I had the privilege to spend some quality time with my 19-year-old son this summer when he returned home from his freshman year at college.

I couldn’t have been a prouder father. He was excelling in all areas. More important than that, he was just a quality human being. I had struggled the past year with my changing role in his life – trying to adapt to parenting a young adult. I felt my role had diminished to a large degree and was learning how to fulfill his needs in this new chapter in his life.

No longer did he need me to take care of his basic needs. No longer did he need me to help him with his homework. No longer did he need me to help navigate his everyday routine. So I attempted to support him, counsel him when needed, and to just be there for him.

I helped him with the college transition process, the ongoing conversations about classes, friends, girlfriends, and getting around on the mass transit system. He was very independent and I felt I was perhaps irrelevant in his life. Although that was a good thing and the goal of parenting, it left me exploring how to redefine my role as his dad.

We had the privilege of spending quality one-on-one time for a few days one week in July. We spent most of the time laughing, talking, and enjoying being with one another. We hit some golf balls, watched some movies, ate out, and played basketball – which was when I felt closest to him. 

We started off shooting, dribbling around, and generally having fun. I’m 51 years old. He’s 19. I’m 5 feet 8 inches tall. He’s 6’1″. He’s lean and muscular. I’m oval and squishy. He plays collegiate soccer. I walk to the mailbox once a day.

I had no intention of playing him in a competitive one-on-one game – he passed me in athletic ability years ago – but somehow, that’s where we ended up. It was ugly. He beat me in all facets of the game. He drove inside with ease. He had no trouble getting a rebound or an outside shot off.  I, on the other hand, couldn’t get around him, through him, or over him. The score was quickly nine to one in a game to 10. I was exhausted. He was just getting warmed up. Game over.

But then it occurred to me that this was an opportunity to show him that despite all of the disadvantages, I was not going to go down without a fight. For years, I had encouraged hard work, effort, never giving up, and mental toughness. This was my opportunity to model those characteristics. This was my opportunity to still be relevant in his life in a small but meaningful capacity. 

I never thought I would win, nor did I think the modeling would go on for more than a possession or two. After all, there were obvious physical limitations. But on the next possession, I got a defensive stop and a rare rebound. I then found some hidden strength and managed to somehow score, making it nine to two. The sequence happened again – nine to three. He shook his head and laughed.

He put more effort into the next possession but came up empty. He still wasn’t worried and easily blocked my next shot. Surely he’ll score this time, I thought. But he had gone cold. The ball bounced off the rim and I eventually got another rebound. Reaching deep inside for every ounce of energy for a burst of speed, I drove around him and hit an off balance lay up: nine to four. 

Sensing a comeback, he started to get a little worried. The ball bounced off the rim again and again for him. I hit a high pull-up jumper over his long outstretched arm. He now was dead serious. This game had to end in his favor and it had to end now. He sensed my determination, the momentum, and the fact this was now a competitive game.

The next couple of possessions were empty for the both of us, and I knew my time and luck was running out. I knew I had to score on practically every possession. On the next play, I got a lucky bounce, a quick rebound and a lay-up, making it nine to six. Now he was frustrated. He put his head down, drove to his left and easily banked in the game winning shot: 10/six. Game over. 

I collapsed on the driveway gasping for air with my legs feeling heavier than they’ve ever felt.  He got us both some water, shook my hand, and told me nice effort. I could tell he was impressed with the determination. I was filled with a sense of satisfaction – not in the outcome of the game, not in my basketball skills, and not in the exhilarating workout. I was satisfied that I was learning ways in which I can still be an asset, still be relevant, and still be someone my son could look up to and learn from.