clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

When the Love of Basketball gets Complicated

Committing to any sport comes with risks and rewards, but love triumphs all.

There’s a distinctive atmosphere and a particular sound inside Calgaard Gymnasium on the campus of Trinity University, which is hidden under massive and mangled heritage and live oak trees deep in the heart of San Antonio, Texas. I first noticed it in 2018 when my daughter Claire and I began attending Trinity games with hopes that she might be able to play basketball there in college.

Perhaps it’s the design of the court or the aesthetics of the gym’s layout, but there is a loud rumbling when teams are stampeding up and down the court, a more distinctive sound than in any other gym I’ve been in. Then there’s Head Coach Cam Hill — coifed and confident, prowling the sidelines, piling up win after win after win enroute to becoming the winningest coach in program history. It has to be intimidating for opposing teams to come to Calgaard, with its history and its rumblings and with the relentless and frenetic pace that the Trinity Women’s Basketball team employs. Full-court press for 40 minutes, no matter the score and three-point shots launched from anyone on the court. You better be ready for a long day when you play the Tigers.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg was certainly impressed by the atmosphere when he attended a Tigers’ game in late February. I had “invited” him to attend, and he politely obliged. And by “invited,” I mean I tagged him in tweets for months about this year’s team before he finally relented and connected me with his scheduling office to find a free Saturday afternoon. He later tweeted, “Enjoyed watching #4 Trinity dominate on both ends of the court…RELENTLESS on offense and defense — every. single. possession.”

It was a dream season in so many ways. Trinity was ranked #1 in the nation in DIII for a few weeks during the middle of the year and set a school record by starting the season with 19 straight wins. There was a real belief that the Tigers could win it all. And Claire was playing.

Sitting in the stands with the mayor, he asked me the question that we’ve answered so many times before. “Has Claire played all four years?” he asked. “Well, it’s a long story,” I said.

“What’s the number one rule of basketball?” I asked her. “Speed kills,” she said. “That’s my girl, now let’s go again.”

Claire was seven years-old and was beginning to show real interest in the game. I was smart enough to know that at that age the best chance to score would come from getting steals and breakaway layups, otherwise you’d just be stuck in a mass of pony tails and skinny elbows tying up the ball.

So we would go the blacktop at her elementary school and practice steals and layups. I would dribble at halfcourt, have her swat the ball away and then run down the court to shoot. I would chase her and yell and try to block her shot, but even at that age she was quick and accurate with her bunnies.

A few years later I started betting my buddies that they couldn’t beat her in a foot race. So on more than one occasion and after a few beers we’d line them up on the street in front of our house, later at night than I care to admit to, and race. And Claire would win.

Years after that there were the Sunday one v ones. I was more interested in the bit, but I couldn’t help but notice that almost every week it was getting harder and harder to beat her.

We started working on changing her shot up. I’d show her YouTube videos of Tony Parker’s floater or Magic’s baby hook and then we’d go out and practice them. I could see her falling in love with the game and I was determined to make the most of it. After her freshman year in high school she joined the SA Islanders, a local club team led by one of the best and most interesting men I’ve ever known, Jesse Torres. The never-ending burpees and three hour practices tested her love at times, but she always showed up. And she began to really grow as a player. There probably aren’t many kids that go from playing on their high school freshman team to winning District MVP in her senior year at Brandeis High School in San Antonio, but Claire did.

And so she was set to attend Trinity University in the fall of 2019 and play basketball as part of a very impressive incoming freshmen class. Ashlyn Milton. Addie Putnam. Dani Davalos. Emily Nelson. Claire Hale. All highly decorated players, and only to be made stronger the next year when Maggie Shipley transferred in from Amherst. It was all lining up so perfectly for an exciting four years. I joked with Claire that in her freshman year all she needed to do was make the Dean’s List and be named a Freshman All-American. It sounds funny now but I honestly believed she could do both. Making the Dean’s List was a no-brainer and with her quickness, size and shooting ability, I knew she was going to make a huge contribution on the court.

