A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away vertically challenged, slow moving kids from the suburbs were actually able to compete in basketball at the collegiate level. And so it happened that my father was able to play Division I freshman basketball for the Golden Bears at the University of California.
He is quick to admonish anyone who presumes his alma mater has any relationship to his political orientation. He went to school on an ROTC scholarship – which was the equivalent at Cal of being a carnivore at a vegan retreat. He firmly asserts that he is but one of five conservatives to ever actually graduate from that collectivist pocket of neo-liberalism that agitates restlessly within the nuclear free city limits of Berkeley, California.
My dad does not attempt to gild the lily of his on-court experiences. Unlike a graying collegiate whose hyperbole ages to a point of becoming fallacious fact, he would talk openly about rising to the level of his incompetence his freshman year at Cal. I can recall walking into his study and seeing a black and white photograph of a young man with tight dolphin shorts and a body shirt jersey numbered 14 crouched in a defensive position. Later in life, I would run into his high school and college fraternity brothers who would refer to him as “Hoops”. They would fondly share stories about his competitiveness. “ Your old man played with such intensity that it felt like there was more than one of him on the court. “
One of his old teammates reflected nostalgically on my Dad’s feverish energy level on the Cal freshman team. “The coach kept him on the team because he was so damn aggressive. He might foul out playing a guy tight but he could provoke the other team into making mistakes and inspire guys to push harder. He was one of those players who made as many contributions away from the ball as he did when he was handling it. He made other people better.
When asked about his hoop playing days, my father was always appropriately self-deprecating. He would joke and pointed to his opportunity to start as the end of an epoch when slow guys who could shoot with either hand had a chance to make a college team. Dunking was still something only policemen did with donuts.
My father was drilled relentlessly in the fundamentals of passing and dribbling. He was a thinking man’s point guard. He was ambidextrous, feisty and possessed that innate invisible eye in the back of his head that allowed him to sense a pick, double team or someone cutting through the lane open for a pass. He was a team player always telling us that a “good assist is better than a good basket”. His coach was an irascible Southerner whose thick Mississippian drawl rendered him virtually unintelligible to his players with the exception of an intense chant that he would make as he watched his players, ” hum-baby, hum-baby, hum-Turpin”!
His hero was number 14, Bob Cousy of the Boston Celtics who at 6’ 1” and 175 lbs was a 13-time all-star, and remains the all-time leader in assists for the Celtics with 6,945. The Houdini of the Hardwood drove the Green and White to six of their NBA ten championships. To my father, Cousy was the epitome of the unselfish player and reinforced the notion that a team wins or loses championships – not individual players. Cousy exemplified the notion that sports did not build character, but revealed it.
My father also idolized John Wooden, the wizard of Westwood, who coached UCLA to 10 national championships and 4 undefeated 30-0 seasons. Wooden’s “ Pyramid of Success” was preparing his players not just for games but also for life. Dad would repeat Wooden, as we would discuss sports. “Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.” “Never mistake activity for achievement.” “Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.
Growing up, we would gather under a rotting wooden backboard unevenly mounted on a trellised ivy fence and shoot baskets for hours. Ever the advocate of Wooden, my father colorfully referred to practice as “relentless repetition leading to rehearsed exhibitions of excellence” He installed a light so we could spend our warm Southern California nights working on free throws, lay ups and jump shots.
While family genetics denied us height and speed, he was determined that we would have heart. We were reassured that it was literally possible to out work any one if you wanted it bad enough. Basketball was my first glimpse into my father as a person. I saw his passion and his child-like love of the game. The hardworking taskmaster would transform before our eyes when he touched that 29” ball. This orange orb would spin on his finger and then loop between his legs revealing to us the child that grew up hustling on the West side of Chicago.
My father explained that basketball was a physical game about using your God –given assets. As my quicker, more nimble brothers would head fake me and dribble past me like a road sign, I would simmer with competitive anger. As he studied my abilities and weaknesses, he taught me to camp in the lanes and block shots. He told me to use my body and to make guys “pay for coming into my neighborhood”
I was a big, solid kid with cement pipe legs and a turtle shell stomach. My asset, in this case, was my rear end which I would deploy to box people out of rebounds, and hip check a driving guard into thinking twice about coming my way again.
“Don’t let him come into your area like that! If he dribbles past you and no one picks him up, foul him. Make him shoot a free throw. Always remember, you have five fouls to give.”
As with all youth sports, high school changes everything. I was determined to try out for the basketball team but knew that my passion for the game would not show up on any depth chart. I was slow, had the vertical leap of a houseplant and was confused by the fast break offense that was a staple of our coach’s playbook.
I worked my tail off that fall – running, diving, practicing and participating in tournaments as the coach slowly whittled the thirty some odd candidates down to a dozen players. On the last day, there were fifteen of us and we knew three would not make it. We held a scrimmage that day and I held my own, sinking a jump shot to help cushion our squad’s win. I made sure that I did not finish last in the sprints and suicide line drills even though this left me to the point of puking.
I will always remember that call the next day as the coach called me to his office to tell me I had been cut. In an era before cell phones and real time updates, I stayed after school at the local pizza parlor – waiting to go home to coincide with the end of practice. I ate a large pizza. I did not want to tell my father I had been cut from the basketball team.
I recall walking into the house and seeing him reading his paper – wearing the same apron that my mother made him wear to prevent him from staining his shirt and tie. He lowered his paper and smiled. “ So buddy, how was practice? Did they announce the team? “ I vaguely flirted with lying to him but the thought of spending the next several weeks hiding out at Tony’s Pizza waiting for practice to end would turn me into an overweight, pimple ridden loser. I had let him down. I could not outwork the guys who made the team. I had failed him and myself.
I burst into angry tears and swore – sharing the news that I had been cut. He put the paper down and sighed. I saw again in his face that same youthful enthusiasm I would see on that driveway basketball court each weekend. He smiled. “Pal, John Wooden used to say, ‘if you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything.’
I am proud of you. And I know you gave it everything you had. Failure isn’t fatal, it’s the thing that ultimate makes you better.” He returned to his paper.
He looked up at me. “ And besides – – that coach is an asshole! He obviously doesn’t know talent when he sees it!”
In the kitchen I heard my mom drop a dish and I could tell she had been listening – preparing to rush in upon my exit to tell her husband what a wonderful father he was. I laughed and hugged my dad. He winked at me and I went off to bed. As I climbed the stairs I could hear him fighting off my mother’s stern reproaches. “ Oh Ruth, I was just trying to….”