I have a few thousand frequent flyer miles these days, and I have traveled around the world a bit. Forty-seven of the United States have the PingWi-Fi footprint, somewhere, perhaps on a Wi-Fi hotspot near you.
But you know my favorite place in the world?
It is the 84 feet that stretch end to end on a high school basketball court. This came to mind yesterday, when my oldest son reminded me of when I coached him in middle school. He pointed out that against the odds, we almost won our league, and that we did defeat one of the Fort Worth area’s bigger schools — even though they started five ninth graders, and our team took the floor with three ninth graders, and two sixth-grade starters. (My son was one of peanuts who started for me … certainly a David vs. Goliath moment … I digress) …
Actually basketball — admittedly my first love — has been weighing on my mind for weeks. You see, this Dirty Gig (disaster recovery) that takes me all over the globe took me to the hottest town in basketball a few weeks ago. I was in Louisville, Kent., the night The University of Kentucky barely — and I mean perhaps shouldn’t have — beat underdog Louisville to advance to the NCAA Championship. (Of course the game was not in Louisville, but the majority of the in-state rivalry was played out there among thousands of fans on the streets.) Ha … On game day, I thought we were going to have to separate the laborers in the work place, as they sported blue shirts for The Wildcats and red shirts for the Cards. But, they played nice …
Like so many, I didn’t see the game live in New Orleans, but watched every second on TV. You might agree, that game was the “real championship” of the Final Four. (My compliments to Candlewood Suites in Clarksville, Ind., for an excellent flatscreen and Wi-Fi too. Yes Clarksville, just like the song … I digress …)
However, during the Dirty Gig, I did get a closer look at another basketball court. My disaster colleagues and I were working at a school that was sucker punched by a couple of tornadoes.
You may have seen a photo from the event. All over the Internet, there is a shot of a school bus that was blown across a road and almost surgically implanted into the front door of a nearby cafe. Pretty weird. Well … I was working across the street from that cafe, if that narrows it down. Miraculously, no school children were injured. I am told that administrators made a wise call and sent the kids home early, before the twisters struck.
Anywho, after the dust settled so to speak, I went inside the school and took the opportunity to walk the basketball court, goal to goal. Not a big deal to many … but for me it was like time travel. Ha! There was a time when I could not only talk basketball, I could walk the talk. Those golden years are gone … except in my filthy rich imagination.
As I traveled those 84 feet, inside what was left of the gym just across the border in Indiana, I could still hear the chanting from so many years ago in Texas. “HCHS! Who you rooting for? HCHS! Who you rooting for?,” came to mind. No, that wasn’t my school. That was the memory of a rowdy group of fans from Hale Center High School, back in Texas, back in the day, before Vega vanquished their dreams one night in the playoffs.
I could smell gym. No, it is much more multi-faceted than just sweat. It is the smell of uniforms, leather shoes, athletic tape, popcorn, muscle balm, bubble gum, Cokes, dust mops and janitorial sprays for the floor …
As I looked around, I even stepped over to those unusual little rectangles drawn off on the floor, near the paint of the 3-second lane, under the goal – the markers that determine where the opposing team can line up under the basket during a free shot. I lined up and crouched just as I would waiting for a free shot. Ha … I even imagined a free shot going up, and I walked through the motions — heading into the paint, sticking my butt out to block any opposing players who dreamed of getting a rebound over or around me.
Ah the memories!
Beyond basketball, I have been totally nostalgic this week due to the loss of a childhood friend. One of my old basketball teammates, Randy, contacted me with the unwelcome news.
Yes … Then I walked back to the other end of the court, and lingered at the foul line, as if to shoot a bonus shot, after getting fouled on a long, successful two-point jumper. (It was my fantasy, so yes the shot went in despite getting hacked on the wrist during the jumper.)
I stood there at the foul line, and then flashed forward a few years, past the glory days of VHS, to my college years. No, I wasn’t good enough to play college ball, so this memory was from an intramural game. I played for a frat. We were playing a service fraternity. I swear they must have had 200 fans there — for an intramural game! OH … and they were messing with us, perhaps in desperation because we were winning. Each time one of our players was fouled and approached the foul line, in unison, their fans would count out loud — shout — the number of the bounces as we dribbled to prepare for the free shot. A mind game. “ONE … TWO … THREE …. Waaaaahhhhhhh!”
In the intramural game, I saw the other fans do this numerous times before I was fouled and got to take a free shot. So, I had a plan … I walked up to the free shot line and the referee handed over the ball. I stared at the hoop. I took several deep, exaggerated, long breaths. I looked at the ball in my hands … and then I acted as if I was just about to bounce the ball at the free shot line. But, at the last second, I held on to the ball and faked the bounce to the ground. Like clockwork, the opposing fans all screamed, “ONE!” … HA! “Not one!,” I muttered. I got them … I got them all … Never bounced it; shot; made it; and made many people embarrassed all at once … I digress.
I loves me some roundball. Those who know me well know that I always have a good day, any time that I have basketball dreams the night before, as I sleep …
Back to the near present, after pausing at the free-throw line of this wind-ravished gym, I walked over to the corner of the court, past the three-point circle, near the out-of-bounds line. I went through the motions of shooting from the place that was “my spot” back in the day … when I was in the zone. Ha … I am so old, “my spot” was before Texas had a three-point arc in basketball at the high school level. I used to “camp out” there in the corner, in games, and when the other team had “fallen asleep” my buddies would whip it over there and I would be wide open. Man I loved that!
