So, most of you have already heard this story. But I realized that I don’t have “The Basketball Story” actually down in writing anywhere, and it was such an Epic Fail that I really thought it ought to be. And of course, I did promise you this post.
So, for the sake of posterity, if nothing else, I give you “The Basketball Story.”
Remember how I said in a previous post that I suck at contact sports? Well, how are you going to know something like that about yourself unless you try, right?
Fall, 1981. My first year of Junior High. A Phys Ed coach who meant well but was really really misguided in this case approached me and said he thought I might be able to improve my obviously not yet fully developed hand-eye coordination skills if I were to join the Junior High Junior Varsity Basketball Team. This was one year before I discovered Boy Scouts, and had been wanting to do some extra-curricular activities, so I figured, “Hey, why not?”
What is the worst thing that could possibly happen, right?
I actually ended up getting a lot of reading done (even then I was an avid reader) because I was benched for every game, after proving in practice how much I truly sucked at this game. I had this problem with remembering to dribble. And most of my practices usually consisted of catching a basketball with my face (thrown by jerks like the red-headed Jason who clearly did not have a happy home life). Jason loved to trip me, use a basketball as a bloody nose-inducing projectile, push me down, and just generally display all of the fine qualities of a sore winner and a poor sportsman. It didn’t take long before I dreaded practice each week.
But, I had started something new, and I was determined to see it through, at least to the end of the season.
Our Junior High had an 8 year losing streak going with the neighboring town when it came to the Junior Varsity season basketball tournaments. The coach was determined to break that losing streak. Which had a lot to do, I suppose, with why I was benched every game, and Jason was the star center of every game. I went to every practice, but this usually consisted of avoiding Jason’s frontal assaults and trying not to get blood on my jersey, so combined with never being allowed to play in an actual game where there was an audience, I never really learned the rules of the game per se, and never developed a sense for how the game should be played, which by this time was fine by me. I just wanted out by this time, but I had promised the coach, my parents, and myself that I was going to see this thing through.
It was a cold, clear, night in early December. The night of the Big Season Junior Varsity Tournament had finally come (none too soon for me) and it looked like we were going to break that losing streak with our neighboring town, at long last.
The score was tied, 30 – 30, there was one minute left on the clock. One minute left of the entire season, one minute to victory for someone if we didn’t go into overtime. The next basket would decide the victor, and the outcome of our 8 year losing streak, which was on the precipice of threatening to become a 9 year losing streak.
And then it happened. Jason purposely tripped a kid on the other team, and the kid fell to the floor with an audible thud as both of his knees slammed into the wooden gym floor. The game was stopped as the poor kid had to be carried off the floor. Jason was disqualified for the rest of the season, which was now frozen in time on that big digital scoreboard at 35 seconds. The other team replaced their fallen comrade, and we needed to replace Jason. Our two other alternates were out sick that cold December night, and so guess who was the only available alternate?
The coach patted me on the back, told me to remember to dribble if I got the ball, and to just pass it to someone who knew what the hell they were doing as quickly as possible. Okay, he didn’t say it quite that way, but there was no mistake that that was the general gist of the 10 second pep talk he gave me. Jason played center, so that was where I had to go.
The bell sounded, and the clock started. The ball was out my hands so fast you’d think I had washed my hands with Astroglide.
I will never forget what happened next. The other team had the ball. And then this kid on the other team made eye contact with me, smiled, and threw the ball to me. You could argue that he was trying to cut me a break, but I seriously doubt it. I think, and always will, that he suddenly realized that I was as sure of myself at that moment as a cat in a leaking canoe, and decided to see what I would do with it, putting the game into overtime or more likely just causing a foul.
I caught it. “Okay, here we go,” I thought to myself. “No pressure here, just no pressure at all. Dribble and pass, just dribble and pass, you can do this.”
And then I saw it. Open territory between me and the basket. Like the parting of the Red Sea, players had split on both sides and I had a clear run to the Big Win. In fact, I was pretty sure that there were no opposing team members near enough to me to stop me. I realized that I had to take the run at the basket. I HAD to. If I somehow pulled this off, I would be a small town hero. Like James Belushi in Mr. Destiny, my entire life was about to change to Jock Status and I would be POPULAR if I could just make this one damned basket, and there wasn’t even anyone in my way. Mind you, all of this went through my head in a second.
I had to take the run. I started to move, remembering with all of my concentration to dribble. In what seemed like slow motion, one of my team mates pointed behind me and yelled an almost cartoonish “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!” I honestly thought he was warning me of an opposing team member behind me that must be on his attack run.
“No way,” I thought. “I’ve got this. He will never make it to me in time.” Out of the corner of my eye I barely noticed the scoreboard.
05………. 04………. 03 ……….
As I ran toward the basket, intently concentrating on my dribbling, I ran to the basket, and with every ounce of my will and concentration, I took the shot.
The ball went in.
The game was over. You could hear a pin drop in the gymnasium; the only sound was the sound of the basketball bouncing pilotless across the floor and the echo of the buzzer. As the scores on the scoreboard changed, I turned to greet the soon to be cheering crowd and the wild, ecstatic cheers of my teammates as they broke out into “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”
Wait – that can’t be right – the guy running the scoreboard had goofed – the Visitor’s score changed to 33, not ours. Still not a sound in the gym.
And then slowly, agonizingly, the laughter started in the bleachers, and the and my team became transformed into an angry mob, coming at me with yells of rage. With the confusion of a mime in an opera class, the reality of the situation slowly began to dawn on me.
Apparently in the game of basketball there is something called a rebound. Which was what everyone – except for the kid on my team who had yelled, realizing my intentions – had thought I was actually doing when I sped toward the other team’s basket. Oops. I had just won the game for the other team, the referee counted the basket, and our losing streak to this particular visiting team clicked over to 9 years running.
It was only a Junior High basketball game, after all, and Junior Varsity at that, but at the time it seemed like the greatest Epic Fail in the history of modern sports. And maybe it was – at least in our town, because 26 years later, when I returned to the town for my high school reunion, the town’s Assistant District Attorney, my former high school World History teacher, asked me if I wasn’t the kid who had won the Junior Varsity Basketball Tournament for the other team in 1981.
Some things never change, I guess.
You might think I harbored animosity towards my home town after this incident, but it isn’t true at all. I love the town with all my heart, and I always will, and I forgive that red haired Jason kid for being such a jerk all that year and even for beating me up in the locker room after the game, forcing me to wait in sub-zero temperatures outside for my dad to pick me up, by which time hopefully my lip would stop bleeding.
I just hate basketball is all.
Always have (since a cold night in December in 1981) and I always will. Come to think of it, I really don’t care for sports much at all, a prejudice that I will almost certainly take with me to my grave – I really don’t like sports. (I have a lukewarm fondness for baseball and the L.A. Dodgers, but don’t tell anyone…………)
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to my life, if it would have been any different, if I had made that basket, but in the right basket. While I probably wouldn’t have called my coach later that same night and quit the team like I did, I tend to think that things happen for a reason, that maybe, just maybe, I was somehow supposed to win that game for the other team.