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Basketball Practice



Before the official start of the basketball season my junior year in high school, the varsity basketball coach, Mr. Long, told me to practice on my own in the gym after school. I was usually there every afternoon, by myself or with one or two other elite high school basketball players.

The coach was a tall, thin, taciturn, moody man; he was not affable, nor cheerful, nor did he make friends with the players.  He once told me that I had to choose between debate club and basketball; I told him I didn’t know how to play basketball and wanted to learn.

The gym was beautiful: it was a free dome covering the entire basketball court with bleacher seating all the way around, about eight rows of seats.   The court was sunk into the ground, and the bleachers rose up to ground level.  Around the bleachers was a running track, still inside the dome.  On the west side, projecting out from the dome, were dressing rooms for home and visiting teams.  On the east side were offices, an entrance hall, and a big room that was used for wrestling practice.  The gym was almost new, and I was entranced by its modern appearance.  The only fault in the building was a deep crack in the concrete floor that ran across the dressing rooms; it was said to be  caused by the workmen leaving the freshly poured floor exposed to winter weather during a delay in construction.

I would practice layups and dribbling back and forth, then short jump shots, then free throws, then a short run around the track, a rest, then back on the court to dribble around, do layups, and if there was someone else there, practice free throws with one another.

I hadn’t had much experience with basketball; I started playing in eighth grade, having avoided the team in seventh grade. When I got to be eleven, however, I started growing rapidly, and by thirteen I had topped out at six feet seven inches. When that happened, I felt a lot of social pressure to be on the team.  My sister, at six feet tall, in California, was pressured to become a model because of her height.

Through the first two years of high school I had been on the team, but I didn’t get much playing time, despite being five inches taller than the next tallest kid. I was just clumsy and inexperienced, and no-one took the time to work with me during the off season. I had a lot of other things to do, and I was on the cross country and track teams in the other seasons.

When I began my junior year, although I was taking courses at the college, the coach told me he didn’t want me to go out for cross-country (he coached that team too.) He told me to come to the gym and practice on my own. He wasn’t allowed to coach me himself, and no one else came out to the gym to tell me what to do, so I just practiced shooting by myself.

I could never get enough arch on the ball, and I was always impressed by the players who could send the ball way up into the rafters so it would come straight down and go through the basket without touching the hoop. The ball made a soft swishing sound as it went through the net.

After a couple of months it started to get dark earlier. My bicycle had a light on the front that was powered by a little generator that was spun by the rear wheel, and it caused a lot of drag that increased the pedal effort a lot. There was a little red light on the back. I thought it was not good, but there were no alternatives at the time other than a flashlight, and batteries were expensive and hard to get.

After practicing for a couple of hours I would cycle over to Terry’s house, and we would watch TV.

It would get to be six or so and I would get up and go home. My parents usually didn’t have dinner on until seven or so.

When the official basketball season started, the coach got us together and gave a speech about what the game was supposed to be and what he expected us to do, including haircuts. That particularly bothered a guy who sat next to me in biology, who had some problems with acne on his forehead. He liked to wear his hair long in front, to hang down and hide the pimples on his forehead. The coach said he had to have it cut.

First, we ran drills, such as starting at the half line and dribbling down to the basket, then making a layup, then running back around to the half line. With that drill, we would have a player on defense come out to try to stop the one with the ball. Each time you did defense, you would retrieve the ball and pass it to the next one in line to run the drill. Then you would run back to the end of the line of kids waiting to get the ball.

Then we would run up and down the court, stopping at the half, turning and running back to the base line. Back and forth we ran, squeaking loudly on the bright floor. Then we stopped and dropped down to do push ups on our fingertips.

We split up into pairs and spread out around the gym to the baskets on the side. We practiced free throws, one kid at the free throw line and the other recovering the ball, ten shots at a time. I rarely made more than four out of ten free throws in practice.

The guards and forwards would practice their long shots at the same time, on the main baskets. The long shots were my favorites, but sadly I had no arch on my throw and my shots went nowhere. I was especially bad at the shot from the baseline, out in the corner. This was the hardest shot for me, because you see the backboard edge on and it doesn’t give you any idea how far away you are. I also depended on the backboard to bounce my shots in so I needed to be where there’s plenty of it showing to have a chance.

After drills, we scrimmaged. Our offense was a three-two, that is, there were three players distributed around the outer court and two players who stayed close to the basket, just outside the foul line. One of the first three would bring the ball downcourt to the key, and pass back and forth between him and the other two guard/forwards; the two centers close to the basket could wander back and forth, into the foul area and out again before three seconds had passed.

I knew that other teams played different kinds of offenses, but I didn’t realize that the type of offense you played was supposed to be tailored to the kind of players you had. Our offense was appropriate only when we had two tall, slow players and three faster, short ones. We had one tall, slow player and a bunch of shorter, better playing ones. We would have done far better with a different offense, one in which I was the only one hanging around the basket, and the other four players could rotate around the outside, ready to drive in to the basket if the opportunity arose.

