1967: How Do I Shoot a Basketball?

Boy/girl romantic mushy stuff kind of ambushed me; it seemed like overnight everyone went from playing army to “playing the field”, which was tough when there were eight boys to two girls in my eighth-grade class. Without an older brother to pattern on I was clueless when it came to managing the romantic side of life – but while there were several situations dealing with love & hate during eighth grade, none of which (unfortunately) involved girls. Living in Sterling was a love/hate relationship; while I hated moving to the Peninsula from Anchorage I was finally making some good friends. Participating in sports was a love/hate relationship; I loved doing things with my friends, but I hated the fact that I had absolutely no skill in sports at the time. Having Head Teacher in both a classroom setting and as a coach was not so much a love/hate relationship as an endure/hate situation.

On one hand Head Teacher was impressive – he fought across Europe with the glider infantry in World War 2, he was personally very intelligent, and he worked hard to improve Sterling School, establishing both a sports program and a controlled reading program that raised reading speed and comprehension in every student that participated. Most importantly he elbowed the school district into completing a badly needed but often delayed multipurpose room that served as combination cafeteria/gymnasium and counterbalance to student cabin fever.

On the other hand, he could be meaner than hell, especially if you embarrassed him.  I made the mistake of making the ethnic distinction that “Scotch is what a Scotsman drinks” and paid for it for the rest of my life. Head Teacher was one of those people unable to handle conflict with a kid without descending to a kid-level of thought and action himself; he took offense easily and never tired of carrying a grudge, an unfortunate tendency aggravated by the lunch he often took in liquid form.  I do have to say that he gave credit where credit was due; during class discussions he’d ask for my input when searching for a title, definition or some other bit of information from any of my areas of interest, and when I placed first in the school district science fair he showed just as much support for me as he did for his designated favorites.

Unfortunately, his model of character assessments placed a bit too much emphasis on athletics for an elementary school environment and as I consistently lagged two or three years behind my peers in developing strength speed and athletic skills it was a sure bet that I would miss getting on board with the Head Teacher sports machine.

The first sport of the year was softball, which for me was a qualified success: I got to suit up, but I sat on the bench for the entire season. As the year progressed and we changed sports I decided on a more attainable goal and applied to be the manager of the basketball team. Head Teacher somehow convinced me to try out for the team instead of that manager’s position and while I didn’t miss a single practice I never was tapped to suit up for even a single game. Given my relative lack of athletic talent at the time I wasn’t too troubled by the perpetual benching, but it soon became obvious that talent was not the deciding factor. No matter how well I did in practice I’d be passed over at game time, and it became quite a bitter pill to swallow when he started to fill the second team with fifth graders who routinely failed to get a ball even close to the net, much less through it.

It didn’t matter. I still showed up every Wednesday night and Saturday morning to participate in the all the exercises and drills to include the dreaded final four-lap run around the gym at the end of practice. It was a definite challenge to stick with the program especially since I was so bad at the sport that the only feedback I was given consisted of variations of the same message: “You’re a loser”.

I still showed for every practice – and I also went to every game without fail where I’d sit in the stands and cheer for my friends with the same dogged determination as when I’d try (and fail) to make a lay-up shot. Despite the vindictive and petty needling, it never occurred to me to quit.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my Mom worried about me the whole season – that I would somehow end up emotionally damaged because of the experience. Unfortunately, some of her fears were well-founded; any effort at bettering myself seemed pointless after being so thoroughly schooled in my own total lack of value that I ended up just drifting through high school until college and a change of venue altered my outlook.

…. but it actually wasn’t a juncture almost forty years later that Head Teacher’s tutelage showed its true value. In a deep discussion about permanent solutions to temporary problems Mom paused and said, “You know, Fritz can take the credit for this” – a comment which totally bewildered me at first. When I mumbled something about his actions causing the current situation she stopped me cold:

“No – he made it possible for you to survive!  I saw what Fritz was doing, and it broke my heart to see how he constantly (expletive deleted) with your head…but as hard as it was – never missing a practice but never playing – dealing with the constant belittlement in class– you never quit…

 “It made you stronger.”

 She was right, and that’s why when I heard of his passing I smiled instead of making my usual snarky comment. I haven’t won every battle in life, but I’ve always stood up one time more than I’ve been knocked down. It had never occurred to me that each time I got knocked down Head Teacher’s antics would come to mind – and  would jolt me into getting up again, and for that I must give him credit where credit is due.

The experience also gives a clue to the question in this post’s title.

I have no affinity for basketball in any form or level of competition. My sort-of twin sister Heather loves the game and maintains that Head Teacher is responsible for that attitude, but to be totally honest it is a chicken vs. egg type of situation. I wasn’t a fan before I tried out for the Sterling team in the winter of 1967 and afterwards…well the only time I even thought about the game was when I had to deal with the irritating and pointless distraction it presented to every pack, troop, team and post that I worked with in my 30+ years as an adult leader in the Boy Scouts.

How do I shoot a basketball?

With a shotgun.

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