Thursday, February 7, 2013

Why I love Basketball

Something powerful happened to me yesterday. Midway through reading Pat Conroy’s “My Losing Season”, I painfully watched the Kansas Jayhawks suffer the most embarrassing and humiliating loss in many decades. In fact, the most stunning loss most fans can ever remember. Since the final buzzer of that game, my mind has been a torrential downpour of memories, reminding me of my own losing seasons and of the reason last night’s loss and Conroy’s book seem to be screaming “you know this Marlys, you’ve been there”.

There must be a hidden string that binds those of us who played high school basketball. Not one that can be seen, or even recognized, but that nonetheless waits in the dark recesses of our minds, letting us feel its presence on just such an occasion as last night. Why else do rote statements come out of my mouth from nowhere, prompting confused looks from family members and friends? Why else do I find myself experiencing smells that I can’t quite identify, until much later in the night while lying awake, pondering the various things that went wrong in the game? Why else do I hear the chirping of rubber on wood while finally nodding off to sleep?

I wasn’t a great basketball player. Growing up in a small, rural town of 500, you didn’t have to be. Even so, I consider all of us who played part of the brotherhood/sisterhood, and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

During my senior year, 1987, our high school managed to field a small girl’s team, consisting of seven. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand why I still cry every time “Hoosiers” comes on. Talk about underdog: we didn’t win a single game that entire year. There were two seniors, one junior, one sophomore, and three freshman. Our coach was a young teacher, who picked up extra money by agreeing to coach the team. She was athletic and looked like a million bucks in those skin tight game day skirts and stilettos (think court room attire of Glenn Close in Jagged Edge), but had no interest in us as individuals or in doing anything more than running practices and getting through the season. In hindsight, I don’t blame her. At that time, many young rural teachers used these small schools as a stepping stone, getting their feet wet before moving on to bigger and better things. Coaching wasn’t something I think had ever been on our her agenda, but someone had to do it and she stepped up to the plate.

Nothing specific that year remains in my memory, other than the feeling of dismal acceptance that the season would amount to nothing, and that three of the underclassmen were pretty good little players who might be able to have later success if incoming classes could provide more girls. How do you practice with only seven athletes? Good question. I don’t recall. We certainly never had full blown scrimmages, and without an assistant, our coach could only provide one additional body.

In spite of that sad season, my memories of high school basketball are completely removed from the actual games or poor play. Rather, it’s the feeling of importance I felt each time we took to the court. No one came to watch the girls play, much less a losing girl’s team, but it was fun. Losing isn’t fun, but playing basketball was. It was the totality of the experience and unless you did it, well, I think it’s hard to explain.

It is those smells and sounds that stay with me as if it was just yesterday. Our small high school was next door to a three story, red brick elementary school, designed in the old early 1900’s style. My own grandmother attended the same school, at a time when their girls basketball team wore skirts and only played a half court game. A sidewalk connected the two buildings with a metal roof providing the only cover. We called it the breezeway and running through it provided a rush of adrenaline each time we crossed into the old building for the next stage of practice. Regardless of the weather, fresh air was a reprieve from suicides before we hit the stairs. Did I hate stairs? At the time, I thought so. I now recall with longing the stillness they provided, when the only sounds heard entailed the heavy breathing of teen-aged girls and the squeaks of our high tops. There was a nice rhythm to the activity, one that involved painfully going up stairs….then the flow of running along the hall to the other end…..the measured movement down steps, paying close attention so you didn’t trip and fall, only to breathe a sigh as another hallway flow opened up. I know that during those runs, my mind strayed, as I pondered the drama and life changing events going on in my young life. To this day, I can often work out problems if I simply strap on tennis shoes and hit the pavement. I wouldn’t realize this until now, but those stairs were my therapy, that old brick building my therapist.

I would later marry a man who loves hockey, and he would provide a frank introduction to truly eye watering stinky gear. If I am to be 100% honest, though, a part of me really does miss the ripeness of practice gear as we pulled it on every day after and sometimes before school. It was evidence of our efforts, of our sweat and pain, evidence that we were doing something good for our bodies and that even as we lost game after game, we were still athletes and special. For me personally, the rush I felt at the end of practice could only be obtained by plowing through the effort itself and I wanted that rush. I miss that rush.

There was a swinging door between the actual locker room door and the small locker room itself, which acted as a privacy barrier for the girls in case others were standing outside the door (translation: the boy’s locker room was directly adjacent; what teenaged male wouldn’t take advantage of that opportunity?). The locker room in my mind seemed roomy, but I recently visited the school for the first time in over 25 years, and it was like stepping back in time. Nothing had changed, only the locker room was now smaller than my current master bedroom. When had it shrunk?

The ’87 team wasn’t the only team of seven I played on during those high school years. My favorite team was that of my sophomore year. Two juniors, three sophomores, and two freshman would play our hearts out that season. Whereas my senior team had no unity, this group of girls was a team in the truest sense. We had a leader, a junior who took shots when no one else would. We had a coach who was limited in knowledge (I’m not sure to this day that he ever actually played basketball) but who took an interest in us and who tried to make it fun. We even had an assistant coach, a wonderful teacher named Linda who has entered my life all these years later thanks to the technology of Face Book. We were lacking numbers, we were young, we were limited in skill, and we lost almost every game, but there was something special about us. While writing this, my memory remained vague until I pulled out a dusty year book and saw a photo from the end of season awards banquet. There was not just one “Most Inspirational Player” that year. Our coaches named each one of the seven “Most Inspirational”. This was before the social trend of giving every player a medal. We were a special team and I can’t recall the number of losses as much as I recall simply playing.

That must be the difference between playing on a true team as opposed to playing in a group while loving the game but feeling alone in the process. I enjoyed basketball my senior year and remember all of those smells and sounds, but not any specific game. The cameraderie of that ’85 team, though, goes deeper, and those are the best and clearest memories that tumble back. Our leader, Shelley, taking a jump shot from the outside in perfect form; Gaylene, using her length to make up for being all bones; Kim, solid as a rock down low once she boxed out for a rebound; myself, loving the feel of bringing the ball up the court and seeing the offense prepare for the first pass; Jamye, Denise, and Gina…all providing whatever was needed. We may not have won, but we were a team.

This is what I recall with deep fondness and joy. This is why Conroy’s book speaks so loudly to me and why KU’s loss last night hurt so deeply. I’ve played as part of a Team and I’ve played on a team. KU, a school that carries the key to my heart, looked like a team last night. This loss has brought long buried memories back in bittersweet waves. For that, I thank them and I thank my Team. We were special that sophomore year, even without wins. Isn’t that what really matters?

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