I had lunch today with an old friend. As our conversation jumped from topic to topic, we spoke of his eleven year old son and his burgeoning basketball career. My friend and I are a few years apart, but we discovered that we both played high school basketball. And were basketball fans in the same era.
We spoke of the subtleties of the game, some of our favourite teams and players, missed and made last shots, both on television and in our respective high school gyms. We spoke of three or four starters on a half a dozen teams from nearly forty years ago. Remembering their styles and successes and failures.
Like most Canadian boys, hockey was my sporting universe. But by the time I reached high school, I’d grown tired of 6 am practices in cold arenas, the need for parents to get up before the sunrise, the cost of new skates every year, and the anonymity of Bantam hockey. Basketball was the natural next step of my athletic life.
It was at and after school, it was free, it was social, and your only concern was to have the right shoes and work on your left hand.
If I remember one of those old Canadian Vignettes correctly, Dr. James Naismith, the founder of basketball, hung peach baskets from the wall for the hoops. That’s where the name comes from. He cut a hole in the bottom of the two baskets, about two inches wide, so he could poke the ball out with a broom stick. And because the baskets still carried some value, he left the rest of the bottom in tact.
Unlike most other team sports, players stand nearly naked. Their faces exposed for all to see. Their personalities on full display. The cool-as-a-cucumber outside shooters, the grimacing defensive players taking a charge, the intimidating defensive whizzes swatting away the ball repeatedly, the fearless grinders entering the fray, fear be damned.
The nineteen year old Michael Jordan winning a championship with a jump-shot from the left side, the loathsome and unexplainable brilliance of Larry Bird, the infectious and spirited play of Magic Johnson, the creativity and athleticism of the imperfect Doctor J.
The larger-than-life personalities of college coaches, who gained and lost new players every year, yet every team, over decades, would play the same disciplined or free-lance style, regardless of the roster components. The fierceness of the Big East, the athleticism of Georgetown, the run-and-gun of UNLV, the discipline of North Carolina. Those games were forty minute theatrical productions, directed by two directors, each with a different style and vision.
As a school player, I’d never been in better shape in my life. There are no blades to coast on like in hockey, the play doesn’t stop every ten seconds like in football, and there’s no breather for the stars every inning like in baseball. No, you just keep playing until the whistle blows and that can be minutes at a time.
When we bench-warmers entered the game late in the action, we were easily identifiable. Not because we looked nervous and didn’t know where to stand or set-up. Not because we didn’t know the offensive plays or the defensive positioning. No, it was because of what we used to call our bench-warming scars. Silver dollar sized red spots on our thighs, just above our knees, where our elbows had rested for the first three and a half quarters of the game.
I don’t play basketball anymore. Not for decades. I don’t watch it anymore either, and I am not sure why. But I still love it.
I learned life lessons in a few years in those gyms. On defense, keep your feet moving, palms up, or hands high, communicate with your teammates, be ready to take the charge.
On offense, if you get the open look, take it. If you drive to the hoop, be ready to be knocked to the floor, knowing you can score the two points at the line anyway. And above all else, be ready to pass the ball to the teammate who has the better path to the hoop. Your team still gets the points and your scoring teammate will point to you to acknowledge your contribution, and your coach and teammates will already understand your contribution.
Basketball is a great game. It can continue to teach us even when we don’t play it anymore. And whether we swish it or clunk it, there’s value in knowing we took our best shot.