English professor Nick Capo spent many evenings during his youth playing basketball with his father. Although he preferred volleyball and books, Capo saw his father’s drive to perfect his jump shot as an inspiration for how he could live his own life.
In my mother’s house, a cedar chest sits in a bedroom corner. Six years ago, after my father died, my mother and I sorted its contents.
Inside, a fifty-year-old black notebook recorded my father’s basketball statistics and observations. Junior year of high school: Twenty-two points against Nativity; twenty-seven points against St. Francis. Forty-one points against Regina Coeli; the entire opposing team only scored forty-eight. His senior year: a seventeen-and-one team record; section champs. “High-points man,” again and again, but alternating with a teammate. They must have pushed each other.
Growing up, I knew my father was good at basketball. We spent many evenings after he came home from work on outdoor courts across the Pittsburgh area, shooting in fading sunlight, talking over the crickets, until night hid the ball from our eyes. After coaching me, he eventually would announce—apologetically—that it was time to work on a new shot or, usually, on his “jumper.” His jump shot was beautiful.
Those who play sports will understand: each sport has its techniques and its beauty. Watching the fluid execution of my father’s setup and release and the ball’s parabolic arc, hearing the ripping snap of a nothing-but-net basket was awesome.
Until I saw his meticulous notebook, though, I didn’t fully understand the intensity with which he studied the game or the depth of his passion for it.
Despite my father’s patient efforts, basketball never captured my imagination. Volleyball and reading did, however, and I have records of my own accomplishments. Some are statistics; some, photographs. My parents took one photo when I fell asleep after an exhausting tournament on—in—a plate of spaghetti. Another is a memory of my dad shaking me from a book and saying, “Dinnertime.” When I said, “Already?” he laughed so hard and long that tears rolled down his cheeks. I had been reading for eight hours.
This is how it’s done, I must have realized, while watching my dad nail thousands of jump shots. If you want to play well, if you want to excel at something, you put in the time. You sweat and struggle when most other people aren’t. You practice.
Now, as a college English professor, I know more about how people succeed: they form good habits. During the semester, I take students to computer labs and let them write for one hour. Most days I witness the shift from distraction to concentration as joy captures their minds. “Okay, now count your words,” I say. “That’s your day’s work.” I praise specific accomplishments—the ones in which they invested many hours or risked public exposure. “Well done,” I told the junior surprised by winning the local library’s fiction contest. “Your hard work paid off.”
Pride in achievement. Joy in effort. Work as play. My father never attended college, but he knew these truths. He learned them on the basketball court, and he taught them to me.
So I believe in teaching and learning. I believe in practice and hard work. And, finally, I believe in the determined pursuit of excellence.
Nick Capo is an associate professor of English at Illinois College. He grew up in Pennsylvania, earning a B.A. and a M.F.A. in English at Pennsylvania State University. Capo now lives with his wife, Beth, in Jacksonville, Illinois.
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