|Sectional champs, 1978.|
Last night, Floyd Central beat New Albany in boys basketball for the first time in 15 years, a span of time comprising 20 consecutive losses. There are hundreds of potentially interesting topics to be spun from this sporting news, but I like to pick my spots, which in this instance is the opportunity to recall my own underachieving career in high school basketball.
These lightly edited and updated thoughts have appeared at least twice here previously, most recently in March of 2014. They may not be particularly edifying, but at least they’re honest.
ON THE AVENUES: String music?
It has been 39 years since my final basketball game as a member of Floyd Central’s varsity.
I’m occasionally reminded of this ancient factoid, like when a Facebook friend request came to me from my former coach, Joe Hinton. I duly accepted the request, and thought it very nice of him to ask. We didn’t always see eye to eye back in the day, but it’s been long, long ago.
One quite tumultuous time, we were on entirely different pages. It was late in the basketball season during my senior year, as my decidedly non-illustrious career was fast approaching a merciful conclusion. At a practice session just prior to the 1978 sectional, the coaching staff revealed the official tournament roster, and the list didn’t include my name.
Granted, the omission was mostly deserved based on purely inconsistent performance, and yet I was annoyed at what I perceived as a slight, responding with a two-hour concentrated display of faux “go team” enthusiasm and contrived, vaudevillian, entirely mock “rah-rah.”
This apparently was mistaken by the coaching staff for a death bed conversion to team spirit, if not genuine depth of feeling. The following day, I was reinstated to the roster. It never dawned on me to pursue a career in acting, or I might be portraying Josh Dallas’s father on television by now.
Happily, or so it seemed, I’d neglected reporting this turn of events to my father. Unhappily, his old friend (Hinton) already had done so, which may have been the devious intent from the beginning. The whole off-and-on scenario did little to improve matters on the home front.
As the late Gomer Pyle once said: “Surprise, surprise, surprise.”
Almost 40 years later, I can’t attribute truly coherent motives to my teenage ambivalence about sports, these ultimately meaningless games being just about the only form of communication between a father and his son. The father was an ex-Marine who had traded athletic opportunities for three years as a gunner on a Navy ship in World War II, and he was keen – perhaps overly so – to see his son succeed at basketball and baseball.
However, the son just wasn’t wired for this kind of pressure, at least during those hormonally-charged years, and surely it is indicative of my fundamental disconnect that while I always enjoyed the essence of the games themselves and still do, my favorite book about sports was (and remains) Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, which celebrated the timelessness of baseball while exposing the vacuous and inane nature of jock culture.
Bouton spoke directly to me, fervently and personally. I fancied myself a thinker, not a sweat hog. I’d have gladly settled for “thinker and lover, not a fighter,” except that I hadn’t been able to convince any girls of my credentials, and in truth, doubted whether any such talent existed.
So, it came back to me and my brain, together against the world. It should suffice to say that locker rooms were mind-free zones, and brains in sports were the object of lingering suspicion unless one happened to be an otherwise semi-literate point guard who could remember the plays and run the offense.
There I was, kicked off the senior-dominated basketball team and then placed back on it, contemplating yet again how it came to be that we were such persistent underachievers as a squad, utterly failing to capitalize on the rosy potential predicated by all observers, including my still simmering dad … and understanding, as I always had, that it all owed to a lack of cohesion.
In other words, too few of us liked each other off the court, and this distaste had a way of being glaringly obvious on the court, to Joe Hinton’s fuming dismay.
Our sectional draw was a breeze. We were lumped into a bracket with smaller rural schools as a result of one or the other cynical maneuverings common to the political byways of the purportedly pristine Indiana state sport of basketball, which naturally had much more to do with smoky hotel room maneuvers at the national political party conventions of the 1920’s than the farmyard ideal preferred by so many fans.
The cheering section probably knew better, but worshipped all the same.
We won the sectional and advanced to play Scottsburg in the Saturday morning game at the Seymour Regional the following week. The Warriors, from a school far smaller than ours, had nonetheless soundly thrashed us at home a few weeks earlier.
In today’s parlance, Floyd Central had “match-up” problems with Scottsburg, which is to say that they had one of their finest teams ever; though not demonstrably better at every position, the Warriors played as a team, something we couldn’t match.
I knew there would be little playing time for me, and at that point, it no longer mattered. Amid much hoopla and a special pep rally, we boarded the bus on Friday afternoon for the 40-minute drive, an early evening shoot-around, a buffet meal and an overnight stay at the Days Inn.
At this juncture, two worlds were set to collide.
While some of my best high school friends were athletes, only a few of them were on the basketball team. I mostly ran in different circles, and at various times, yes, there was beer involved, though seldom if ever during the basketball season. Ambivalence aside, I tried to play it straight as often as possible.
But for the Saturday regional festivities, a few of my heartier-partying friends had reserved a room at the very same hotel where the team was staying – only my buddies called it the Daze Inn, and planned to treat it accordingly.
Floyd Central unceremoniously exited the tournament in the morning session, and Scottsburg advanced to meet Clarksville in the evening finale. I’d like to remember that in defeat, we came together as a team and grasped an eternal cliched truth or three, but from my perspective, all I felt was pervasive relief that finally, at long last, the ordeal was over.
There was a post-game chat and showers, and we returned to the hotel to eat and waste a dilatory afternoon playing euchre before riding back to the gym on the bus and watching the championship game, which was to be our last solemn obligation as a dysfunctional unit.
You’ve probably already guessed what happened next.
I promptly stole away from the ennui, and by the time the bus exited the Daze Inn parking lot several hours later, I was completely and blissfully smashed.
The bathtub in the party room was filled with canned beer and ice, and a story already was making the rounds as to how the designated underage beer buyer with his older brother’s ID had run into a few of our teachers at the exact same package store and exchanged earnest pleasantries with them at the checkout counter.
Me? I was just happy to shed the weight of expectations and get myself dazed, even if remaining as clueless as always with respect to how the future would play out, although perhaps my vocational path forward in the beer and brewing business already was being plotted amid the plodding.
Eventually one of the assistant coaches dressed me down outside in the hotel courtyard when he saw that I held a smoldering Swisher Sweet in my hand. Did I really want to be kicked off the bus and suspended for smoking?
No, not at all, and I snubbed it out, because I’d already decided that my final act of courageous defiance against The Man (which one, exactly?) would be to drink a beer on the team bus in route to the evening championship game, and this I proceeded to do — already crazily intoxicated, strategically seated all the way in the rear, a Schlitz Malt Liquor Bull artfully hidden in my gym bag, top popped discretely, and chugged quickly before hiding the empty again for the post-game ride home with my parents.
I’m neither proud nor ashamed of these recollections.
I did what I could with what I had at the time, and if awarded a time-travel “do over,” probably I’d have worked harder at sports — not for anyone else’s satisfaction, but for my own.
In retrospect, my work ethic was there all along, if latent and inchoate; it took a while for it to emerge fully formed, later in life. So be it. In truth, the thing I miss most about high school is singing in choir, not playing ball. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now.
I’m forever hopeful that in the cosmic scheme of things, the ability to learn from one’s youthful angst and missteps is what matters most. If not, I may be in serious trouble.
To this year’s high school basketball players, my best wishes. If you’re lucky, you’ll forget all about it very, very soon.