M adelyn Koski is perfect.
At least she tries to be. And sometimes she tries not to be.
Koski has a complicated relationship with perfection.
Take today for example. It’s the Saturday before finals week and Koski is at home with her family, college basketball plays on the TV in the background.
She likes to get up early, so as not to waste her day, but not too early because she knows she needs rest.
Koski is being careful not to overdo the studying. She’s done the calculations, and in order to maintain her straight As, the highest score she will need to get on a final is 80 percent. She probably doesn’t need to study, but of course she has been.
Every day Koski has an internal battle with herself. She’s a great student because she’s meticulous, and a great basketball player because she does things the right way. Her desire for perfection has led her to where she is today. But she’s also 16, and 16-year olds shouldn’t worry that much about being perfect. Sixteen-year-olds should have fun, and make mistakes.
She also likes being perfect and having things just so.
Koski walks down the hall into her bedroom and immediately closes her closet door — it’s the one thing that could be categorized as out of place.
The room is a model image of what parents dream their kids will be like. Her bed is made, the edges tucked in and the pillows arranged exactly how they should be. On her desk are the books she’s been trying not to study too much, stacked one on top of the other. She’s got a little basketball hoop attached to her closet door and a collection of trophies, medals and pictures detailing her athletic achievements.
People’s rooms are often a reflection of who they are, and Koski’s reflects her — well — perfectly.
Across the hall is her sister Jillian’s room.
“Jillian’s room is the opposite of mine,” Madelyn laughs. “It’s a mess.”
The younger Koski’s bed is unmade, and there are a few items out of place, but it is by no means messy. At least not by regular standards.
But Madelyn doesn’t operate on those standards. She’s on another level.
Partly by choice and partly by instinct. But her need for perfection is not annoying. It’s not in your face and she doesn’t force it on others.
To Madelyn, things are done a certain way for a reason. Anything less would be selling herself short. That’s the way it’s always been, and in that regard, it’s not complicated. Just normal.
When you drive into the Koski’s Ishpeming neighborhood, you’ll notice one thing right away: the basketball hoops. Every driveway has one.
Some are eight feet and some are 10. Some are plastic and some are metal. Some have new nets, some have tattered nets and some have no nets at all. But they all have a hoop in that front driveway.
Everyone but the Koskis.
Their driveway, apart from a vehicle and a bit of snow, is empty.
They used to have a basket out front like everyone else, but when Madelyn and Jillian were 7 and 5, they started to really enjoy basketball. They were playing all the time, and a little hoop with a few feet to shoot wasn’t going to cut it.
So their dad set out to build a basketball halfcourt in their backyard. Right now it’s coated in a thin layer of snow and some ice, but underneath there are painted lines, just like any other regulation court. To the side, attached to their shed is a sign that reads “Koski Court,” a suggestion the girls made when they were little.
They had other suggestions, too, like building a roof over the court so they could play year round, but that one didn’t end up happening.
Koski Court also has two little handprints etched into the concrete. Jillian and Madelyn put their mark on the court when it was constructed. A little reminder of who it is all for.
But it has morphed into a community hangout, and in the summer there is a constant rotation of kids coming to play at Koski Court.
It’s a good thing Madelyn loves basketball — and always has — because the neighborhood kids are long past asking to come over and play. At this point, they just show up. If the Koskis are home, great, if not, oh well.
“It was so fun when I was younger because I never had to worry about having friends because people would always be over,” she said. “Even when I’m not home they’ll be playing there.”
The Koski family is always coming home to cars parked in front of their house and kids shooting on their court or warming up in the garage on colder days.
The Beckmans, the Masons, the Manns, the Hewitts, the Lafountains. Madelyn can’t keep track of everyone that has made the Koski backyard their homecourt, but she knows it’s become a community staple.
It’s just a rectangle of concrete, but the court has taken on a life of its own. Impacting kids throughout the Westwood community. No one more than Madelyn. In some ways, that court has helped make her who she is today.
She learned to be a leader on that court. Learned to be competitive. Learned how to shoot. Learned how to lose. She learned who she was on the court.
Madelyn thinks. Just how many shots has she taken at her backyard hoop? She loves math, particularly algebra, and loves having a definitive answer. But of course, this is just an estimate. You can almost see her thinking: ‘A billion is too many, but it’s certainly more than 100,000.’
Finally, she answers. “A million. Probably a million.”
It’s been nine years since she first dug up dirt for the court and put her hand in the wet concrete.
It’s Madelyn’s third year as a varsity starter at Westwood. The junior was thrown into the fire as a freshman out of necessity and went about her business. She was good enough to be the Patriots’ starting point guard, but was nowhere near ready to be a leader.
Last year was more of the same: A talented guard, one of the best on the team, but a timid leader.
Not anymore. Now Madelyn is a junior and she’s comfortable taking this team into her hands and guiding it.
She may not have been ready to lead at Westwood until now, but Madelyn has always been a leader. Something that started — Where else? — at Koski court.
In third grade, Madelyn started having her teammates over to practice in the backyard. Her dad was the coach at the time, but he was always inside. This was all up to Madelyn and her teammates.
They would run layup lines, practice defensive drills and scrimmage, all on that little half court. And Madelyn helped instigate it all. She didn’t know it yet, but at 8-years old, she was beginning to become a leader.
She was also developing her competitive edge. There were no girls her age living next door to the Koskis, so instead, Madelyn played against her neighbor boys. They’d scrimmage, play 3-on-3, 2-on-2, 21, all depending on how many people there were. But it didn’t matter the challenger, Madelyn was determined to win.
