When the lofty expectations of a highly touted high school basketball player are realized at the next level, the local watering holes are all abuzz with collective interest tracking statistics and media coverage along the way. If the career, however, takes a nosedive, the descriptive are more analogous to a quiet “fade to black” PowerPoint slide transition. Multiple scoring records were broken by this rising star, but everyone quickly tires of the broken record whose career seems to have hit the dumpster.
The college recruiting visit was ominous enough as he and other prospective talent took in a movie called “The Sting,” as part of the evening’s entertainment. When the con was finally played, everyone was fooled as the story’s end surprised the entire lot.
Little public fanfare surrounded his eventual collegiate decision. There were no press conferences or much ink used up in the local sports section. Though it was a Division I university in a major conference, it wasn’t the Big Ten and so didn’t make any highlight reel.
The accumulated records established throughout his high school years would not make the trip to where he was going. The prospect of breaking any records in the future would sound more like an irritating scratch causing “What goes up most come down” to endlessly repeat from the track, “Spinning Wheel.”
He went from never seeing the bench, unless in foul trouble, to virtually never seeing the floor. Warmups came off all of four times in two years, and then only as a “wet mop.” Ask him today, and he may still be unable to “put his finger on it,” but for the first time in his basketball career the joy of the game had somehow left the arena.
Playing the center position of a 2-3 zone most all of his high school career did not serve him well as a power-forward in a system that knew only man-to-man defense. Most of those two years were blurs as he seemed swallowed up with confusion, frustration, anger, feeling trapped and lost, and shocked as his basketball dreams seemed to have come to a rude awakening.
Looking back, some of the handwriting on the wall had been left unread. He made a trip to the campus for a long weekend the summer prior to his freshman year. Hanging out in the gym he met up with a recent graduate who played him one-on-one. Overwhelmed and battered, he would learn later his opponent was way out of his league as a recent 10th pick in the NBA draft and on the roster for the Atlanta Hawks. If that’s not enough, this incoming freshmen took no notice of the two starting forwards one year his senior who would be three years later drafted by the Trail Blazers and Pistons, respectively.
A conference championship and a deep run in the NCAA tournament his second season were not enough to keep him on campus and he scheduled a face-to-face “exit-interview” with the head coach to let him know they would be parting ways. No tears were shed though an immense sigh of relief gave way. From his end, he was simply glad to close the book on the two years of what he thought was nothing but a regrettable tragedy. In fact, with an English class assignment of daily journal entries, this became a lone escape as he scrawled out an endless litany of vitriol surrounding the plight of his hardship on the hardwood.
As good fortune would have it, one of the five schools that had recruited him two years earlier still had interest. This decision would be easy. Even a red-shirt fifth year of college could not dampen his elation.
When the young man finally saw the floor again his last two college seasons, no stunning records would be established. The losses would far outweigh the wins as the school made the leap to the NCAA Division I level. He would have one final trip to his old nemesis as they had been placed awkwardly on the schedule. Somewhat nostalgic though it may have been, then as before he was glad when it was over and he got to leave.
Faded newspaper clippings may be found buried in some closet of his. An all-star picture might be still hanging in a dark high school hallway. It’s possible to find his face on a team photo archived on the internet wastelands from his University of “Misery” days. The only award garnered his final two seasons was to a member of the school’s first Division I team.
All said and done, with a college basketball career routed rather circuitously, he couldn’t really complain: No college debt, a loving wife having been found, a deepened Christian faith to find him, and, as icing on the cake, the joy of the game forever reinvigorated having spent the last quarter-century living and raising kids in the basketball-crazed setting of Ottawa-Glandorf and Putnam County.
Ken Pollitz moved to Ottawa in 1991 as mission-developer/pastor of New Creation Lutheran Church. His biweekly column provides insights and viewpoints from Putnam County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org