My love of basketball began on a Saturday morning in an ancient gymnasium. The gym floor, filled with mystique and dead spots, was our cathedral, its lacquered wood glistening in the morning sun. Our coach taught us the basics of the game: dribbling, establishing a pivot foot, and how to shoot a proper lay-up. This was my first foray into organized basketball, and I resembled a giraffe in Walmart sneakers, my gangly frame fought the air, desperately trying to mimic the other players. It would take years to develop basketball skills, but my love for basketball was instantaneous.
I watched the game as often as possible; my mania limited only by the paltry reception of our rural T.V. antenna. We reliably received three network channels, occasionally picking up a fourth whenever cloud cover allowed faraway atmospheric signals to reach our house. It was during this time that I developed a love for the Missouri Tigers. Dim, analog images of Doug Smith and Anthony Peeler still race through my mind. I vividly remember driving home from work (white-knuckled) on a cold February night; leaning towards my staticky Roadmaster radio as the Tigers held on to beat Iowa State and continue their perfect 1994 season. One year later I would be hazed into Mizzou fandom as Tyus Edney drove the length of the floor to toss in a buzzer beater. It was a visceral, gut-wrenching loss that left me catatonic on a cold, terracotta restaurant floor, the air filled with the smell of despair and mozzarella sticks.
I played basketball with my friends nearly every day. We mimicked our favorite players, played horse, and tested our manhood against each other, adolescent bucks rattling antlers and tickling the twine. I ultimately quit organized basketball during my Sophomore year, a decision that still haunts me. Regret is far more painful and long-lasting than sore hamstrings and shin splints will ever be.
When you’re young, you live in a perpetual summer. My afternoon hoop sessions have now been replaced by committee meetings, laundry, and paying bills. However, the game has returned to me through my daughter. Every Thursday I don a whistle and help coach her team. I teach young players how to jump-stop, pivot, and shoot layups while watching the game beguile and captivate them as it did me thirty years ago. Last Saturday I watched a girl with knobby knees and bony elbows catapult a basketball that looked far too big in the general direction of a goal too far away. It was nothing but net and her smile was so radiant it could have powered a small city. You’ve got to love basketball. Oh, and Kansas sucks.