"There is manure on the basketball court."
The indignant 9-year-old seemed to think I'd be bothered by that. I'm not sure why. Manure on the "basketball court" — really a small square of beaten up concrete in the driveway — is a pretty common occurrence on a farm.
"It's getting in the way of my dribbling."
"So, get a shovel."
"But it's on my ball, too."
"Wipe it off."
A few minutes later, the "thump, thump, thump" of dribbling resumed, broken up by the occasional "thwack" when she'd hit the backboard. She dribbled and shot, practicing layups and jump shots, until the sun had sunk beyond the horizon and the unseasonably warm October night was no longer enough to keep her from shivering.
It's the same chunk of concrete on which her dad would shoot throughout the winters of his youth, keeping a heater nearby to warm his hands and the ball enough to make his practice bearable. Even now, years later, he can pull up from the field, still wearing gloves, and beat the rest of us at HORSE or Lightning or whatever game we're playing. I'd speculate that the years of dribbling on uneven concrete likely improved his ball handling, while the long hours playing outside in the North Dakota winters made the games in a warm gym a little less intense.
When I was a kid, our basketball hoop was in the shop. So, I sometimes made up drills where I'd "pass" to the tractor tire sitting nearby and take the return "pass." The tire, predictably, was not a good passer. If nothing else, it made me nimble. The balls would become caked in dirt and grease, as would my hands.
After too many broken windows and dents in the siding from line drives, I got the boot from the yard for all but pitching practice during softball season. If I wanted to practice hitting or pop flies or anything else where an errant ball might do damage to real property, we'd head to the hay field/pasture behind the house. I played on some rough outfields over the years, but I was well attuned to adjusting to terrain, thanks to my home field. When you're taking batting practice in a field where the cows just got moved off, you don't end up with many clean balls. I was really never very picky about my equipment at game time.
When you're a farm kid, you know that sports are an extra, no matter how important they are to you at the time. I knew my career would end and I'd move on. Basketball and volleyball wrapped up with district tournament losses as a senior in high school. Softball lasted until a national tournament loss my junior year of college. I remain thankful for every dirty, strange practice session and what they contributed to the person I am today.
I've heard of people putting up special buildings for their children to train in and of paying high dollars for special coaches for kids too young to know whether they really like a sport. To each their own, of course. I've played in pristine gyms, as well as shops and pastures. I know which ones were more important to building my character.
A little manure on the ball isn't going to hurt my little guard in training. Nor are the cracks on the court going to stop her from reaching whatever goals she sets for herself. A little adversity can make the journey more memorable.
Jenny Schlecht is Agweek's editor. She lives on a farm and ranch in Medina, N.D., with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at email@example.com or 701-595-0425.