I have been well aware of basketball, its art, and its less than subtle nuances since I was a wee child, growing up in the heartland of North Carolina. In fact, I likely went right from drooling to dribbling, as is the expected course for any red-blooded Tar Heel. By the time I was in fifth grade, the indoctrination was complete:
The various strategies, penalties, and rules of the game were second-nature. March no longer foremost meant refreshing and kite-worthy gusts, but suggested that the pungent air of tournament sweat was indeed looming. And those maverick UCLA Bruins had created a remarkable national frenzy of wide-eyed fifth graders who just wanted to see if Wooden’s wonders could do it “just one more time!”
My awareness of basketball was aptly timed by those umpires of divine providence. I went to a Catholic grade school in which there were only five boys in my grade. There were too few for either a football or baseball team and soccer was was still a recreational sport in the United States. By default, I landed myself on the school’s fourth tier basketball team, along with Ricky, Justin, Timmy, and Sidney. Mind you, each grade from fifth through eighth had a team and ours was no different, except that we had two dozen cheerleaders.
Our record that year was of no consequence. What did matter was our lack of any prowess in any tactical basketball skills. We were a solid handful of prepubescent awkwardness, social terrors, and an overwhelmingly irrational but seemingly justifiable fear of nuns. Sister Mary Ethel was our extremely focused and overly-competitive coach. I, of course, being reserved and a new transfer to the school, aimed to not just fit in, but blend in … as if to melt into the bleachers. Yet, being the tallest boy in my grade made me specifically the player that spectators watched. Fortunately, the stands were usually empty … since the boys all played and the girls, cheered. The other grades at least offered choice positions, those of alternates.
We went 1 and 9 that season. God threw us a bone one wintry Saturday afternoon. I’d like to say that we rallied and played our ten year old hearts out. The truth was, however, that our big advantage was that we had a larger squad of flouncy and pig-tailed cheerleaders.
So by early March, we were indeed primed for tourney time, as long as it wasn’t our own. We all knew from the church announcements, television news, and signs all over town that UCLA would likely have another opportunity to perhaps meet our beloved Tar Heels in a dream title match-up. My own teammates and I were rather relieved that we had deflected a disaster and that Sister Mary Ethel was now preoccupied with the various odds for the various college teams, and had retired our green and gold jerseys for the year.
Ultimately, the Bruins won yet another championship, as did the Saint Pius Xth eighth-graders. The fever, however, became both contagious and obsessive. Like my classmates, I followed all of the area teams, openly rooting for UNC but secretly rah-ing for Duke. Unfortunately, my friends didn’t have growth spurts until we transferred to public middle schools … so I endured a few more years of un-met expectations and inevitable losing seasons. My disdain for competitive sports became the bane of my school years, exceeded only by that for being an alter boy.
Each year come March, the buzz was always about basketball, college or otherwise … except for perhaps seventh grade. That was the year that two of my classmates discovered pubic hair and the course of scholastic scuttlebutt was indeed again altered. That was also the year that UCLA defeated North Carolina for the national championship, but my priorities had started the long climb toward adolescence.
(Image: “Fallalish” by Aaron Smith, 2013.)