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.

4 thoughts on “Basketball

  1. Rob Samuelsen

    It’s always hard to determine who is the best at anything especially with different rules and generations. Bill Russell was Wilt’s nemesis for sure. However, Wilt averaged 50 points a game for two consecutive seasons and that was before the 3 point shot. No one has even come close to that! Not Kobe, Michael, Larry, Magic, or Oscar. He dominated his era and if you watch those early films, he was a gazelle, a unique athlete, and a terrific basketball player.

    As for Eric’s recollections, playing basketball in our driveway is what we did. It didn’t matter if it was raining or snowing or icy or hot. We played basketball a lot!

    Eric had a flat, streaky shot, had nothing off the dibble, and couldn’t play with his back to the basket. However, he was older and taller and when his shot was on, it was relentlessly on! I used to hate it when he’d hit it over and over despite my best efforts to stop it.

    Over time, I learned to play against him and bigger guys. In high school. I was the undersized center who had learned to dominate guys that were much taller. In fact, as a senior, I was shorter than my opponent in every high school game I played in. (I find it funny that here in Arizona, a 6’4″ center would usually be the tallest kid on the team.) Corn must grow them bigger in Indiana.

    A few years ago, I asked my Dad about this. He’d come home from work and we’d ask him to play ball with us. He told me that he was often tired, not interested in playing basketball, and usually pressed for time. However, my un-athletic, non-basketball playing father would play with us because he knew that would help bond with us. It was all about the father-son relationship. He would put aside his own priorities to fulfill a greater priority – that of fatherhood!


  2. Mike

    Memories, indeed, Rob.

    I certainly remember coming home from your house with my hands grimy black and my feet getting blisters, and then playing some more at the goal we had next to our house in Arden Place. Not being nearly tall enough in those days (I was about 5’2″ and something like 115 lb. when I started HS), I couldn’t take it into the tall timber of you and Eric, so I had to learn the J, or a little runner I could use before I got too deep in the paint. Served me well through the years.

    Have to go along with you on Chamberlain vs. Russell…he did things no other player, let alone no other center, ever approached, and I think he was underrated as a defensive player. Russell was the best defensive center ever, but not by leaps and bounds…Wilt was right there with him. But even though he wasn’t at the top of the list, I’ve got to put in a plug for Walt Bellamy. He was one Wilt always said gave him the most trouble. You put Walt on the old ABA Pacers and you’ve got an NBA contender.

    BTW, Eric…there’s a player with the ABA Pacers you forgot to mention…one George McGinnis. Give him Jordan’s work ethic and take away his pack of Marlboros and you’ve got one of the all-time greats.

    Remember my Dad coming out and shooting around with me too, and Dad was ten times the player I ever was. He was captain of the 1945 University HS sectional champs, a teeny school that hardly ever beat BHS. Grandpa was the captain of the 1919 Bloomington High School State Champs. I had basketball in my blood, but unfortunately, very little athletic ability. Was too slow for my height or too small for my speed, and my knees started disintegrating when I was 15. Frustrating thing for a kid to have a legacy to live up to with none of the tools to do it. But those driveway games…to this day mean as much to me as any other aspect of my youth.

    It’s Indiana…it’s Indiana.

  3. I.T.S

    Nice post.It didn’t matter if it was raining or snowing or icy or hot. We played basketball a lot!.Thank you for taking the time to publish this information very useful.For more information@


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