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Unsporting Truth: Winning Is More Fun

Fred Alvarez is a Times staff writer

Finally, the thrill of victory. I know, it’s not supposed to matter whether you win or lose. In fact, from the day my daughter joined a youth basketball team last month, that has been my message to her.

I told her that she and her 8- and 9-year-old teammates would learn much from a little organized ball, that confidence and self-esteem are natural byproducts of learning to dribble and pass and play a zone defense.

I told her that basketball was not about salary caps or labor negotiations, the kind of stuff that spoiled the start of the NBA season, and that she would discover its true meaning as long as she tried her best and stuck to it.

Most of all, I told her to go out and have fun, that she needn’t worry about the score at the end of the game or the team’s record at the end of the season.

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Down deep, where my fathering instincts still run pure, I honestly believe these things. But after two heartbreaking losses to open league play, Apple’s team finally won a game a few weeks ago. And it was glorious.

Before a capacity crowd--a couple of dozen parents packed into the tiny gym at the Boys & Girls Club in Ventura--the Liberty defeated the Kings 13-12. Apple and her nine turquoise-clad teammates counted down the final seconds and hopped up and down like rabbits when the final buzzer sounded, their long ponytails bouncing in rhythm behind them.

Parents who had spent the final minutes of the game on their feet, cheering themselves hoarse--OK, so I even prayed a little and I’m not a religious man--collapsed in the stands, wilting from the adrenaline rush of five furious periods of competition.

But in the afterglow of victory, as the girls washed down celebratory cheese crackers with swigs of fruit juice, my conscience started to seize up on me. I saw girls from the other team, who had played just as hard and wanted to win just as much, shuffle slump-shouldered from the gym, their ponytails barely bouncing at all.

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And suddenly everything I had hoped my kid would learn about teamwork and sportsmanship, maybe all of those lessons I wonder whether I’ve really learned myself, started to sound hollow.

I needed help. Riddled with guilt, I went in search of someone to cleanse my scarred conscience. I needed the advice of a basketball guru, a battle-hardened veteran of youth basketball.

I needed the comfort, if not the absolution, offered by Kathy Essary.

The Ventura mother of four has put all of her kids through the basketball league and now helps run the program for the city’s community services department. She has been a coach and now serves as gym supervisor on game day.

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She knows what she’s talking about. She told me I needed to relax.

“I will tell you that victory is best,” said Essary, whose 17-year-old daughter, Julie, is captain and starting point guard for Ventura High School’s basketball squad after starting out years ago in the youth league.

“We always tell the kids that this is just for fun, but we have to be realistic: Winning is the most fun,” she said. “But I have seen so many kids having fun when they’re not winning ball games that I know we are doing something right.”

In fact, 1,274 youngsters--830 boys and 444 girls--are playing this season, the highest number in the 44 years the Ventura Youth Basketball Assn. has been in business. The best part of the program is that each youngster, regardless of skill level, must play at least two quarters every game. So infectious is this spirit of sportsmanship that parents often end up getting as involved in the program as their children.

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That’s what happened to Chief Assistant Dist. Atty. Greg Totten. Although basketball was never his game, Totten said his daughter, Claire, demonstrated a knack for the sport while shooting around with neighborhood kids. When she asked to play last season, the veteran prosecutor decided to help coach.

He said he had the time of his life, although he admits he battled some demons of his own.

“Your instinct as a coach, as a competitive male, is to get in there and say let’s keep it going, let’s win,” he said. “But on balance, in terms of what’s most important, you try not to reveal those emotions because you know what the kids are learning is much more valuable. You want it to be an experience they will really enjoy.”

There’s nothing like a little pep talk to put things in perspective. In fact, I showed up the next Saturday strong in my new belief that only winning matters. And, of course, the Liberty promptly lost to a team with a couple of centers as tall as fifth-graders.

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But what a game. Apple stole the ball once, dribbled past defenders and even earned an assist when she passed to a teammate who scored a bucket.

And whenever there was a jump ball--an amusing collection of little girls in long shorts all holding onto the ball at the same time--she was more often than not in the middle of the pile as it spilled onto the hardwood floor.

Afterward, she felt so good about her progress that we bought a candy bar to celebrate the loss. It’s funny the way things work, that the lessons you set out to teach your children often end up teaching you a whole lot about who they are and what they might become.

I know now that this is a talented kid who can master a layup while pulling down good grades, practicing the piano and playing a mean game of Monopoly.

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Most important, I’ve learned that she is resilient, that victory and defeat are part of a larger journey to discover all of the things, good and bad, life has in store.

Now, if I could only get her to work on that jump shot.

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Fred Alvarez is a Times staff writer. He can be reached by e-mail at fred.alvarez@latimes.com.

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