I was an academic, artistic, religious girl - not a sporty girl. I went out for the basketball team because my dad loved basketball and my brother was super good at basketball and it seemed like the thing to do.
I made the team -- maybe because I was tall, maybe because almost everyone who tried out made the team, maybe because the coach could see something in me that I couldn’t see; that no one could.
Because the fact is, I was an absolutely terrible basketball player. I didn’t like to run or sweat, I didn’t know how to shoot or pass, I was a little afraid of the ball. I think I could dribble...maybe?
But I was such an unlikely candidate overall that my teammates, with their varsity jackets and jeans and Nike gym bags, joked that when we went to an away game, people probably thought that I was the team’s cheerleader -- I had a long maroon velour coat and a dusty rose gym bag with beige handles and Farrah Fawcettish hair (it was the 80s).
And I apologized a lot. Because I was sorry a lot. We all were, all the girls. We were good girls, and we had been taught to be automatically sorry.
I’m sorry for bumping into you, I’m sorry for being so pretty but not dating you, I’m sorry for being smarter than you, I’m sorry for taking up space maybe you wanted. It was a way of thinking and feeling that was so pervasive we didn’t even know we thought or felt it.
People always liked you more as a girl if you were sorry.
But unfortunately this is not what makes a good basketball player. We were all constantly apologizing to each other on the court.
Did we bump into someone or land on their toe going for a rebound? We stopped. “Sorry!” Did we go for the ball and get it before our friend did? “Sorry!” Did we make a shot even though someone was guarding us closely, or did we guard someone so closely she missed her shot? “Sorry!”
So Coach Forkey made up a rule one day in practice: NO SORRIES UNLESS YOU SEE BLOOD.
Believe it or not, this rule was extremely hard for us to go by. We didn’t realize until then that we said “sorry” more often than any other word. No one ever before in my life had told me in any way to be aggressive. I had been told to be sweet. To be kind. To be generous. To be sorry.
I swear to God that Coach Forkey was the first person to ever tell me to go for it and not worry about what the people around me may be thinking or feeling.
I was a perfectionist and I wanted to do everything right -- in life, in class, on the court. Perfectionism is great for establishing goals but not so great for working on them. Because if you have to do everything perfectly all the time, you can’t ever do anything outside your comfort zone. You may not do it perfectly, so you have to not do it.
One day when Coach Forkey said we were going to practice left-handed hook shots, I said “I can’t do those.”
“Don’t say that, Tara,” he said.
“But it’s the truth. I can’t do a left hook. I’ve never gotten one in.”
And my coach said, “Okay. Say that. ‘I haven’t done a left hook YET.’”
I still use that trick today. I haven’t published a book YET. I haven’t run two miles YET.
YET is a beautiful word, a word where truth and hope live in the same three letters.
The basketball court was also the place I learned that it was cool to have a body. Until then it had seemed like a liability. At church we learned really a lot about how the flesh is weak and sinful. At school we sat at desks and memorized things and learned to think and write more clearly. I had all those things down; I got awards for those things.
But no one had taught me -- or any girl I knew -- that being in your body could be good. That persevering physically was important. Or even possible. It was Coach Forkey who taught me that I could run sprints and think I was going to die and not die but grow stronger.
It was on the basketball court that I discovered that hours and years of practice created a body that knew exactly how to sink a ball from anywhere in or near the key, nothing but net. It was there I learned how to shoot a foul shot like you were in the gym by yourself even when two teams and two coaches and a small crowd in the stands were either cheering or jeering you, depending on which side they were on.
It was in the gym I learned that if you stuck to an opponent every step of the way the whole game without giving up, you could shut down a team’s high scorer and help lead your team to victory -- by being persistent, by pushing through your exhaustion and nerves, by being not just in the moment but in the millisecond.
You didn’t have to think. In fact, you had to NOT think. You had to move.
Honestly I still struggle with the tendency to live in that automatically sorry way sometimes. I still struggle with perfectionism. I still sometimes forget to not think so much: to just move.
So I take a breath and remember all the things I learned from my high school girls basketball coach. He was and is a wise man.
Although I still haven’t gotten a left hook in … YET.