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Jumping Through Hoops: A Father's Day Tribute to a Fiery Football Coach

06/20/2010 03:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It was a tense moment in the Christ Lutheran School gymnasium, with less than 10 seconds left on the clock and our rival school, Santa Sophia, was leading the game 8-7. As I prepared to inbound the ball to my best friend, Sarah, who would go on to scale the court and produce the winning layup in a story I would later tell at her wedding, I looked up at my coach pacing the sideline of our 7th grade season-ender with an intensity worthy of John Wooden.

Not only did I want my father, the legendary Monte Vista High School football coach, to look Santa Sophia Coach Zack Peck, the legendary Monte Vista High School basketball coach whose daughter Vanessa was our opponent's starting center, in the face the next day in the P.E. teacher's lounge with the triumph of victory. I wanted him to know that all the games of H-O-R-S-E we'd played in the driveway had summarily made me, well, a baller. I said a quick prayer, threw the ball, and Sarah made it happen. At the girls basketball awards banquet the next week, the performance earned her the team's Most Inspirational Award, an honor she has eschewed to this day, arguing that I only won Most Valuable Player because I was the coach's daughter. Of course, she is now a surgeon and I am a lowly political blogger, but we both learned the important lesson that nepotism sucks.

The scene amuses us all now, considering that in our moment of glory we didn't even break double digits. My mother in the stands, speckled about with 15 other dedicated fans, committed to being there while my father and I inflicted an emotional roller coaster on ourselves, yelling at the referees when they treated us unfairly, reveling in sports metaphor on the drive home. Of all the important things that would ebb and flow and change for the three of us after that moment: friends, ambitions, accolades, jobs, politics, bank accounts, pet cats, six seasons of "Lost," and their only child ultimately living across the country in Chicago, New York and now Washington, D.C. (not to mention the dozens of times they moved all her furniture, including some 10 heavy boxes of books he can't understand why I refuse to donate to a library); we remain a family of competitors.

On Monday, a tweet from @ESPN_ProdGirl popped up in my feed suggesting that women share on the WNBA Facebook page the stories of how they bonded with their fathers through sports as part of their Dads & Daughters program. I knew instantly that I wanted to share my story because I wouldn't be who I am if both of my parents hadn't valued sports. What was more interesting when I reflected on it, though, was that even though my father is a football coach and I was primarily a volleyball player, it was basketball that really brought us closer together.

I've stood on the sideline on the football field next to my father in almost every game he's ever coached, with exceptions in recent years when I lived far away from San Diego. He's a mastermind, playing an elaborate game of chess in a battle of wit, designed not merely to win but to inspire the young men to always live with that energy and confidence they feel when the game is on the line in the fourth quarter. It's not that they have shoulder pads to protect them from injury or fear, because that won't always be the case in real life, when they'll put their cleats in a closet and reflect on the values learned in their adolescence. Winning a football game is a lesson in recalculating in adverse conditions, merging instinct with emotion, exuding poise in situations that provoke anxiety, overcoming inequity in athleticism, skill and experience to be the one to make a game-changing play, and sharing the journey, including practice!, with your friends and mentors.

I carried all these lessons from my dad's teams with me on the volleyball court, where surely my friends and coaches never quite knew what to do with my foaming-at-the-mouth, athletic zeal. They just made me team captain and clapped obligingly at my passionate time-out speeches, looking forward to celebrating our assured victory with a post-game Slurpee, since when a Carberry decides something is going to happen, nothing short of Brian Urlacher knocking us on our backs could stop us from doing it. Even then, we'd get back up and try again.

Still, for all the joy our family derived from great moments like when Monte Vista beat Reggie Bush's then-Helix High School on the football field, or watching me realize my dream of suiting up in UCLA gear at the Wooden Center for practice with an elite Div. 1 team, I think the basketball memories are my favorite. My dad has inspired thousands of students over his 20+ year coaching history, but I liked it best when he was my coach.

I loved the glorious afternoons when we would shoot around in the front yard after school, and it was a particular point of pride that he made sure I didn't "shoot like a girl." Flex your wrist, point at the rim, follow through. Flick. I didn't even notice that I was 5'2" and had no business running in circles around the taller girls on the court. There was a solution for that, he said. "Keep the ball up here," he'd say, holding it high up by his head. "If you put it down low a kindergartener could steal it."

That was good advice in life, if turns out. That delightfully delusional quality propelled me to believe that I could compete with giants. I've always tried to stay above the less-than-heroic components of working in politics and media, an industry I entered having no connections or family experience beyond a dad who was a U.S. History teacher and liked to stay up late with me talking about how to change the world. We hold the ball up high because the nature of the game means that there are winners and losers, those who cheat and those who play by the rules, those who want it more than others, those who get so caught up in winning they forget to respect the process, and those who suffer real consequences based on the outcomes.

The other day I was giving a pep talk to my intern who just graduated from college, attempting to soothe his anxiety about how he'll achieve the big things he wants to accomplish. I told him, "Look, at some point I realized that I could be whatever I wanted if I worked at it. If I wanted to switch gears now and be an astrophysicist, I'd dedicate myself to it entirely, overcome any obstacle and strive to be the best. You just have to begin somewhere, anywhere. In fact, I've learned over the course of my life that only thing I can't do is dunk a basketball, and I live comfortably with that."

Come to think of it, though, I could probably do it if I stood on my father's shoulders.