Justin Ricklefs


You Are The Heartbeat of This Team: A Reflection On A Brave Basketball Player

“You’re the heartbeat of this team. As you go, we go.”

It had been an emotional day, a tough day.

In between 7th grade girls hoops tournament games one Sunday afternoon, one of our coaches found out a close family friend, an undercover officer, had been shot in the line of duty.

Hearing this news, she was shaken up. Understandably.

Early indications of survival and even recovery for her friend were promising, but that doesn’t settle the fear when you learn a dear friend had been shot by the bad guys.

A coach who is steady, tough and sometimes affectionately referred to as the “Momma Bear” of the team was in need of some big time (and quick) support.

The team was huddled in a hot, stuffy back stairwell, working through a couple concepts before the championship game of the tournament.

Until Coach Shelly entered, visibly upset.

She explained what had happened and instantly, these tough, hard-nosed players rushed to her side with hugs, shared tears and empathy.

A meaningless middle school summer basketball tournament got put into perspective in a snap.

We all dried our eyes and realized we still had a game to play, against a team who just beat us by 1 the day before.

As we walked to the court, I pulled one of the girls aside, Jenna.

If you were able to pick out the perfect kid you’d want to coach at any sport, she’d be at the top of the draft board.

Smart, energetic, fun, talented, hard-working, coachable, unselfish. You get the picture.

All the right stuff, none of the wrong stuff.

I grabbed her by her shoulders and looked her in the eyes and said, “J – you’re the heartbeat of this team. As you go, we go.”

I was crying still from what we’d just gone through with Coach Shelly, and I’m sure Jenna thought this nearly 40-year-old man had to be losing his mind.

But I meant it. And it’s true. As she goes, we go.

We lost the championship game, it wasn’t some picture-perfect ending (and it didn’t help that their best player scored 21 of their 29 points and we couldn’t stop her).

But until recently, I never realized how memorable that small exchange with Jenna would become for me.

How that seemingly throwaway phrase became etched in my mind forever.

See, Jenna got dealt a rough card in this game of life.

As a baby, she was diagnosed with hip dysplasia. All these years, the pain had been manageable, some days worse than others sure but the way Jenna played, you’d never know.

But it was evident this summer to her family that it was getting worse.

A specialist recommended an MRI and ultimately a surgery that may set her back 6-8 months but a full recovery and a better-than-ever Jenna would emerge at the end of the road.

No one wanted J out that long, but in the grand scheme, it was certainly a small price to pay.

The doc said that until the surgery, she could keep playing. No more damage could be done, it would just be a matter of how much pain she was in.

So sure enough, a few weeks later we’re back in a championship game, against a team we’d lost to by a bucket or two the day before.

This time, the ending turned in our favor. We won by 7, the girls got their 1st place medals, they posted stuff all over Snapchat and Instagram.

And Jenna specifically, she played out of her mind.

Basketball life felt like all was well.

That was a Sunday.

On Monday, we all knew she had her follow up appointment to discuss the timeline for surgery.

Parents sent out messages on our text thread, people were praying for J and her family. Hoping, and frankly, expecting the best.

Until we got this response from dad….

“Worst news ever…”

An emotional response in the moment that was later unpacked, and although not life and death, to a 12-year-old hoops-loving kid, it was the worst news ever.

The hip was too weak, too arthritic, too unstable. A future full hip replacement became the plan, not an immediate hip fix.

The worst news ever?

No basketball again for J. Not just for a year or two…forever.

Dad called me on the way back from the appointment. I don’t remember a time I’ve cried as hard for anyone that doesn’t share my last name.

I was heartbroken for her. I couldn’t even imagine how she and her family were feeling.

The texts and group messages started flying. I called Brooke and we cried together, then I asked her to put Addi on the phone. They both lost it.

Even tough “Momma Bear” Coach Shelly lost it.

None of us could believe it.

That was a Monday.

That Friday, we threw her a big party. Pictures, food, an Assistant Coach t-shirt, a signed canvas.

A hashtag emerged from the girls, so everyone was signing and posting stuff with #JENNASTRONG.

It was a beautiful night.

Then dad called again the following Monday. A different phone call than the previous Monday.

“Hey…so we’ve been talking…and Jenna wants to play one last game….we’re OK with it if you are….”

The poor kid got the rug yanked out from under her feet. No time to plan, no time to know it was over, just a blunt ending to the sport she loved playing.

So of course we were OK with it if her folks were.

We started scrambling because our next tourney was on the books. T-shirts were made, gifts were ordered, we lined up a photographer, engraved a trophy.

All with the hope that J could go out on top of the world, even though she felt like her world was crumbling.

What happened though was unlike anything any of us could have imagined that cold, rainy, dreary Sunday afternoon game at 4pm.

Ironically, or maybe not ironic at all, we played on the same floor from two weeks prior where she helped us win the tournament.

In the hallways before the game, you could feel that it was a special moment.

Younger siblings in #JENNASTRONG t-shirts, here whole softball team arriving, friends and family streaming in, the tournament directors coordinating a trophy presentation, the 5th grade team arriving to watch this player they look up to, the refs being made aware of what was taking place, whole families (not just mom or dad) showing up to offer support.

From the first tip, it was her show. Though she’s never one to grab the spotlight and insist it shines on her.

But it shined bright on her that evening.

20 points, a swished three-pointer, two and-one’s, diving all over for loose balls, attacking the rim with one good hip stronger than most do with two.

And grinning ear to ear the entire time.

Every time she scored or made something happen, I looked at mom and dad. I couldn’t help it. I knew they were soaking it in deep, taking in the moment.

And it was story-bookish. It really was, there’s no better way to describe it.

Every team huddle instead of our normal break, the whole team said JENNASTRONG. Girls were wide open for layups but finding Jenna on the backside so she could keep pouring it in.


With 30 seconds left, I selfishly subbed Addi, my own daughter, in for Jenna one last time. It wasn’t the NBA Finals on some huge stage, but it sure felt like it.

Time felt like it stopped.

When she came off the floor, the place erupted. She buried her head in my shoulder and we both cried and I couldn’t get anything out except “I love you J”.

She then got swarmed by the rest of the girls on the bench, Coach Ben, Coach Shelly and eventually….her dad.

Her first coach and one of her two biggest fans alongside mom.

Somehow, we all managed to shake the other team’s hands and found ourselves on the floor, under the hoop with about 100 friends, family and teammates looking on.

I muttered out a few things about how thankful we all were for their support of Jenna, what an incredible kid she is and then handed Jenna the trophy the Agape Hoops tournament folks had inscribed for her, in her favorite color.

It read, “You are the heartbeat of KC Rising. #JENNASTRONG”

As she goes, we go.


📸: carriebabbitt.zenfolio.com (a good friend of ours and a mom on the team)

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