Pac 10 titles. Not one Final Four banner in sight—only banners that signify national championships won. No one cares about the Road to Almost There.
After James joined the UCLA men’s basketball team in the fall of 2006, he pointed this out to me, explaining that Coach tells players to gaze at all the banners. That’s how practice ends.
The team was fresh from its first appearance in the national championship game since 1995. True, the Florida Gators won, but optimism soared. That spring, “Howland is My Homeboy” T-shirts appeared on students all over campus as fans began to imagine championship No. 12.
James was a highly ranked recruit of Howland’s 2006-07 incoming class, the only First Team McDonald’s All-American. I figured if the team came close to a national championship before James got to Westwood, it would succeed once he arrived. Whenever anyone asked how he felt about going to UCLA to play ball, he had one standard reply: “I’m livin’ the dream.”
Jim and I both made it to James’ first collegiate game, an exhibition contest against Cal Poly Pomona. When a booming voice over a loudspeaker announced, “Welcome to legendary Pauley Pavilion,” my knees grew wobbly. By the time we entered the hallowed arena, I was in full shiver. We circled the concourse toward Section 203-A, our seats for as long as James played. Settling into Row 2, Seat 2, I gawked at the immensity of this 12,819-seat venue compared to the high school gyms I was used to.
I gripped Jim’s hand as the JumboTron clock ticked backward to game time—4:58 until tip-off. I sipped from my water bottle. At 4:12, the band stood. 4:05—silence.
Five seconds later, rapper T.I.’s song blared:
Whoo! Bring ’em out, bring ’em out.
The crowd rose, swaying to the music.
In the far corner of the arena, under the deep-blue “UCLA Basketball” awning, a door opened and the Bruins jogged out. A few players jumped to touch the doorjamb before running single file down a rope-barricaded aisle lined with cheerleaders and dance team girls shaking shiny blue and gold pompoms. Little boys in oversized Bruin jerseys, men with gray hair, girls in high heels, and students in blue T-shirts all reached over the rope and tried to high-five the players. James was one of the last out, and I got goose bumps when I finally saw him.
He was wearing the same look as when I used to help him study biology. Serious. Concentrating. But I saw the smallest smile trying to break through.
The crowd was so loud you couldn’t hear yourself speak. I squeezed my eyes shut, hooted and aisle-danced, waved my arms. I tried the eight-clap, but raised my left fist when those who weren’t rookie parents raised their right. I didn’t care, because I’d woken up on “Let’s Make a Deal,” and my door led to brass horns, drums, and a juggler, basketball tradition and hope, and my very own kid warming up on the Nell and John Wooden Court wearing a KEEFE 13 jersey. I even got a blue upholstered seat.
“Ladies and Gentlemen. Yo-u-u-u-u-r UCLA Bruins!”
I called out into the din.
“Woo-hoo!” It was irresistible. “Go, James!”
He glanced up into family section. We locked eyes; he smiled.
In that first preseason game, James played 19 minutes, scored four points, and brought down seven rebounds.
“He’ll be OK,” Jim said after the game, clicking his pen, chewing on its top, recounting the black tick marks in the little blue stats notebook he kept.
I was thrilled that my son even got into a game in a top 10 program. Did I have to immediately want more?
I began the season believing it was enough for James to be on the team, but I also realized he sat in an athletic pressure cooker. What’s a mother supposed to do when an entire fan base, a team, and a coach are counting on her son?
James’ stats, playing time, and scoring remained flat that first season. During the last home stand of Pac-10 play, James played three minutes against Cal. His only tick in the box score was for earning a personal foul. There were other jottings in Jim’s blue notebook: missed three-pointer, two missed field goals, missed free throw.
The incessant clicking of Jim’s pen set my teeth on edge.
James walked silently behind us out of Pauley into the cold on that February night. Fog swirled and it felt more as if we were floating through a cloud than traversing the short distance between the arena and the parking garage. It was impossible to see things clearly.
We drove, silently, up the hill toward James’ dorm. I waited for Jim to say something. My job has always been to hug and encourage; Jim was the one to push, the one to turn situations into numbers, which transformed dreams into cold, hard reality: If you’re not productive, you will not get playing time. Remember, scholarships are granted year by year.
But Jim remained silent while I drove. I turned on the wipers, which further blurred the view.
I unclenched my teeth and glanced in the rearview mirror at James. His eyes were transfixed out the side window. I wanted so badly to say the right thing. But I had nothing that night.
I’m sorry you got dunked on? No sorrier than he was.
When are you going to put up a shot that goes in?
Are you working as hard as you can?
I know you have classes, but do you watch extra film to memorize moves and eat well and go to bed early then get up early and shoot some more because you’re a UCLA basketball player and you’ve got this dynasty to uphold, not to mention your personal pride, and why don’t you seem as upset about this season as I am, and why am I so upset about this anyway?
I couldn’t say any of that. A good mom wouldn’t.
I thought of my own work at home that would have benefitted from the 18 hours we spent each week driving north through 405 traffic, waiting to park, waiting for the game, watching the game, waiting for James, driving him to his dorm, driving ourselves home. All my writing was junk then, too. My thesis—a book-length collection of short stories I needed to finish to earn my master’s in creative writing—was due in less than two months. But I was missing layups. Throwing up bricks.
