Practice makes perfect, even when you're not

Practice makes perfect, even when you're not

Everyone knows a basketball hoop is 10 feet high.

It’s one of the most reliable measurements in the world, right up there with 60 seconds in a minute, four quarts in a gallon and $750 in federal taxes if you were the 45th president.

These are just reliable numbers.

Why then, you could rightly ask, was the orange rim in our driveway 11 feet off the ground?

I never asked Dad, who had it installed as a gift for my 15th birthday, because that would have been wrong on several levels, not the least of which was an ugly ingratitude. Say what you want about my uneven track record as a first-born child, but it can never be said I was an ingrate.

I knew how lucky I was.

Still, from a perspective of more than 50 years down the road, it’s worth noting there had to have been some kind of immense screw-up on someone’s part to have so badly missed the mark.

Back then basketball was a big deal in my little town, owing to the storied success of the collegiate program that began in the mid-'60s and lasted for nearly a decade. Featuring a win-at-all-costs coach who preached defense first, the team won nearly 90% of its games and became the hottest ticket in town.

Of course, with my parents both being faculty members, our family was soon steeped in the spirit of the experience, and our season tickets were among the best the intimate gym had to offer.

But it wasn’t only the eye-popping excellence of the program that drew national attention, including CBS-TV and Sports Illustrated.

There was a little something called the pregame warm-up, a Globetrotters-inspired routine of ball-handling wizardry, set to raucous music, that not only entertained the crowd, but often had opponents demoralized, if not beaten, before the opening tip.

To this day, anytime Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher” or “Keep the Ball Rollin’” by Jay and the Techniques come on the radio, I’m transported instantly back to those nights under the bright lights, and I can almost smell the popcorn in the lobby.

To be part of something so special, so rare, so important was to understand what being a fan was all about. Nothing like it had happened before in my town, and it’s unlikely to ever recur.

But that’s what’s meant by a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

You have to enjoy it while it’s going on.

When you’re 11 or 12 years old and something like that is happening, your senses are completely involved, and you want to keep it part of your daily life.

So I was determined to learn how to spin a basketball on my finger.

The college players made it look not only easy, but cool, so I set about teaching myself after studying their moves. It took lots of practice, and I’ll admit there was a bit of breakage involved when a knickknack or vase or another fragile item got in the way.

“Not in the living room,” Mom would say, usually with a smile.

So I took my act to the basement, where, surrounded by concrete walls, I got better and better, little by little, mimicking the tricks I’d seen dozens of times in that stifling, stuffed, sonic space.

Then I wanted to learn how to juggle three at once, but because we only had the one basketball, I made do with tennis balls. Eventually, I could do that too, which made me feel good.

Back then, owing to the dominance of UCLA’s Lew Alcindor, college basketball outlawed the dunk, which put a premium on ball-handling and passing, which are lost arts in today’s 3-point shoot-a-thons. I have a hard time watching games these days, but I understand the attraction. Kids like the long ball.

I enjoyed taking my share of longer-range jump shots too, probably because I was a huge Pete Maravich fan. For those of you who might not remember, Pistol Pete played three years for LSU, averaging 44.2 points per game. It is estimated that had the 3-pointer been in play, he’d have averaged more than 50. Imagine.

All of which takes us back to the driveway and that 11-foot rim.

Our house sat at the crest of a hill, which meant missed shots often caromed into the street and rolled all the way down to the bottom, more than a block away. It put a real crimp in the flow of the game, but it was part of playing there.

The same thing applied to the crabapple tree that grew just outside the garage, effectively blocking shots from that side of the court.

Naturally, we called it “Wilt.”

Another idiosyncrasy to the Dewey driveway was the convenient location of a window, located in the second-floor bedroom I shared with my brother. Wanting to replicate the college experience as best as we could, we’d set up a cassette tape deck on the sill and turn it up. We didn’t always listen to “Get On Up” by the Esquires, but when we did, the neighbors did too.

Basketball in a small town like mine wasn’t as popular as baseball, largely because of, well, winter. Northeast Ohio is known for what’s called “lake-effect snow,” which, as I’m sure you can guess, results when fronts blow across Lake Erie, gathering moisture and strength before churning inland, dumping feet at a time.

Maybe not 11 feet high, but plenty to prelude outdoor games.

Which led my friends and me, naturally, to seek indoor alternatives. Faithful readers might recall my rather dicey involvement in finding and using various school gyms for our games, a practice that was, let’s face it, not precisely legal. We did our best to leave those places just as we’d found them, and we didn’t turn up the heat or avail ourselves of the milk coolers and certainly not the showers.

We just wanted to play basketball, and it was a temporary solution.

Other times, we’d ride around town looking for lighted driveways with a hoop. Spotting one, we’d pile out of someone’s car and begin a lay-up drill, which soon evolved into our version of the pregame warm-up, spinning and juggling balls, running three-man weaves and dribbling between our legs before using a behind-the-back pass to set up another basket.

My specialty was walking the ball up and down all four fingers before bouncing it off my fist and banking it in off the backboard.

Sometimes, startled homeowners would stand on their front porches and watch us in action, occasionally applauding. Other times, they called the cops. You can’t please everyone.

The last time I was home, I drove past our house on the hill and was saddened to see the hoop was gone, but not surprised. Figured they didn’t want to touch the past with an 11-foot pole.

Loading next article...

End of content

No more pages to load