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  • Writer's pictureNeal Hagberg


She wailed like a wounded animal. Her eyes darted from place to place looking for some sort of refuge from her pain. There was no way of getting through those tears to calm her.  I watched and my heart broke.  She was eleven years old and she was relentlessly homesick, away from home alone.

I have been there.

I attended a basketball camp of a famous coach when I was in high school.  Not eleven years old.  High school.  I had never gone away where I hadn’t been terribly homesick.  I wondered what was wrong with me.  Why did everyone else have fun even in the down time?  I would be fine when I had activity to distract me, but get me time alone and I would sink into despair.

I remember standing outside the dorm one evening feeling lost.  Crying.  Wishing I were home.  Or with someone I loved.  Or anywhere but here.

The famous coach/director breezed in for one day of the camp, that’s all.  He never took off his sunglasses.  Not even inside.  His arrogance oozed into every corner of the camp.  His staff took the cue from him. They never got to know any of our names.  They sat by themselves at a table that looked like an international summit taking place, so no one would dare to approach.  The campers were left to fend for themselves.  I wondered if I was the only one who noticed.  I don’t think I was.  But it was “the way it was”, so you don’t know any different and don’t ask when you’re a kid.

I dutifully worked my tail off, and I was a good player, but there was no praise.  It was apparent there were a few players in camp the coach was going after recruiting (two of whom became NBA players) and those players got very special attention.  The coaches knew their names.  They joked with them.  Schmoozed them up.  They wanted something from them they thought the rest of us could not give.

And I was homesick.  A kind word from a coach would not have taken that away, I know it was bigger than that.  But still…


Now here was Sara (not her real name).  The second night of camp and inconsolable, just like the first.

Julia, her dorm counselor, had been up with her until 1:00 AM the first night of camp helping her through, as well as our dorm supervisor, Andie.  Both were patient, loving, kind.  Beyond kind.

Sara could not – or was not – able to reach out to other girls her age because she was so deeply trapped in her pain, even as they reached out to her.  But she stuck to Julia like glue.  All day the next day, when she would see me she would ask, “Where’s Julia?”  I would tell her she was nearby teaching and then I, or another staff, would gently help her to where she needed to be next.  At meals she sat with Julia. Then Katie reached out to her, seeing her pain, and got her to laugh.  Just a little.  And distracted her from her pain by asking what her favorite things were, what she loved in life.


I would like to say Sara came out of her grief.  But she didn’t.  The moment she needed to be away from Julia – and now Katie – she returned to her despair and just wanted to go home.

I have been there.

But I look at our staff and I watch them.  They sit with every camper at meals.  They get to know every one of their names.  They engage them on and off court.  They play games with them at social hour and throw themselves into Variety Show skits with campers.  All after a very long day on the courts or in the office or in the pro shop.  And the campers know they are more than a number.  They are a person.  Steve Wilkinson, another famous coach, set it up this way 42 years ago.

That evening it was apparent Sara was going to need to go home early the next day (a ride could not be arranged that evening).  It was just too much.  But Julia talked her into going down to the lounge where we were having social hour with campers (“just for a half hour” she said).  She gave her a piggyback ride down and saw Katie out in the courtyard sitting in a circle with campers, and plopped her down beside Katie, who on cue lit up like she was getting a birthday surprise and said “Sara! Come sit with me!”  Sara leaned into Katie and Katie effortlessly wove her into her life.


When it was time for camp songs, Katie piggybacked Sara into the lounge, where she stayed on Katie’s back for ten minutes.  Then she climbed down and Julia had Sara stand with us staff as we led the singing in front of the campers and, in the most solemn moment of the evening, singing “Serenity”, Julia gave Sara, who still had not smiled but was comforted, a hip check.  Sara looked up, startled.  Broke into a grin.  And hip checked Julia back.

At bedtime, Julia texted me and said some other girls invited Sara to sleep in their room with her for her last night, was that ok.  We don’t do that.  But we did it.  Because the campers picked up on what Julia and Katie were doing with their kindness.

The next morning, as Sara was leaving, she said, “I want to come back next year.”  Then she added, “But with my sister, so I won’t be as lonely.”  I said we would make sure that happened.

And then she was gone.

But lingering ever since was the image of Julia and Katie and Andie and all the other TLC staff treating Sara with love and kindness at every turn, even bleary-eyed and without sleep, knowing they would be facing another grueling day on the courts.

Not one of them wears their sunglasses indoors.


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