It was a lazy and humid Sunday in mid-September. I was watching football and trying to will my fantasy team to a win when we got one of those text messages that immediately changes things. “So I was doing a step back and felt a pop,” the text from Claire to her mom and me said. “Cam said I should text you and let you know.”

The next few hours were a blur. We went to her dorm room and took her and Ashlyn pizza, and we couldn’t meet with the trainer until nine, so I took my wife Kristin and our boys back home. I headed back to Trinity and we met Cam and then went into the training room. There were football players in there, laughing and joking and the head trainer Mark started testing her knee, and the guys were still laughing and cutting up. Mark said “I’m afraid you tore your ACL,” and the room went silent and Claire nodded her head and started to cry. I tried my hardest to stay composed but I just couldn’t. I dropped her off in front of her dorm room and caressed her cheek and told her it would be ok and then I left her with Ashlyn.

She was determined to make the most out of her lost freshman year. She attended every practice and immersed herself in all things team. Their group chat was named “We Must Protect Claire At All Costs,” which was an early sign of the impact she had and would have on her teammates and on the program.

Soon after the season was over the world changed for all of us. Covid and lockdowns and home schooling and fighting over masks and the murder of George Floyd and the summer of unrest dominated our lives while Claire quietly tried her best to continue rehab. She would spend a few hours a day in our hot and messy garage doing push-ups and sit-ups and squats and anything else she could to be ready for her sophomore season.

Looking back now it’s all so surreal. Trinity was able to play an abbreviated season in 2020 with extra spacing on the bench and masks worn at all times except when on the court. No fans allowed in the stands and almost daily testing. We were able to watch the games via streaming at home and cheered like idiots when Claire would get a few minutes here and there in a handful of games. It wasn’t ideal but she was playing again and we loved it. Trinity won their first of three consecutive conference championships that season and Claire got to cut down the net. We were back, baby!

We’ve often joked that our family dynamic is flipped. Instead of raising Claire, she raised us. At seven years-old she would wake us up in the morning, fully dressed and ready for school. “Mommmmyy, it’s time to get uhh-up,” she’d quietly say while gently shaking her mom’s shoulder. Her natural tendency is to take care of us. Which is why she waited a few days after classes started her junior year to tell us she’d “tweaked,” her knee again. She was adamant that it was ok, but she just needed to go in and see Dr. Schmidt and get confirmation. But of course, it wasn’t ok. Her ACL was torn. Again. She would have to miss her second season in three years and this time there was a big question as to whether she’d ever play again.

A few weeks later we took a family vacation to New York City to just get away from it all for a couple of days. We ate greasy pizza and went up in all the tallest buildings and tried our best to forget about it all. On our last night there we took a boat ride on the Hudson and out to the Statue of Liberty. Kristin and the boys went inside because it was chilly while Claire and I stayed outside on the boat’s deck. It was the first real chance I’d had to talk alone with her. Everything was so uncertain and sad. I caressed her cheek and told her I loved her, and everything would be ok, but we both knew my words carry no weight. Nothing I said was a guarantee.

Things were different in her junior season. Gone was the optimism about better days ahead. It was replaced with anger, resentment, and a nagging sense of loss. Her teammate Addie Putnam had torn her ACL a few months before Claire which would presumably provide both solace as they rehabbed together, but the anger was still there. They had an old microwave in the yard, and they’d regularly smash it with bats for catharsis and relief. This time Claire didn’t attend all the practices and team functions. This time it was different.

It wasn’t until late summer that Claire decided she would try to play her senior year. She was fortunate to land a job with the Spurs as one of their camp coaches and I’m convinced that working with those kids helped her find her love for the game again. She could see in those kids joy and fun and passion. You could see it in her smile. Her anger was waning.

Claire spent the night at home with us before the first scrimmage this season. It was an emotional time for her, her two brothers, her mom and me. Just before she left to head to the gym, we had a group hug and said a prayer of thanks. We all cried. And then we cried again together in a group hug outside Calgaard after the scrimmage.

Trinity’s first game of the season was in Birmingham, Alabama. Claire called me an hour or so before the game. She was extremely nervous and emotional. We talked through where she’d been and how far she’d come and that this was just the next step. She then went out and scored 20 points and grabbed 8 rebounds.