I would have tried the old corner shot, for old time’s sake, but the basketballs from this gym were long gone … probably in Kansas with Toto and Dorothy and the like …
Back to the corner … there was a time when it was almost “automatic.” In fact, at practice, I used to make a little joke. I would walk over to the corner and put my feet in the tight corner, right up against both of the out-of-bounds lines that form the corner. My line: “Yes, you have to use all of the court.” It was just a silly little stunt. I guess it was sort of a trick shot, because from there, one had to shoot over the top corner of the backboard, with a very high arc on the shot … “a rainbow.” I never shot that shot over the backboard in a game, but I could make it with a pretty high success rate. So, my buddy on the team, Mike, used to win small bottled Coca Colas via our dressing room Coke machine, from our coach, when he would bet on me making that shot. Oh the memories …
In case you saw and were wondering, in a recent entry on Facebook, I posted a photo of a tapeball and an icon of a tiny coke bottle, calling it “a tribute to a mentor.” The coke bottle was a reference to the friendly wagers … the tape ball was a wonderfully unique habit the coach had … rolling up pieces of white athletic tape, to the size of a macaroni noodle, then packing them together to make a ball. He did that at every game I ever saw him coach. As kids, we used to fight to be the first to the bench after a game, hoping to become the lucky owner of the cherished tape ball …
That coach taught me a lot, in addition to the method of making tapeballs. Like the school that was dismantled recently by the tornado in Kentucky, my tiny school so long ago was a K-12, all-in-one school. So, everyone knew everyone, and I had the same coach for most of my high school career … the same man who taught me the fundamentals of basketball in P.E. classes dating back to third grade.
Ha … when my buddies and I were in fifth and sixth grade, our P.E. instructor, the High School head basketball coach, would allow us to provide comic relief during the half times of the high school games. We were given junior high basketball jerseys to wear over our white gym shorts. The jerseys fit us more like mid-length dresses. It was hilarious, I am sure. At half time, we would go at it on the court for about 3 minutes, with all kinds of fouling, traveling, high-fiving, throwing up air balls … and a few scores as well.
After one of these 4-2 heated battles, one of my other buddies said the middle school coach (another coach) was watching us play, probably seeing what sort of talent was coming up through the school for him next year. We all asked the friend, “What did he say? What did he say?,” wondering if the middle school coach had noticed us. Ha! The friend reported the middle school coach said, “That Pingel kid needs a haircut.” Nothing more. I am not making this up.
But the high school coach, the one who turned us loose on the court for a hilarious side show … I think he saw something else in me. Once at a basketball tournament, when my older brother was on his team and I was still in grade school, he stopped me and commented to my parents, “There’s my fifth-grade gunner.”
He never knew that made me feel about 10-feet tall that day. I guess he saw something in me. Years later, he pulled me off the bench as a sophomore in high school and threw me into a few games early in the season. It was a risk. But, he took a chance on me, and soon I was a starter. And quite truthfully, for most of the season I was just “a fifth starter,” barely contributing any points … maybe a rebound here or there … perhaps a steal or an assist. Probably defense alone justified my being on the court, if anything … other than it took five to play. But the coach saw something, and he kept me in … Until one day, we had won district as the “Cinderalla team” of the year … and we went on to the Bi-District game. Not only did we win, but to the surprise of everyone — my coach and me especially — I scored in double figures. Ha! Didn’t see that coming. The opposing coach said I had not even shown up — AT ALL — in the scouting report of our team. But, somehow, thanks to the Basketball Powers that be … it happened.
Later that year, when our season ended at the regional tournament in Lubbock, on campus at Texas Tech, later to be my alma mater, we crashed and burned in the first round of the tournament. We were drubbed … As we said at the time, “They beat us like a drum.”
I have two vivid, vivid memories of that game. The first: we were a very young team, best illustrated for me when an older, much more mature opposing player’s rough, sand-papery and strong chin scraped across my boy-like skin on one play. The friction alone hurt … You know … enough that I noticed … and certainly it was a little intimidating in a man-vs.-boy way.
And the second memory … one of the most embarrassing moments in my life. On one of the few plays in that regional game where I thought I might possibly have a prayer for a score, I timidly went up for what looked like it might be a successful layup. Ha! One of the more mature, stronger, meaner and five-o’clock-shadowed opponents, slapped the ball away on my very last dribble, just as I jumped up to shoot what should have been a layup. Picture it … I couldn’t stop, I was already “in the act” as they say in basketball. However, I was sans basketball. What could I do? What could I do as I was flying through the air toward the goal without the ball? … Flying without the ball in front of more people then I had ever seen at a basketball game in my entire life to that point?
Ha … I acted like I was shooting a layup, without the ball, hoping some ignorant b-tard on the court would be fooled and maybe one of my teammates would get the ball back due to the distracting fake. It seemed like I hung in the air for about 20 seconds … totally humiliated, and then I slapped the backboard in disgrace before landing. No one was fooled. I am pretty sure my favorite coach mentioned that little play somewhere in a sideline chewing … but time and the human psyche being kind at times, I cannot remember the specifics.
I just remember the good. After the tournament, the coach walked me to the bus and he used one of his favorite words to describe the game. “Awful!” But he said, “You know, if you hadn’t played the way you did last week, we would never have been in the regional tournament.” A true mentor, he went on to say, “Larry, our floor general is graduating after this season, and he is just 5-8, but those are some big, big shoes to fill. I expect you to do more next year.”
The next year, I shared the lead in scoring for our team … Years later, I taught Coach G’s fundamentals … his best 2-3 zone defense … the overload shot in the corner … and some of his catch phrases to my young charges. Like that Cinderalla team so long ago, my little guys became “giant-killers” too when I coached.
So anyway … I walked around the tornado court for about 15 minutes. Other workers had been in there, and I am pretty sure they just saw a ravaged building, with a hole in one cinderblock wall … and nails sticking up where some of the pine hardwoods had been ripped up … or puddles of water standing under the goals in the paint. But me … I saw immortality.
Know what I sayin?