“That’s probably why I’m so competitive now, because we never really had girls who were neighbors,” she said. “It was always boys. So I had to be competing against boys.”
Go to any Westwood game, or any practice and watch No. 10 shoot. You will be hard-pressed to find someone with better form than Madelyn. It’s so good that she’s even made 132 free throws in a row, beating her previous record of 112. She’s put in so much time perfecting that shot, but like most things, it started at Koski Court.
The community makes good use of the court, and those same people helped build it. On the last day of construction, Chad Hewitt, the Westwood boy basketball coach was there. He even put the hoop up. And when Madelyn took her first shot — she made it of course — Hewitt rebounded for her.
Madelyn’s dad was the first person to show her proper shooting form, and on that day behind their house he was working out some minor issues.
“Keep your thumb pointing toward your ear!” He called out as she put up shots. He wanted the thumb on her guide hand to stay stationary, but Madelyn was developing a habit of using it to push the ball when she shot with her dominant hand.
Finally, Hewitt went into the Koski’s garage, and when he came back he had a roll of Duct Tape.
He wrapped the sticky silver tape around Madelyn’s hand, making sure her thumb didn’t move when she shot.
Now, when you watch her, Madelyn’s guide hand stays stationary every time she puts up a shot. Almost as if something is holding it in place.
If you’ve followed Westwood for a long time, watching Madelyn play can be reminiscent of another No. 10. And that is just what Madelyn wants. Her cousin Megan Lawry (formerly Manninen) wore the same number when she was a Patriot, and from the time Madelyn was little, all she wanted was to be like her cousin.
Lawry played basketball at Lake Superior State, and whenever she was home for breaks Madelyn would do her college workouts. In fact, Lawry can hardly remember a day when Madelyn wasn’t with her at the gym.
An only child, Lawry thinks of Madelyn and Jillian like her little sisters. She’s watched them develop as basketball players and as people since they were those little girls putting handprints in the concrete, and even before.
Playing against the boys isn’t the only reason Madelyn is so competitive. It also became a prominent feature thanks to her many backyard battles with Lawry.
They started playing when Lawry was on Westwood’s varsity team and Madelyn was in elementary school. Even though no one would expect her to beat a high schooler, Madelyn was always fuming when she lost.
“She taught me how to lose,” Madelyn said of her cousin. “I mean, I still hate to lose, but she taught me how to lose a little more graciously. I used to be horrible. She would always beat me, obviously, because she was nine years older than me, and I would get so mad. But I just had to realize she is on varsity and I was in elementary school.”
But those battles proved beneficial for Madelyn. She learned to play defense and learned to never quit. She also developed her game playing against a Division II basketball player, even at such a young age.
Now, as a junior, Madelyn is averaging 14.8 points, 4.8 assists and 3.3 steals a game. She dreams of playing college basketball, and Lawry thinks her years of hard work could pay off.
“I don’t even think she realizes how good she is because she is so hard on herself, and she is a perfectionist. I would never tell her how good she is,” Lawry said laughing, “but just watching from the outside, she is definitely a GLIAC-worthy player for the future. She is so disciplined.”
Madelyn’s dad built Koski Court because his girls loved basketball. Madelyn still loves basketball, but over time in her quest for perfection, she forgot that on occasion.
During her freshman and sophomore seasons, Madelyn was so focused on proving she belonged on varsity and not letting her upperclassmen teammates down, that sometimes, basketball was only stressful, and nothing else.
But lately, that has changed.
A couple weeks ago Madelyn was warming up for a game, and suddenly she paused. The pressure she had always felt wasn’t there. Instead, she was just enjoying herself.
“I was thinking about how much fun I was having and didn’t put as much stress on myself,” she said. “My freshman and sophomore year I still had fun, but this year is a lot better.
“People watching might not realize, but I’m having so much fun.”
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Patriots are 10-0; that’s enough to make any perfectionist smile.
But watching her develop is making those closest to her smile, too. And no one is happier than Lawry.
“One thing she did struggle with was, she could have had a great game, and then did one thing wrong, and that would be the only thing she talked about,” Lawry said. “So I was trying to tell her, no college coach, no one is expecting you to be perfect. What are the things you can do, you can control? That is what you should be worried about.”
It’s taken a while, but Madelyn is starting to figure it out.
It’s Jan. 12, and despite her dad’s best efforts with the shovel, Koski court is still covered with a layer of snow. Madelyn steps outside in her mittens, hat, and a pair of rubber boots.
The camera snaps, as Koski shoots on her court. She doesn’t like this, you can tell.
Despite our reassurances that no one is counting makes and misses and that the scene is strictly to get interesting photographs, Madelyn still apologizes when she misses. She still frowns when the ball hits the rim a little too hard, or when her gloved hands cause it to spin less than perfectly.
No one, not even Madelyn Koski and all her years of shooting on that hoop, can expect to make everything when they are wearing mittens.
As she shoots and the camera clicks Madelyn turns.
“I hope you aren’t waiting for me to make one,” she says.
No, we assure her one more time, it’s just for pictures.
It’s all a little silly, shooting like this, and decidedly not perfect. But finally, when she accidentally makes a shot off the backboard, Madelyn laughs. It’s quiet and a little unsure, but it’s there.
Almost as if she realizes, suddenly that this doesn’t have to be perfect.
Nearly everything else she does already is.
Similar to every other coach in the state of Michigan, Jesse Kentala was preparing to navigate whatever high school basketball season there is during the current pandemic. The Blue Bolts are coming off two trips to the state semifinals and are projected to be one of the top teams in the UP once again. A three-peat trip to Michigan State...