Saturday, April 02, 2011

The Game

This time of year takes me back 40 years when I had the cruelest of jokes played on me, the most ironically devastating thing that ever happened to me in sports or just about anything was foisted upon this fifteen year old's psyche.

It happened the night before Foreman beat Ali. The very night before. March 7, 1971.

Two shots, that's all. Made neither. FAIL.

I withdrew into a funk that took me months (and moving away) to cure. Just one would have tied it. Neither one went in. Didn't picking up a basketball with any regularity for 20 years. And to this day, haunts me like a ghost who is never there. I still lay awake at night thinking about it. Clank, clank, miss.  Clank, bounce, bounce, miss. One to the right, one in the front. 83% from the line. Automatic.

I remember it was cold and the bus ride back was a manual on how literally fight a war in one's own mind. It was 5 horrible, long, lonely, bitter hours and to this day the longest ride I have ever been on, even if I've driven all day. I don't think anyone said anything to each other, I certainly know that no one said anything to me. I am not sure what I would have said back to them. Automatic.

When the foul was called, the shot had a chance to go in. The play was for John to set a back screen with my back to the out of bounds passer. As I moved around that screen, I sneaked around, face up to John, take the pass, use the previous screen to  make room and set my shot. I had set my feet, squared up and launched one from what now is referred to as "the elbow", about 3 feet to the left of the free throw line, which was also my favorite place to shoot. I jumped straight up and had a nice rotation on the ball, it felt good as it left my hand.

Just an instant before I flicked my wrist, the guy guarding me (his name was Godsey and he was a smart mouth little prick, always chatting and talking trash, I hated those clowns) just ever so slightly nicked me on the hands. Whistle blows and I'm looking to see if it was as good as it felt. Good rotation, nice arc, but he hit me just enough to cause the ball to be just short of the rim. Clank on the front of the rim, it rolls around and off the other side. Automatic.

If anyone was to be shooting at the end of a game, it should be me. If anyone was fouled at the end of the game, then it should be me. It wasn't just any game though, it was a chance for my high school basketball team to go from 6-19 the year before to the final four tournament in Columbia. We were 24-6, with most of those six losses coming early in the year, we were ranked 8th in the state and we had won 16 in a row. It was the first year that freshmen were allowed to play on the varsity and our team featured two of them, me and my buddy Steve, two sophomores and a senior. I was leading the conference in scoring at 25.3. It was a grueling but awesome year that had come down to this.

My team is down by one with 1.8 seconds left and automatic on the line. Each practice, I made it a point to shoot 100 free throws and keep track of how well I did every day. I would constantly get in a groove and nail 29 or 30 in a row, I usually finished a session shooting 80 -90 percent and that carried over into the season, where some nights I'd get more than half my points from the line. The most I ever scored that season was 37. If there had been a three point line back then, I would have had Pete Maravich numbers. The night I scored 37, anything I threw up there went in. Between my legs, behind my head, hook shots, jump shots, but I do remember missing a lay up that night. Funny.

Time out called, and the other coach wants to "ice" me. That's fine, bring it on. I was a freshman. I had just turned 15 last month, but basketball was all I ever knew, that and music. I had a radio where ever we went. I was the music guy. Just like my older brother, I had a radio with me constantly. We could get WLS on the bus most nights unless it was really stormy. The music and the friendly voice got us through those long bus rides home.

Buzzer sounds and as I'm walking to the free throw line I try to go through the free throw motions. I remember saying to myself..."no big thing, you'd done this a thousand times before...bend your knees...exhale".  The basketball goal in the back yard came into view, it was dark and I'm out there still shooting. Heck, in the summertime, I can still be shooting at 9:30. I'd quit only because I couldn't see the basket anymore.

Off to the left...clank clank miss. All the air just went out of my body. Pressure's on now. As I stand at the line awaiting the ball back from the referee, I can hear the people now and I can see the look on my team mates faces. What was once joy has turned into a silent concern. I look at the coach. His eyes meet mine and he clenches his fist. "Just one to tie" he said. The referee hands me the ball, holds up one finger, "one shot" he says. I look up at the rim and the old basketball rim in the backyard is gone. Wait, why do I hear the people now? Stop it. The old rim has been replaced with the new rim, the same rim I thought was tight and small tonight. I only had 17 points and maybe I was the reason we were struggling with a team we knew we should be destroying. The ritual repeats..."bend your've been doing this since you six, just one more...clear your mind.." As the motion begins, I like the way the ball feels in my hand..I release it and it feels good. Release..check...rotation...check...arc...check...splash...oh no. It's too short, I have to go follow my shot.

Clank, bounce once off the rim, and then twice then off of the front of the rim. That second bounce was the bounce that threw my timing off and caused me, as I was jumping to get the rebound, to knock the ball off of a team mates hands out of bounds. What just happened? That was my first thought. Our ball? No. It was over. Automatic.

It was a death march to shake hands with the opposing players, especially effing Godsey. I felt nothing. I heard nothing. I wished for a time machine that could take me back and replay the last 30 minutes. I couldn't look anyone in the eye. I had failed them. I had failed myself. I had failed the coach, who I adored. I was barely 15.

The shower was cold, so was the mood of the team. As we got on the bus for the dreaded five hour drive that awaited us, I felt bad for my mom who had to get up in the middle of the chilly night, drive into town, wait for the bus and then have to pick up my pieces. I wasn't about to cry in front of the team but this was a major malfunction of nuclear proportions. Automatic.

Not anymore and not "innocent" anymore. Go ahead, tell me that "the team wouldn't be there without me" one more time. I dare you. The radio ran out of batteries on the way home, so the last two hours were in silence. As it should be. From hero to goat in 1.8 seconds. It was two am when the bus pulled up to the gas station (the price of a gallon of gas was 37.9 cents) and there was my mom, sitting in the warm truck and I know I needed that right then more than anything. I didn't even get the door open before it hit me like a wall of bricks. I couldn't talk or breathe. I kept banging my head against the window. She almost admitted me to the hospital (which was 60 miles away). When we arrived at home, I went upstairs, closed the door and cried myself to sleep.

I wanted to call in sick the next day at school (it was a Friday), but mom drove me the six miles into town. I couldn't look anyone in the eye. In the halls, at lunch, in the classroom, anywhere. Kids can be brutal and the next few weeks were. While the team and some friends stood behind me, it was the fringe element, the people I didn't know well that would give me the choke sign. I had a classmate spit at my feet once, just wanting me to do something. His buds were pretty close, so I didn't say much. It was a pretty depressing time and it would have been more difficult if not for the music.

The music saved me. It provided solace, comfort and made my realize that I wasn't the only one who's heart had been broken. There were songs full of heartbreak.

My parents told me not long after they we were moving at the end of the school year. I don't know if it had anything to do with what I was going through but I do know it was the first step in my long journey out. In two months, I was gone and the mind tried to erase the whole situation. I do know I didn't really pick up a basketball until 20 years later when I got involved with playing for fun and health at the Kirkwood YMCA. Twenty years will cause you to lose most all of your talents. I like it better this way. I suck. I know it. There's not many expectations..

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