We turned into the driveway of Saxon Suites and I jumped out to say goodbye to my son. Jim stayed in the car. The fog settled on my eyelashes. I stood close to James to peer up into his face.
“So, what are you going to do tonight?”
“I’m going out. A bunch of us. There’s a party.”
“You’re not going to shoot?”
“Nah. I’ve hit the wall.”
I breathed in, then replied with a phrase I’ve never allowed my children to use in our house, the rant of a mother snake.
The “s” sound hovered in the mist, then slithered irretrievably into the fog. I’d never slapped James in the face, but now I know what he’d look like if I did.
He walked off.
Too late, I remembered Jim’s mantra, which sets the boundary for how hard he’ll push: “He’ll be our son much longer than he’ll be a basketball player.”
I slumped into the car, pounded my fists on the steering wheel, and began the long drive home.
James has told me many times since he began playing ball that he was “livin’ the dream,” which means that for 14 years I’ve been fantasy support staff. I wonder this September Saturday what James is dreaming now, crunched into the back seat, resting up for 40 minutes against Mobis Phoebus, reigning champions of the Korean Basketball League. James is part of a U.S. team assembled for one week to give the Koreans a preseason challenge. His payment after each game is a single hundred-dollar bill.
This is the fifth game of the U.S.-Korean series. I missed the first. And the second, third, and fourth because they were in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week, and I teach. Right now I teach a writing class called “Composing Self.”
Composing myself is most difficult when I’m a basketball spectator. “It’s only a game,” I remind myself, and wonder when I’ll act like I believe it. It’s not just me. During James’ UCLA days, I took notes about how other moms diffused stress:
2008 Pac-10 tournament—Reyna Real, Lorenzo Mata’s mom, hand-strings blue-and-gold plastic rosaries for moms to wear around their necks. Joyce Roll, Mike Roll’s mom, knits good-luck blue-and-gold scarves (new ones every year) for all the ladies.
’09-’10 Season—Jerime Anderson’s mom, Delana, skips a bunch of games after Jerime has one of his best when she’s not there. “My boy says I’m kryptonite.”
We laughed because she said it like a joke, but we know a mother takes these things to heart. We’d do anything for our sons to do well, even if that means not watching.
James hasn’t played in a game for seven months. His senior Bruin season ended early because of repeated shoulder dislocations. He had surgery last March, his second operation in three years, to repair a torn labrum. He spent all summer measuring tiny range-of-motion gains. He lifted weights, ran, regained his shooting touch. His only post-college job was getting healthy, and his orthopedic surgeon finally cleared him for full-contact activity. A player wouldn’t need to be cleared if he planned to hang up his Size 16s.
James has an agent who specializes in placing U.S. players on overseas teams. Because of rehab, James missed the overseas draft in July. Now he has to wait for a team to cut a player. Or wait for a player to get hurt. Or wait for an NBA team to raid an overseas team and leave a spot for one American player. Each international team can carry two Americans. He waits for an opening. Not just any opening, one for a power forward.
After the first game against the Koreans, James set me straight on the momentousness of this current gig as I pulled the red “You Are Special Today” dinnerplate from our cupboard to mark the milestone. To me, pay equals professional status, regardless of small details like this being a temporary team.
James corrects me. “Calling myself a professional baller after doing this would be kinda like Erin calling herself an actress because she was an extra on ‘The O.C.’ ”
James’ older sister briefly flirted with aspirations of an acting career before deciding on law school. I’ve never heard her call herself a former actress.
“Just wait, Mama. It gets better than this.”
I borrow optimism from my son daily.
He quick-passes me a basketball, nearly knocking over the milk jug on the kitchen counter. “Wanna go shag balls for me at the gym after dinner?”
Sometimes we play one-on-one. I’m Ray Allen; he’s always James Keefe. He always beats me.
Three weeks after the Korean gig, it’s just another Saturday morning on the 405 North.
This time though, it’s predawn and I’m not in the car. James’ girlfriend drives him to LAX to board a plane to Málaga, Spain. He has earned an all-expense-paid tryout with Unicaja Baloncesto’s Clinicas Rincon team. The smile on his face, captured with a camera flash in the driveway, is huge.
“I’m livin’ the dream,” he says with a goodbye bear hug.
If he makes the team, he’ll be a bona fide pro baller. There’ll be no one to serve him dinner on a “You Are Special Today” red plate to mark the milestone.
He calls on Monday. “They’ve already brought two other Americans here to try out, but then they sent them home.”
Breathing in, I calm.
“You’ll be fine, sweetie. You’re well prepared. Just show ’em everything we’ve been working on in the gym.”
He laughs. “Yeah. All right, Mom, just checkin’ in. I love you.”
Breathing out, I smile.
If he gets sent home, he’s not the kind to give up. If he stays, he’ll begin to play immediately. But I’m in the middle of my semester. “Composing Self.” So I’ll have to miss his first real pro game.
But it’s only a game.
On Wednesday, his UCLA diploma arrives in the mail: The Regents of UC have conferred upon James Eucherious Keefe V the Degree of Bachelor of Arts with a Major in International Development Studies.
On Thursday, he calls again. “I made the team.”
On Friday, I begin looking at flights to Spain.
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This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of Orange Coast magazine.