I recall one particular December in Ohio in the early 1980’s. I was 12 or 13. Our cousins from Philadelphia were visiting us during Christmas break (back then we unapologetically called it Christmas break), and over the break, the Barnesville (Oh.) Shamrocks junior high school basketball team, of which I was a member, had practice every morning at 7 a.m.
Every night I would stay up late with my sisters and cousins. We slept in the basement in sleeping bags—the six of us, in parallel formation, on the carpet. And after we had all stayed up until 2 or 3 a.m., I’d get up at 6 to a silent household, as Dad was already at work and everybody else was still asleep.
I’d pad up the stairs and into the kitchen for a bowl of cereal, then I’d get my gym-bag. The previous night I would have packed the gym-bag with my practice clothes; the majority of my game-time uniform remained hanging in my closet. The game-time uniform consisted of (1) a green mesh tank top with white “Shamrocks” lettering and a white basketball emblazoned on it; (2) baggy, long green shorts that covered most of the lengths of my spindly legs; and (3) “The Shoes.”
The Shoes were the one part of the game-time uniform that I would pack in my gym-bag and wear for practice, and were the only part of the uniform that I actually owned: a pair of white Converse basketball shoes (the hard leather Converses, not the soft canvas ones) with a green logo (star and sideways caret). The green-logo Converses were not available in stores—the players had to purchase them specially through the school.
With The Shoes safely tucked into my gym-bag, I’d pull on my snow-boots and trudge for 20 minutes to the school for practice.
I played on my school’s basketball team during the 7th and 8th grades.
I will now summarize my attributes at that time as they related to basketball: I had that rare, highly sought-after combination of slowness and shortness. Oh, and I was weak and uncoordinated.
Fortunately, there was no such thing as getting “cut.” If you wanted to be on the team and were willing to do the work, then Coach Cunningham would grant you a spot on the roster.
Coach Cunningham was a paradox—his personality was laid-back, but in the gym he was intense. He was an athletic guy in his 30s who loved his stopwatch. (Today I sometimes use a stopwatch in the writing classes that I teach, and I think of him.) He was a special-ed teacher, but to us basketball players he was simply “Coach.”
My favorite professional basketball team was the Cleveland Cavaliers. Occasionally I’d get to attend one of their home games (a 3-hour drive from Barnesville). They were a perennially terrible team, but I especially enjoyed the antics of their star, World B. Free. Free was a flamboyant, high-scoring, high-flying, fancy-dunking lunatic. I was not like him on any level, but on the basketball court I always harbored a fantasy that I was he.
Practices were hard. There was much running involved. Especially grueling were “suicides.”
To visualize a suicide, picture a basketball court, and now imagine its length divided into fourths. You start at one end (at the baseline) and sprint to the one-fourth line, then turn around and sprint back to the baseline, then turn back around and sprint to the half-court line, then back to the baseline, then to the three-fourths line, then back to the baseline, then all the way to the other baseline, then back to the original baseline. So a suicide consists of several consecutive sprints delimited by sudden 180-degree turns. Just describing it makes me tired now. Hats off to whoever named the damned thing.
I never played during an actual game while the outcome of the game was still in question. Coach would send me in only if it was very late in the game and we were either ahead by a lot (rare) or behind by a lot (common).
Despite my prodigious incompetence as a basketball player, I truly enjoyed my years on the team.
For one thing, being on the basketball team allowed me to apply my raw determination to something at which I was really bad and probably always would be. This was a different experience than applying it to endeavors at which I excelled, such as academics and music. I was proud to successfully make it through the crucible of long practices and tiring road trips.
And this accomplishment felt even more fulfilling given that there was so little tangible reward forme in terms of playing time and recognition. There’s great satisfaction in doing something you really have no business doing.
Also I enjoyed gaining a deeper understanding of the nuts and bolts of the game than one could attain from the fan’s-eye view. By throwing myself into the writhing mass of the sport, I could begin to appreciate the finer points of basketball, such as the fundamentals of playing defense, the beauty of the well-placed and well-timed pass, and the geometric poetry of the perfect bank shot. I wouldn’t appreciate the calculus and physics behind the bank shot until high school.
In high school, I would get a chance to apply these deeper insights as the varsity team’s statistician. This job also involved traveling to all of the games and feeling like a part of the action.
And no suicides, thank you very much.
During one home game late in the season, Coach put me in with two minutes left while we were down by 30. With about one minute left, the other team scored and I got the ball and began dribbling down the court. I had not taken a shot the entire season.
An opposing player guarded me as I dribbled down the court, but when I got to the top of the key (a point about 20 feet from the basket, and exactly straight on from the basket), he left me as one of his teammates approached me. They were “switching,” meaning that they were trading the guys they were defending. For one glorious moment, I was uncovered, and I heaved up a shot. I was a weakling—not yet 100 pounds—so I had to use most of my strength just to get the ball far enough. Accuracy was left to the hands of fate.
The ball elevated in an ill-advisedly high arc. It floated above the height of the top of the backboard. Then it succumbed to gravity and fell parabolically toward the backboard, ricocheted off the glass a few inches above the basket, and then SWISH! It fell through the basket, nothing but net.
Somehow, I had unintentionally banked the ball off the backboard from straight on, and it had swished implausibly through the basket for 2 points. (Today, the shot would actually be worth 3 points. But this was before the advent of the 3-point shot.)
I want to point out here that making a 20-foot bank shot from straight on is exceedingly difficult to do and is almost never attempted, even at the professional level. I point this out not to heap accolades upon myself—the shot was at least 95 percent luck—but to give you a better sense of the wild improbability of the shot’s success.
The crowd went wild.
Actually, I don’t remember how the crowd reacted. The more likely scenario is that a few people cheered. The word “smattering” comes to mind. And they probably cheered more to be supportive than because they were actually excited. After all, these 2 points were completely inconsequential vis-a-vis the outcome of the game.
But in my inner reality, I was World B. Free, and this was Madison Square Garden, and I had just hit the game-winning shot against the New York Knickerbockers, and a small section of Cleveland Cavaliers fans in the stands was going insane, and in a moment, I would propose to the head cheerleader (or, heck, any cheerleader) and she would of course say yes and then perhaps I’d be so kind as to grant a brief courtside interview to Marv Albert of NBC Sports.
I never took another shot the rest of the season.
At the end of the season, Coach wrote out the final individual statistics on a sheet of paper (this was before the advent of spreadsheets) and made copies and gave them to all of the players.
The coach had listed our names and stats in order of field-goal percentage (a.k.a. shootingpercentage). Therefore, my name was at the top of the list, and then, after a few single-digit integers representing items such as my rebounds and assists, on the top right corner was my pristine field-goal percentage—“100%”. Below my name were the names of those who actually had some talent for the game, along with their statistics, including field goal percentages in decreasing order—“37%”, “33%”, “29%”, etc.
And that is how one of the worst basketball players in the history of school-sportsdom reigned for one season as the leading shooter on the Barnesville Shamrocks junior high school basketball team.
|Ranjit Souri (rjsouri [at] gmail [dot] com) teaches classes in improvisation, comedy writing, and creative non-fiction in Chicago.|