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; it’s lacquered floor glistened 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 as I mimicked the other players. It would take years to develop the requisite skills, but my love for the game was instantaneous.
I watched basketball 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 in 1994; leaning towards my staticky Roadmaster radio as the Tigers held on to beat Iowa State and continue their perfect Big-8 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.
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 My afternoon hoop sessions have now been replaced by committee meetings, laundry, and paying bills.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.