They were the days, long gone, where the basketball backboard was more round than rectangular. This was a time when rims were set to one height only, that of 10 feet. Players had no real incentive to dunk a ball, as it was against the rules anyway.
If you wanted to garner three points at a time, it wasn’t about stepping back behind some painted line but stepping into, shoulder first, an opponent in the paint. The only way to count to three was “and one!” “Taking a charge” was for going to the department store and not something on the defensive end of a basketball court.
Shorts were a bit like a military haircut: High and tight. Socks were high, too. Stylishly reaching over-the-calf, their bulk would have enabled them to function as winter leg-warmers, were they needed. Encircled by woven bands in the team’s colors, the knee-high leggings were more befitting a clown outfit nowadays.
Arm or leg sleeves were unheard of unless identified as a knee pad or protective Ace bandage. Most everybody was on the “all-star” team given the canvas “Chuck Taylor’s” adorning their feet. This was eons before the sporty footwear resurfaced as today’s teen fashion statement.
And so the early scouting report declared unimpressively, “You can’t coach height.” Meanwhile, the youngster stood under the basket awkwardly launching shot-after-missed-shot while padding his offensive rebound stats. Sideline chatter among those watching this Saturday morning contest of clumsy sixth-graders would have surveyed, “the big kid in the paint can’t hit the broad side of a barn!”
His potential was soon enhanced thanks to a knowledgeable, competitive and fundamentally-sound seventh-grade PE teacher who also served as the boys basketball coach.
By way of the coach’s initiative, the gangly pupil was soon engaged in a daily one-on-one shooting clinic. While under a most watchful eye and detailed tutelage, directives and correctives were given, helping to form a burgeoning mastery of the fine art of shooting a basketball.
The kid’s learning curve was steep, but the instructor’s patience and persistence ran deeper. Endless repetition was the name of the game in pursuit of crucial muscle-memory. Shoulders square. Knees bent. Pads of the fingers. Off-hand relaxed. Elbow in. Focus on the net hook. Follow through. Full extension. Ball-rotation and arc. Up and over the front edge of the rim.
Such valuable instruction served as a springboard for the continuance of this budding career. With shooting skills well in hand, no pun intended, his potential drew the eye of the junior varsity coach, but this lanky plebe feared such a monumental leap and opted instead for the freshman “A” team. Aspirations for the varsity squad quickly appear come his sophomore year. The following year, it took only one game before he cracked the starting lineup on varsity.
On the home front, skills were enhanced with the family’s first backboard and rim installed atop the roof, above the garage. The thunderous reverberations following all the misses brought its swift relocation to a pole alongside the asphalt driveway. Irreparable damage to the front lawn finally prompted a major upgrade in the backyard. His father demanded some sweat-equity with a shovel and wheelbarrow. In due time, a 600-square-foot concrete basketball court was permanently installed. It would serve him well.
All of his three varsity seasons saw more wins than losses and abbreviated tournament runs. These would be played before an almost uninterested smattering of fans from this expansive suburb. By the close of his youthful senior year, he’d accumulated a fair share of personal accolades and a handful of broken records. His point totals for a game, a season and a career surpassed some decades-old achievements by others and would remain so for a number of years to come. Closer examination would reveal distinctions in points, rebounds, and, yes, fouls committed in a career.
In three years he’d have only one game on the radio, and the thought of televised games was unimaginable. Still, all this brought some attention from those at the next level, even though the kid barely knew what AAU meant and never played a minute of it.
A high school coach played a major role in the kid’s future. Letters of inquiry began to stream into the coach’s office and would, in turn, be passed on to the hopeful collegiate baller. The envelopes’ content typically included a cover letter, brochure, questionnaire, and if lucky, a return envelope.
The future appeared promising, with five prominent programs knocking at his door. Their locations would range from here in the Midwest to way out west. Any clear vision was clouded by an internalized amalgamation of arrogance, insecurity and excessive self-reliance. He would fail to seek the wisdom and counsel of either parents, peers or coach. Unable to see beyond the end of his nose, his decision would be guided more by grandiose ego than any honest self-assessment.
The song “Spinning Wheel” could still be heard on the radio then, and he had already made some acquaintance with “Blood, Sweat and Tears.” With more immediacy than he could have imagined, the opening line lyrics, “What goes up must come down,” would soon ring true.
The hardwood would not be limited to the floor.
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