COMMENTARY: The week of 92-4 and ‘sticks out for Teddy’

At first, in a week that marked the anniversary of January 6 and another spike in COVID, I was reluctant to write about something so small in comparision.

There was no reason to state the obvious: There’s no reason to ever win a basketball game 92-4.

All the nation knows that was the score by which Sacred Heart Academy beat Lyman Hall in girls basketball last Monday night. News traveled fast and wide beyond the gym walls at 265 Benham Street, Hamden, CT.

The New York Times had the story. The New York Post. USA Today. National networks and their affiliates.

Social media was awash with it, swamped, as usual, with clashing opinions.

By the end of the week, another Connecticut sports story was in the national spotlight, one that brought weightier perspective to everything: the death of St. Luke’s sophomore Teddy Balkind from an injury sustained during a hockey game. 

The New York Times had the story. The New York Post. USA Today. National networks and their affiliates. Social media was awash in rare universal compassion.

Hockey players from the NHL to pee-wees, in the tradition of the sport when confronted by tragedy, left “sticks out” on doorsteps for Teddy.

Which leaves us with perhaps the one overriding lesson that can be taken away from such a terrible, terrible week: In sports played by children and teenagers, where tragedy can strike beyond anyone’s control, how about we avoid the travail that can be controlled?

Do we really need classes in sportsmanship and score management for high school coaches?

Maybe we do. Or maybe we could just put sticks out for Teddy.

All that talk of sports being a privilege and part of the educational process? Of a right way to compete, of respecting opponents and officials, of being grateful for the simpe opportunity to play? How about we save words that may or may not sink in and just keep putting sticks out for Teddy?

A silent, powerful reminder that no one dare brook, even after the cameras and headlines recede.

Because so many have to keep living with the events of last week — Teddy’s family, the boys who were on the ice that night in Greenwich, the girls who were on the court in Hamden.

And, of course, Sacred Heart Academy and its girls basketball coach, Jason Kirck.

The morning after 92-4, Sacred Heart president, Sister Sheila O’Neill, issued a statement.

“Sacred Heart Academy values the lessons taught and cultivated through athletic participation including ethical and responsible behavior, leadership and strength of character and respect for one’s opponents. Last night’s Girls' Basketball game vs Lyman Hall High School does not align with our values or philosophies.

“Sacred Heart Academy Administration and Athletics are deeply remorseful for the manner through with the outcome of the game was achieved. We are in communication with Lyman Hall High School, the Southern Connecticut Conference and CIAC, and are addressing these concerns internally to ensure that our athletic programs continue to encourage personal, physical and intellectual growth.”

Which, of course, was the right thing to say. And yet, in this age of “controlling the message,” it’s easily met with cynicism.

It gave the coach and athletic director cover, something to hide behind without having to face up, at least not right away, when the moment demanded it.

How does 29-0 after one quarter become 56-0 at halftime become 80-0 after three quarters?

If this flies in the face of institutional philosophy, why wasn’t someone talking to Coach Kirck at halftime?

The full-court pressure had been pulled off in the second quarter, but the half-court man-to-man was still tight and remained so for the rest of the game, along with the fast breaks, according to Lyman Hall coach Tom Lipka.

On social media, some pundits of the age opined that a team shouldn’t have to apologize for excellence.

True. But a team should apologize for making a travesty of a game it loves and flouting Basic Sportsmanship and Common Decency 101 (though Lord knows this is a cultural affliction that infects far more than little old sports).

In the wake of 92-4, Coach Kirck was suspended for one game. He’s served it and he’s returned to coaching. He’s publicly apologized to Lyman Hall and expressed regret. It is his reputation to reclaim.

Some coaches said Kirck’s suspension should have been longer. I don’t think I would have suspended him at all. To give merit to that statement issued by the school, I would have put him right out front right away.

Own it and atone: It doesn’t get much more Catholic than that, as I learned in my Catholic school days.

Back up word with deed. Starting right now. Let your works be seen. Starting right now.

There’s no denying competitive sport is contradictory by nature. Play to win, yet play fairly. On some nights, it’s a line that can be hard to walk.

But nor is it a tightrope. When it’s 56-0 at halftime, fury and fire have expired. Settle into a 2-3 zone, run half-court sets and let the time, unencumbered by a shot clock, tick away.

And yet there is the flip side. How does a team lose 92-4?

This is the facet of the story I wrestled with, the one that the New York Times and New York Post and USA Today and national networks and their affiliates don’t have to think about when they fly in and fly away to the next triumph, travesty or tragedy.

Some of us have to keep living with events.

I’ve known Tom Lipka for the 19 years he’s been coaching Lyman Hall girls basketball. I’ve known him to be a gentleman, a father who spoke eloquently and movingly about his bout with cancer when his children were young and couldn’t fathom what was going on.

Tom is a high school math teacher. He is a high school coach who is gracious, win or lose. He reports his scores, win or lose.

Tom reported 92-4 Monday night. I wrote back: “Tom, I don’t know if I should put my arm around your shoulder or go beat someone up, or both.”

I have a daughter. She’s 12, not much younger than the girls who played in the 92-4 game. I think about how I would have reacted if she was on Tom’s team.

It embarrasses me to say, with my temper, I would have been kicked out of the Sacred Heart Academy gym that night, which certainly would not have helped the situation.

In my prevailing calmer moments, I would have told her, “Honey, you and your teammates get back in that gym tomorrow and practice and get better and be ready for that team next time you play them.”

Which I’m sure Tom and the parents of Lyman Hall have already done.

And to which, I’d now add, “keep a stick out for Teddy.”


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