I didn’t know anything about that, and I hardly ever got to play anyway, so it didn’t matter to me. I could shoot a layup or pass off if I was being double-teamed; otherwise, on offense, I wandered around the foul line and watched the other players working the ball.  Even when I was playing, it didn’t seem like I was doing much.

We played man-to-man defense full court the entire game. I watched our star center when I was a sophomore, and by the fourth quarter, he would be lagging further and further behind when it came time to run back to the other side of the court. He was very tall and thin, a good player, and again the only tall player on the team. By the end of the game he was exhausted from trying to run the length of the court to guard his man or get under the basket.

During scrimmage, there were usually several players who weren’t doing anything but watching the play. We were not allowed to sit down or lean against the pole that held up the basket and backboard. We usually paced, back and forth, as the players wove back and forth in their rounds.

I didn’t get to play much during scrimmage; the coach repeatedly pushed his top five players to drill the same plays, over and over. It was the same during games: only the top five players got to play almost the entire game, with two or three runner-ups used as short reliefs.

We used to play “shirts and skins” in scrimmage but that year we had a special reversible T-shirt that was gold on one side and crimson on the other, our school colors. We wore these T-shirts all season and washed them as often as our mothers would tolerate it; I think some kids had their jerseys washed every day. By the end of the season, those jerseys were ragged and frayed, stretched out of shape.

There were always times during practice when we would run around the track at the top of the bleachers, whether as a group, or individually for punishment. Running around the track was easier than running outside because there was no wind and the temperature was always reasonable. Sometimes running outside would get cold. At the end of practice, we usually ran ten laps around the track.

One day I wandered into the wrestling practice rooms, which were located on the east side of the basketball gym, next to a large entrance hall that was used for the public on game day. The wrestling practice was over, but one of the bigger wrestlers came up to me and challenged me.

I accepted, but he instantly ran and tackled me around the waist with his head down, knocking me over and nearly pinning me in two seconds flat. I laughed at his aggressiveness, but I didn’t realize that it was a big deal for him to put down someone like me who was so much bigger than everyone else.

I didn’t realize I was so big; I just felt normal-sized. I thought some people looked awfully small, but I got used to seeing regular sized people. When I came around someone who was nearly my height, they looked enormous to me.

At the beginning of our junior year, the coach was friendly to me after his fashion, and he said he wanted to play me a lot so I could learn how to play. The first game was away at a big high school thirty miles from our town. They had a big gym too, although it wasn’t new and dome-shaped like ours. For the varsity game, the bleachers were full of students and parents. Very few of our school’s contingent were there.

The coach put me in for the opening jump and two minutes later took me out. I soon realized that he was obsessed with winning and only wanted to play me for my obvious advantage: I was six inches taller than anyone else on the other team. Of course, I was a terrible player, partly because I didn’t get much playing time. The only thing he wanted me for was the tossup.

This performance was repeated at the beginning of each quarter: in for two minutes, out again. Once I tipped the ball directly to an opposing player, not concentrating on using my advantage.

We were winning in the third quarter, but the fans started to chant and stamp their feet. In that big old gym, the sound of stamping feet was deafening. We couldn’t hear the ball hitting the floor when our guard dribbled down the court. Within minutes, the opposing team took fire, and quickly erased our point advantage. They went on to win by five points.

I understood that I wasn’t up to the skills of the other players and the coach really wanted to win, but I was disappointed not to play. Ever since I had started playing in eighth grade, it was the same way. We practiced, and I sat on the bench, towering over everyone else. I was unhappy because I wanted to play basketball. Winning was important, and I knew that I just hadn’t had enough practice or playing time to get good.

In the middle of the season, the coach asked me a strange question: Are you planning to go to college next year? I didn’t see how it related to him, but I knew how he thought, so I lied: No.

It didn’t take long for him to find out that I had lied to him; the guidance counsellors or the principal or someone spilled the beans. Besides, I was already taking all my courses at the local college, so technically I wasn’t even in high school anymore.

After that, the limited playing time I had been given was suddenly eliminated. I sat far back on the bench, even at one game in the second row of bleachers. He said nothing to me. One night before a game, the zipper on my warmup pants broke. He called me over and taped it closed with athletic tape, saying nothing to me.

Two days before the last game of the season, a big home game, I took my washed and folded practice shorts and jersey and went into his office where he was sitting at his desk. I put the clothes on his desk and said: I won’t be needing these anymore.

I graduated with the class ahead of me, and someone else was the valedictorian. On the card I was given, where my place in the class was supposed to be listed, there was nothing. I wasn’t even number zero. I didn’t wear my mortarboard “hat” at the ceremony.

The next fall, I started school at Harvard College. I went out for basketball, but there were two other freshmen almost as tall as me. The coach told me: you’re too young, and I don’t think you’ll develop enough over the four years to be worth our time in coaching you; you’ll have plenty of other “learning opportunities” here. So I did something else, which turned out to be not as good.

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