Competition, equality and riding the bench

At Braddock Park, the playground in Queens where I learned so many life lessons, you had to earn your way onto the big-guys court. The rule was that winners stayed on the court. No one wanted to be saddled with weak players. If you didn’t like it, tough luck, kid. Go play on the lousy courts.

I bought into that competitive ethic and took it with me to the 5,000-student Van Buren High School. I made the varsity basketball team as a sophomore but felt like a loser sitting on the bench most of the season. In my junior and senior years, I was the star who played pretty much every minute of every game. Second-rate players warmed the bench. Who cared? Winning was the point of the game.

Well, that was then. Now, at age 69, I play pickup and league basketball at the Capital Athletic Club in Sacramento. I skip the club’s high-testosterone A league in favor of the mildly competitive B league play. Teams are limited to seven players, which in theory gives everyone an opportunity to get a decent amount of playing time in our 40-minute games. A club rules sets a paltry minimum playing time of 10 minutes for every player.

What’s decent playing time? Well, that can be a contentious issue, as everyone who has played team sports all any level knows full well. In the B league, team captains decide. Some are egalitarian, others favor their buddies and a few want to win so much they play their stars all 40 minutes.

I’m not a star in the league, I’m too old to be a buddy with the younger captains, and egalitarians are scarce. I’m an average B league player and eager for more playing time than I usually get. Most players in the league are in my boat. Why should we, the majority, be subject to the whims of a few captains when an equal distribution of playing time can be made so easily?

Ever eager to seek fair play – or maybe just being self-serving – I decided to make a pitch to the CAC’s basketball czar, Bruce Coolidge. He is a stoic who deals patiently with all manner of suggestions, complaints, ego trips, whining and emotional outbursts. Here’s my letter:

Dear Bruce,

After talking with you, my team captain and some league players, I suggest that you reconsider the rule covering the minimum playing time per game for all players. The current 10 minutes per 40-minute game is guaranteed to induce a constant stream of complaints from many players, myself included, who feel excluded from a reasonable level of play.

And why shouldn’t we gripe? We are dues-paying members of an equal-opportunity athletic club. We want more competitive basketball than pickup games. We pay extra to participate in the league. We want a good workout. Why should we sit long and hard on the bench of a seven-member team while a few players feel entitled to play 40 minutes?

There’s no reason, except selfishness, favoritism and an ultra-competitive type of basketball whose advocates preach the message that “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” Hey, this is B league basketball, not the National Football League or the NBA.

I suggest you consider a rule that gives all players equal playing time. That would give more than 28 minutes of playing time for everyone. With all teams applying the same formula, the competitive intensity would remain high and spread out among all the players. Team play would be enhanced and the excesses of star play diminished. Team captains, instead of relying on a few individuals, would have more opportunity to display their leadership skills to bring out the best in all their players.

This simple rule change, I think, would be an easy way to improve morale, reduce complaints and encourage team play in the popular B league while better reflecting the upbeat, supportive spirit of the CAC.

Sincerely,

Paul Clegg

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