In my experience, the most successful sports teams experience a moment—usually during a game or practice—where something clicks and the pieces finally come together to create one cohesive unit. For us, this moment came on a snowy drive to the airport en route to play in a tournament in Puerto Rico. As a first-year, I had been thinking about the trip since I was a high school senior, and when I woke up on the day of our flight, Dec. 17, it felt like Christmas morning. Little did I know that the greatest gift of the trip would be the unexpected obstacles that shaped our team identity and created a bond that extended far beyond the basketball court.
Every practice, Coach Candice Brown plans the drills down to the minute, and our travel schedule was mapped with similar precision. The plan was to leave at 5:30 a.m. for our 9:45 a.m. flight from John F. Kennedy Airport to San Juan. She scheduled an hour and a half to drive, 30 minutes to park the van and over two hours to check our bags and board the flight. Of course we knew that the itinerary might change; we had messed up too many drills to be unaware of the possibility of delay. However, nothing could prepare us for the trials to come.
When our alarm clocks rang in the pitch-black early morning, there were already a few inches of snow on the ground, and it was still coming down hard. The storm had been forecast all week, but who really checks the weather report, anyway? We piled into the vans to escape the freezing morning temperatures and were greeted by the quiet clicking sound of a dead battery. It felt like when you airball a shot during warm ups; a part of you hopes you are just saving the swishes for the game, but deep down you fear more bad shots are coming. After we somehow found another van, we hit the road praying that our bad luck would stay in the Vassar parking lot.
The roads were icy underneath, and a thick layer of snow was rapidly accumulating. As we reached the first tollbooth, the gate didn’t open, and the light stayed red. Our E-ZPass was out of money; we would have to pay in cash. Our stomachs dropped, as if we’d prepared all week for a man defense, and the other team suddenly switched to zone. Although we managed to scrounge up a 20 dollar bill, it was nowhere near as smooth as our man offense would have been.
Suddenly we noticed our visibility getting worse and worse. Our wiper stopped working, the joint of its arm having broken. On the shoulder of the deserted highway we desperately tried to fix it with athletic training tape. Like any team, we had experienced injuries and knew it was “next man up.” For the rest of the journey, we had to stop every 10 minutes to adjust the tape and clean the snow by hand.
The time lost by replacing the van, getting stuck at the toll, wiping our windshield and driving cautiously down the Taconic State Parkway put us hopelessly behind schedule. The shot clock was winding down, and we had to shoot or face the consequences. When you are traveling with 17 people, a turnover is definitely not in the playbook. Three tense hours after leaving Poughkeepsie, we arrived at the airport parking lot. When you are down in the fourth quarter, you know every second counts if you are going to make up the deficit. The elation of surviving the drive temporarily distracted everyone from the unspoken fear that we were already too late. However, a comeback is always possible in basketball, motivating us to pile 17 people into the 10-passenger shuttle and plead with the driver to take us to the terminal.
When we finally rolled into JFK a little after 9 a.m., what should have been a triumphant entrance instead resembled Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. Despite our heroic efforts, we had missed our flight. On the inside, I was panicking. Grim scenarios raced through my head: Would we stay in the airport until all of us could get on the same flight, or split up with a few making it to glorious Puerto Rico while the others languished in JFK? Or would we just return to Vassar and forget about the trip altogether? I knew there was one more flight to San Juan that day, but how could we book 17 seats the Saturday before Christmas? Fortunately, we live in a world of miraculous comebacks and half-court game winners. Before we knew it, somehow, we all had tickets for the noon flight to San Juan. We checked our bags, breezed through security and were in the air to Puerto Rico in no time.
To this day, I do not know how it happened. Maybe fate, karma or divine intervention, combined with lots of no-shows from cancelled flights and missed connections. Some things are just meant to happen and this trip was one of them. Once in Puerto Rico, we got the chance to visit Old San Juan, explore El Yunque Rainforest and of course play some basketball! The day we finally played on (our opponents had missed their flight, too) was hot and humid and the court was slippery. I don’t think I’ve sweated more in my life. I missed a free throw because the ball literally slipped out of my hands. Despite the humidity and our eventual defeat, it was some of the best basketball we played all season.
When we arrived at the airport for the flight home (on time, might I add) the airline attendant informed us that they did not have our reservation. There were not 17 seats on the 3 p.m. flight to JFK. Although we were slightly concerned, we could not help but see the humor in our situation. Who misses their flight on both directions of their trip? Although it would have been fun to stay a few more days in Puerto Rico, we soon found out it was a mistake, and the tickets were quickly recovered. It is safe to say that VCWB will probably not be taking too many flights in the near future. Despite everything that went wrong on this trip, it is one of the most memorable and happiest times I have had in college. The trials during the trip were symbolic of the unpredictable highs and unexpected lows of every season. However, it was through those moments we found our team identity. The shared experiences with teammates through the good and bad times are why I play basketball and why I will always be honored to rep Vassar College.