(Last in an occasional series on the trials and tribulations of coaching the George Mason High School junior varsity basketball team)

The practices are over; the games long gone, only to be recalled years from now by players looking back and laughing about the winter of 1986.

What began as a fun tale of a struggling and often stumbling basketball team -- the Bad News Bears in gym shorts -- has come to an end after more ups and downs than an office elevator at lunch time. The season is finally over.

Someone glancing at our final record (7-7 in the Virginia A Bull Run District; 8-11 overall) would assume it was a rather mediocre, uneventful year. However, those closer to the team know what a long, strange trip it's been.

It was a season of streaks. Two streaks of four victories rudely interrupted by two long losing skids. Four down, four of five up, five down, four up and one down. Follow the bouncing ball.

We couldn't do things in moderation -- it was all or nothing. The good weeks were great while the bad weeks tested our proverbial "intestinal fortitude," and often, simply our intestines. It was a dickens of a year. In fact, it was the best of times -- and the worst.

Our 0-5 start included two district losses. But we then won four of five and, as the first half of the schedule ended, we had played ourselves into contention for one of two playoff spots. A 1-17 record last year hardly had us prepared for the realization that we were contenders. It was overwhelming.

The kids responded and began to act like winners. It was great fun to sit back for two weeks and watch the players revel in sudden success. They walked the halls and talked to classmates with the coolness of Dr. J. But their insides were queasy as though the chemical balance of their system was rejecting this foreign substance called winning.

We were scoreboard watching, checking results from other games and calculating our playoff chances.

Then, without warning, we went from Jekyll to hide. With the subtlety of a Bobby Knight argument, we tripped and fell, reeling into a five-game losing streak.

It was during this streak that the maturation of the team became obvious. There was no panic. The kids pulled together and fought to weather the storm. And though we were losing, it was because our opponents were better -- not because we were losers.

But what had begun as a basketball odyssey turned again into a basketball oddity: we started winning again. Though our playoff hopes were over we began a four-game win streak highlighted by a nine-point victory over Paul VI -- a team that defeated us by 25 earlier in the year.

The season ended with a loss to Rappahannock County, but a look back leaves no bad feelings. We weren't the stuff legends are made from -- sitcoms maybe -- but we were always competitive and hustling. We won games we could have lost, and lost games we should have won. But those two weeks we were in contention made it all worthwhile. We grew up together. We learned to win and overcome.

And we'll remember all the fun times. There were the nicknames -- Goggles, Ainge, Cool, Boots, Skilcraft and Alford -- each with a story behind it. There were locker room talks filled with laughter or screams and, of course, an occasional flying trash can or clipboard.

And don't forget the long, boring bus rides with Robert Tucker working the audience like a comic testing new material. It was a traveling road show. Put a tent over us and we're a circus.

But I'll mostly remember the maturation of Ryan Malisko, Christian O'Hara and Joey Romer, who were question marks early in the year, but later played major roles in our success. And when our leaders, Chris Lanier, James Lightfoot, Randolph Scully and Danny Ohr, went on to play with our varsity in its postseason tournament, I knew the torch had been passed.

There is still plenty of room for improvement. We shoot foul shots as though we're building a house -- one brick at a time -- but each player knows what will be expected of him in the years to come. Though there was no championship from this team, it was respect, not titles, that it won. That will be the legacy the players leave as they move on to bigger and better things.