My Greatest Day In Sports

This one is a follow up to my last blogpost.

Now to be fair, it is likely that had I not had polio I still never would have been a good athlete. I can’t claim that I had athletic talent. But that did not keep me from longing to be good in some sport. While polio put an end to that, I was able to participate in sports in high school by being the student trainer for the school’s football, basketball, and track teams. This was a wonderful experience for me, which is right up there at the top when it comes to what I valued most in my high school experience. But still, it was not the same as being a good athlete or playing a competitive sport.

In my last blogpost I described my ill-fated experience with athletics at Boy’s State and at Davidson. After a few years I got over that; and by the time I had enrolled in Union Seminary in New York, I was egging to give it another try. By this time, I had been cleared to try to play most sports. Football and wrestling were clearly out but not basketball. For some reason, I thought basketball might be my sport. There was a full gym across the street from Union at Teachers’ College, which had a regulation-size basketball court and was the site for pickup games mainly by graduate students from Columbia and a few from Union. Pickup games happened all the time though Wednesdays at 2 PM was the only time that worked for me, so that was the time slot I chose to head over to the gym and give basketball a try. In a pickup game there are two captains, who choose players from those gathered at the gym until two teams of five players are assembled. If more than ten people show up, those not picked could sit in the bleachers and watch, hoping they might get picked as a substitute if someone got hurt, or they could give up and try again the next week.

As I gathered with others for the selection process, I could tell that most people already knew each other, and everyone was giving me the lookover. I could almost hear them asking, “Who is this guy? Is he any good? How much experience?” Eleven people showed up that day. I was not chosen but decided to stay and watch the game. I realized that I was lucky I was not playing. The players were good, played hard, and took the game very seriously. Nobody said a word to me after the game as the winners departed smiling and the losers frowning.

Even though I realized that I was not nearly as good as the other players, I forged ahead practicing shooting baskets when I had a chance and when the basketball courts were free. I continued to show up for pickup games, hoping to be selected. On the third try there were a total of ten guys including me, so finally I had my chance. Of course, I was chosen last, but finally I was on a team. The only problem was no one threw me the ball and I never got a rebound or a chance to shoot. Few players even said a word to me. I was not sure if anyone even knew my name and concluded that they were basically a bunch of jerks. I nevertheless persisted for several more weeks, and always was chosen last if there was a slot. After a few games I got a few chances to shoot though never made a basket and maybe got a couple of rebounds while also turning over the ball more times than I would like. Finally, a few guys began to call me by name, though by this time I was ready to quit and call the whole effort off. To be honest, I was not in their league in terms of ability and had no business trying to play with them.

Then I got a call from a guy at Davidson whose name was Bobby Lane. Bobby Lane entered Davidson the year after I had graduated so I did not know him, but I did know him by reputation. He was Lefty Dressel’s number one recruit  for that year. (Lefty was Davidson’s iconic basketball coach who got Davidson into the Elite 8 in the NCAA playoffs twice while I was at Davidson.) Bobby was a high school All American from California and considered one of the best players in the country. I had seen him play on television a couple of times. He was six-three, could slam dunk a ball with ease, jump so high it looked like he was flying, and had a great long shot (3-pointers did not start in college until the early 1980s.) He was an all-conference point guard his first year, but had had a falling out with Lefty, quit the team to focus on his studies, and was considering in his senior year going to law school or possibly seminary. Someone had suggested that he call me to see if he could spend a week at Union to see if seminary might be a good fit. I jumped at the idea.

Bingo! The great Bobby Lane–a player who would probably have been a first round draft pick in the NBA had he stayed with basketball, and one of the greatest players ever to go to Davidson. I immediately thought of the Wednesday afternoon pickup games and burst out laughing as I envisioned what would happen if Bobby Lane showed up at the court.

Bobby was a great guy; and when I told him of my grim experience in the pickup games, he said he would be glad to join me, but we had to be a two-fer. If anyone chose him, they also had to choose me, and I should not let on to anyone that at Davidson he was ranked as one of the best college players in the country.

When the two of us walked into the gym, as was customary, the guys were warming up and practicing shooting. They paused for a minute and looked Bobby over as they had looked me over several weeks before. When one guy asked me who the new guy was, I replied, “Oh, just a friend.” Bobby then joined in the practice shooting, making what would be three-pointers today one after another and then drove to the basket and did a behind-the-back slam dunk. Suddenly everyone on the court stopped in their tracks, staring at Bobby, gaping, then looked back at me in disbelief. The gym went stone silent.

I was grinning from ear to ear.

“Two-fer,” I replied. “You choose Bobby, you get me too. Non-negotiable.” We were the first chosen.

Our team won by a score of something like 70-25, but what was even better, when the opponents tried to double or triple team Bobby, that left me wide open, and Bobby would throw the ball to me, unguarded. Having never scored a basket before in the pickup games, I scored something like ten points. I do not recall any of our opponents saying a word to me after the game as they stumbled off the court in disbelief. A couple of guys from my team looked at me and smiled, giving me two thumbs up. That was my last day playing basketball at the Teachers’ College gym, and I never saw any of the guys again. It will always be my greatest day in sports.

One thought on “My Greatest Day In Sports

  1. Great story, Joe!!
    Love your persistence.
    Plus I am sure that being on those teams where you were trainer did not leave me w any better memories.

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