Yesterday’s post, about junior high and bullying, has me feeling nostalgic, and I thought maybe I should write about something more positive. So I thought I’d write about basketball.
I grew up in south-central Indiana, which means I played basketball. My Dad was an opera singer, often gone, a gig somewhere, and my Mom was a school teacher, which meant I was a latchkey kid; came home to an empty house. Poor poor pitiful me; I loved it. I didn’t come home to an empty house at all. I came home to a house with a basketball standard in the front driveway.
Every day, basically, we’d play. My brother and I and some neighbor kids–Mike Rogers especially, also Bruce Ramage and Hig Roberts and Andy Hughes and, oh, I can’t name them all, anyway, we’d play. Rob and I would play by ourselves if no one else was around, but usually other kids would join us soon enough. When my Dad came home, he’d play with us too, even though he didn’t really dribble very well, but he did have a one handed set shot he could score with. And Rolf, our younger brother; he’d play, though he was eight years younger than me, and worse, a lefty–harder to guard.
The weather didn’t matter. When it got dark, we’d turn on the porch light and play by that. Indiana winters can get sleety and freezing cold; we’d play. We’d play when it was so cold, the ball would hardly bounce, and the rain and sleet would turn the ball hard as concrete, and our hands were bright red from cold and jet black from the crud on the wet driveway, and still we’d play, every night we’d play.
The goal was half-way up the driveway, on the south side of it, and of course it was a driveway, long and skinny. So most of our shots were from the baseline; the top of the key was basically out of bounds. I was skinny and not very tall at first, and then got a growth spurt when I was thirteen and grew fourteen inches in a year, which meant I was tall, skinny, and incredibly uncoordinated. I wasn’t much of a ball handler, but I could shoot, a little, though I was very streaky. My brother, Rob, was younger than I was, and therefore shorter, but he was an athlete; faster, quicker, more coordinated, a better jumper. Since we played against each other a lot, he had to figure out how to get his shot off against a taller kid. So he developed a fadeaway jump shot that was absolutely deadly. I couldn’t block it no matter how hard I tried. I was a head taller than he was, and he’d back into me, and turn and float this high arching shot up there, and I was helpless. That was his shot when, as a six-three center (often playing against kids eight or nine or ten inches taller than he was), he averaged twenty points a game and made All-State his senior year in high school. He honestly could have played college ball–his game was very similar to Adrian Dantley’s.
The driveway was just big enough that you could comfortably play three on three. Four on four was just barely possible, but traffic under the basket could get pretty rough. I vividly remember one day, I was in high school, when Jeff Chitwood came to play. Jeff was a pick-up game legend, the best teenaged basketball player in the city. He loved Billy Jack. Remember Billy Jack? Tom Laughlin, man; my gosh it was a horrible movie. But much beloved in my high school. Chitwood dressed like Billy Jack, he wore a hat like Billy Jack, and he wore boots like Billy Jack. (He had long hair, though; he would only take hero-worship-mimicry so far). And he’d show up to pick-up games in his Camaro, and he’d carefully take off his hat, and his boots, and he’d pull on these raggedy sneakers. And then he’d torch everyone. He was a fabulous player, quick as a cat and a phenomenal shooter.
He didn’t play on the high school team. The rumor we heard was that he showed up to the first try-out as a sophomore, and the coach said ‘you’re gonna have to cut your hair to play on this team.’ And Chitwood looked at the coach, quickly took ten straight jump shots, hit ’em all, then looked back at the coach, said ‘not interested,’ and walked away. I have no idea if that story was true, but it ought to have been true. Chitwood ended up playing city league–a fifteen year old playing grown men–and dominated.
Anyway, it was an honor if your pick-up game was considered good enough for Chitwood to show up, and he did once, just once, to ours, and I’ll never forget it. It happened to be one of the rare games when my shot was falling, and he turned to me once and said ‘good shot.’ Forty years ago, and I remember every detail. . .
(I’m convinced that the writers of Hoosiers named their star player Jimmy Chitwood because they’d remembered Jeff from a pick-up game. They were in college in Bloomington at the right time, anyway.)
We mostly played two on two, I remember; usually Rob and I on opposite teams. I probably played three thousand basketball games against my brother–I was calculating it this morning, and making the most conservative assumptions, it has to be over three thousand. And I’m sure his teams beat mine more than my teams beat his. Add normal sib-riv tensions, and you’d think we fought all the time. In fact, we really didn’t. Still don’t, even now, when he’s a businessman and I’m a playwright, and maybe we don’t have all that much in common. But we’re still great friends, close friends, and always have been, and I’m absolutely certain that the reason is basketball.
(We do disagree, of course we sometimes disagree. Usually over really really serious crucially important issues, like who the greatest center in the history of basketball was; him clinging obstinately to Wilt Chamberlain, when the obvious answer is clearly Bill Russell. I mean, come on.)
Here’s the thing; I love other sports as a fan. Love baseball, probably more, as a fan, than I love basketball. Love soccer, and still do follow American football. But that’s as a spectator, as a follower. As a sport to play, it’s basketball. Always will be.
And above all, it’s basketball as played in Indiana. We grew up rooting for the Hoosiers, the Indiana University basketball team; went to many games, and watched all of them on TV. Professional basketball was cool too, and we grew up loving the Pacers. That is, the ABA Pacers, from the American Basketball Association, the upstart league that barely clung to survival from 1967-1976. They played with a red, white and blue ball, and had three point shots (which were later adapted by the NBA and colleges and high schools–every level of basketball uses the three-pointer, but it started in the ABA).
I didn’t know that the NBA, the older, more established league, looked at the ABA with disdain, considered it a minor league, thought the level of play was sub-par. I liked basketball, and the Pacers were our local team. And they were good, won the ABA championship in 1970, ’72 and ’73, and finished second in ’69 and ’75. I can still remember the lineup (and I’m doing this from memory): Mel Daniels, Bob Netolicky, Roger Brown, Freddie Lewis, Billy Keller. Keller was short and balding and chunky, but he hustled like crazy and was a terrific shooter. The Pacers signed him because he was college roommates with Rick Mount, who was a superstar at Purdue, and the Pacers thought maybe Mount might be willing to consider playing for them if he could play with his best college friend. And it worked, but Mount turned out to be a bust, a mediocre pro player, and Keller, through sheer hard work and determination was much better, as a pro. And Darnell Hillman, who I loved, because he could jump out of the building and had the baddest ‘fro I’d ever seen on a human being.
My gosh, the memories. All those games, on TV, at Assembly Hall in Bloomington (IU) and at the Indiana State Fairgrounds (Pacers), and later at Market Square Arena (Pacers again). But the real memories are of our driveway. The uneven bounces, the freezing weather, the frozen ball. Every day, every single day, Rob and I and neighbor kids shooting hoops, scoring and rebounding and dribbling and passing. The best of times, and the best of times.