Walsh's Wonderings — The beauty of sport

Robert F. Walsh
Robert F. Walsh

The U.S. Women’s National Basketball team came through Bridgeport last Saturday night, allowing our region the opportunity to see some of the best athletes in the world as they prepared for next week’s FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup in Tenerife, Spain. However, those lucky enough to catch the squads from Canada and Japan the night before were treated to everything that is good about sports.

The outcome was never really in doubt; the Canadian team is led by several WNBA stars including UConn’s own Kia Nurse, the engine of four Final Four teams. The Japanese team looks like high schoolers by comparison, with no one taller than six feet. I thought they were letting ballgirls shoot with the team during warmups until they lined up for the playing of the national anthems. (Everybody stood.)

The sparse Webster Arena crowd contained a few scattered Canadian flags and UConn jerseys, but few seemed interested in the Japanese team. Most appeared content eating homemade popcorn and looking for Geno Auriemma. One woman with a “UConn’s #1 Fan” sweatshirt spent most of the night swinging her arms wildly in the air in the hope she’d appear on the video board’s “Fan Cam,” but no such luck would be had.

The ushers kept up an easy rapport with the few who showed up, the crowd hearing every grunt, bump and slap of the ball in the eerily silent arena. The game started off predictably, with sloppy play from two teams who’d only recently finalized their rosters. Kia Nurse took a charge (not called) on the very first offensive set, and points were hard to come by that first quarter.

The Fan Cam was soon re-christened the Bongo Cam for some reason, but UConn’s #1 fan still couldn’t get any love; while the camera kept panning to dancing elementary school girls, our hero wouldn’t stop waving her arms at every timeout.

By halftime, Canada was firmly in control, 42-26. The Japanese team’s shots were rushed, the paint an impossible forest of tall trees that sucked up their balls faster than Charlie Brown’s kite. They relied on rushed three pointers and quit cuts but couldn’t get the ball in the basket. As the teams began the third period, Japan called a timeout and someone in the stands groaned: “Why bother?”

Why bother? Because this is why sports are important. It’s sharpening your sword against a stone you’ll never cut. It’s continuing to push in the face of impossible odds. You can almost see it in the eyes of the far superior Canadian team: “Why won’t they just back down, already? Why won’t they stop trying so hard?”

With barely a hundred people watching, the Japanese team dug in with everything it had. They boxed out and fought for rebounds, finally finding the net with slower sets resulting in easier shots. By the time the Bongo Cam turned into the Robot Cam, even UConn’s #1 fan had tired of flapping her arms, but Japan refused to quit. They lost a close game, 76-69, but they represented themselves and their country in a way that earned the respect of everyone who watched.

After the game, I asked Japan’s coach, Tom Hovasse, what drove his team to this near upset of a clearly superior squad. “We outwork every other team on the planet,” he responded. “We might not be the most physically gifted, and we could certainly use a little more size, but no one will put more energy into competing than this team.”

As the fall sports schedule begins in schools across the region, coaches would do well to post these words in every locker room. The beauty of sports does not reside in the outcome but in how the game is played. Japan’s national team definitely made a few new fans as a result.

You can read more at RobertFWalsh.com, contact him at RobertFWalshMail@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @RobertFWalsh.