And that’s the way the season played out. Claire gained confidence in every game, and served as a much-needed steadying force in what is a very hectic Tigers’ pace. In the third game of the season, Maggie Shipley, the team’s co-captain and most versatile player who can play positions 1–5, went down with a separated shoulder. Cam tabbed Claire to start in her place, and she never looked back. Fortunately, Maggie came back a few weeks later but Claire never relinquished her new role as a starter. And the team was rolling. 19–0 start to the season. Average margin of victory of over 26 points per game. And the rumbling stampedes in Calgaard were louder than ever. After making the Elite Eight last year there was a natural expectation that this team could compete for a National Championship, and the team was marching steadily toward that goal. Trinity won the regular season conference title and then dominated in the conference tournament to claim their third straight championship. And Claire got to cut down the nets again. All was going according to plan.

“I’m ok, but my knee is swollen a little,” she texted us on Thursday March 2nd, just one day before the NCAA tournament was scheduled to start. Her priority was keeping us calm. She was taking care of us once again. “The trainer says I irritated my meniscus,” she texted. On Friday she called and said that there was some concern with the swelling but that she felt fine, and all had agreed to see how she felt in warmups to see whether or not she would play. Cam inserted Shipley in the starting lineup but Claire told him she felt good, so he brought her off the bench in the first quarter. Over the course of the next few minutes, she scored 10 points, including a huge three pointer that broke open a game against a scrappy UT Dallas team coached by Joe Shotland. Shotland, a Trinity grad, had served as Cam’s top assistant for the past several years and had recruited every current member of the Tigers’ team. He and Claire remain close. It was an emotional game all-around. Shotland pulled Claire aside after the game and reminded her how special she is. He later texted me the same.

After the game Claire met with the team doctors and trainers who examined and tested her knee again. It was determined that if she could manage the pain she could play. She was ecstatic.

The second-round match-up pitted the Tigers against Hardin Simmons University out of Abilene, Texas. Trinity had beaten Hardin Simmons twice earlier in the year, but they remained a formidable match-up. Claire said her knee felt even better than it had the day before so we all settled in for what would be an exciting evening.

The beginning of the first quarter played out similarly to the night before. It was back and forth for the first few minutes. Cam inserted Claire into the game about halfway through the first quarter. In the first minute she blocked a shot, grabbed the rebound and helped set the offense. She got an assist on a kickout three and then blew out her knee on the way back down the court. Torn ACL and two torn menisci. She called for Cam who immediately sent a sub to the scorer’s table, but the game continued. Claire didn’t fall. Instead, she continued down the court and challenged a shot at the rim. She fouled on the rebound attempt and limped off to the locker room. It was her last moment on the court as a basketball player and it was some Kobe Bryant level s***. I will never forget it.

Once again it was all a blur. I sat in a cold sweat and warm tears and tried my best to stay engaged in the game. I waited for what seemed like an eternity for her to reappear. She didn’t come out until after halftime. Our regular seats are right behind the Tigers’ bench, so I made my way over to where she was standing and reached through the bars separating the stands from the court and caressed her cheek. She instructed me not to cry but I couldn’t comply. “It’ll be ok,” she said.

Trinity went on to beat Hardin Simmons thanks in large part to Maggie Shipley who scored a career high 30 points in the win. We traveled to Boston the next weekend where Trinity was matched up against Tufts University in the Sweet 16. It was a back-and-forth affair, but Tufts pulled away in the end and won. And that was it. It was all over for the Tigers’ dream season. Claire told me later that she felt sick to her stomach because she knew in her heart if she could’ve just played then the team could’ve kept playing. And I’ve yet to hear anyone say any differently.

So that’s how Claire’s basketball story ends. She didn’t set any records at Trinity. Her jersey won’t be retired. They won’t name any postseason awards after her. She and her senior class didn’t win a national championship.

But there were times this year when the game she so loves finally loved her back. There were moments on the court this year when she was a giant again, just as it always should have been.