There are three life stages to the game of basketball. The first, of course, is childhood. I spent my childhood working on my jump shot under a streetlight my Dad had planted a goal next to. I sometimes played with friends, but many nights I was alone in my imagination under that streetlight, counting down the final seconds of the game before I tried to launch the game-winner. 3-2-1, and he scores! Or he misses! Or he reverses time and tries again!
I was never completely alone in this fantasy. I usually chose what player I was. Sometimes I was Dr. J, or Larry Bird, or a tiny Kareem. But I also WAS myself. When I sit back and picture this memory, I can somehow still see that I was also the hero. But forty years later I am concerned there are no longer kids out there counting down to the final buzzer, trying to launch imaginary game-winners. This is a disaster. So let’s talk about the game.
No, let’s play a game. For starters, let’s compare two kids from two eras. Let’s pick teams and eras. I know me, I trust me, and I know my era. I’m on my team with my childhood. I’m going to play against a kid from this era. The first one to 10 is World Champion. No, Galaxy Champion. No, wait. GOAT. This is for GOAT (Greatest Of All Time).
But wait! Let’s start with a scouting report. I have scouted this kid, my young cynical opponent as representative of the holy game of basketball, this composite. I’ve talked to him and her over the years when the game is on and I ask them the score, or what team they like (the right answer is always the nearest team!) They instead tell me trade rumors, talk free-agency, and salary cap. They have all graduated to middle management with a minor in trolling.
Get ready to get dunked on junior. When I was a kid (I can’t believe I am writing a “When I was a kid” piece!) I only took breaks from winning imaginary championships to put up posters of my heroes on my walls. I watched VHS tapes where those same heroes had taken the afternoon off to teach me the fundamentals. I attended a summer camp every year called “Fast Break! Camp of Champs!” where a kindly older coach who looked like Roy Orbison if he landed in coaching shorts and had a whistle thrown around his neck led us through defensive drills. No shooting drills or dribbling at Camp of Champs, defense wins games!
I grew up with basketball. My Dad was a coach. It was the middle of his basketball life, afternoon in his game, with me still in the morning. Same game, two different people, from two different eras, two different stages, but the same game. He had played college ball at Texas State University (then Southwest Texas). This was so long ago they wore belts with their shorts. He was scouted out of high school by San Angelo State and got invited there from tiny Devine TX where he lived on a small ranch with his aunt and uncle. That was his first plane ride and his Uncle Marvin went with him (also his first plane ride).
When he graduated college he started coaching high school in San Antonio. Then he got offered the job coaching back at his Alma Mater, and I have no doubt my Dad would have ended up a pro coach after a stint there, but on the way up I-35 to San Marcos he pulled over at a payphone to tell them he wouldn’t be coming. My Mom didn’t want to move and leave her best friend Beverly behind. So the course of life changed. My Mom mentioned to me once though that if he ever cared he never mentioned it again.
He stayed instead in San Antonio, starting the summer league there, and coached and helped run the AAU league that won a championship with a young Shaq who was going to Cole High School. He also coached me and my friends when we were little, and when invited to coach at Indiana and North Carolina summer camps I got to go, taking time out one afternoon to go find Larry Bird’s house. My Dad waited in the car while I ran across Larry Bird’s property to shoot a trespassing layup on his court. Everyone seemed to know my Dad everywhere. I met the Iceman George Gervin, and my Dad could be in Boston and get tickets last minute, and when pressed how it came out he had called John Havlicek. He had never mentioned he knew Hondo!
My Dad also went to the dark side, refereeing for years after coaching for exercise. One of the other refs and a friend of his was Nevil Shed who won the NCAA title with the UTEP Miners in 1966. He also ran the Special Olympics when they came to San Antonio. He was simply, to many people, Mr. Basketball in San Antonio. But it wasn’t basketball that he loved. Basketball really wasn’t the point. Those of us learning the game might as well be monks, or Jedis, what we were really learning, was to be better people. Simple lessons, like being on time, gaining confidence, working hard, and working as a team.
When my Dad died in 2020, we decided to have a celebration for him at Antonian High School in San Antonio. 500 people showed up, many of them knowing him through basketball. Afterward, while we were all scattered across the court talking I fell someone‘s eyes on me. An older Mexican man approached me and introduced himself. He had been one of my Dad’s players at Burbank High school. He pointed out three other men in their 60’s who were there with him. They had also played for my Dad at Burbank. He said that one of them was a writer, another was a Marine, another owned his own business, and that he was an engineer. He said that they were all successful now, but when they were young they were all very poor and none of them had fathers. He told me that my Dad used to bring food to their homes and that as a coach, had made them value education, and taught them they could become anything they tried to be. He said that all of them became what they were in part because of my Dad, and wanted to be there that day to let us know that.
I thought about it later. My Dad would have been only about 26. I asked my Mom if he had ever mentioned that he used to take food to some of his players. She said he never did. I can’t imagine, at age 26 or any age, doing something like that and not, at least for conversation, telling my wife what I had done that day, but my Dad also didn’t tell you he knew Hondo, or mention he turned down a college coaching job so my Mom would be happy.
This masterpiece of writing started out with an indictment of kids, an essay against young fans and their era. I feel kind of bad about that. Slightly. Because who can blame them? They are picking up what’s been laid down by pro sports. What have I done? I have put children on trial, dunked on their heads, and swatted them and their era back to where it came from when the real villain is today’s NBA! OK! Here is where I really sound old!
Watching the game in an imaginary future and cringing as players accelerate at drawing imaginary fouls and we all watch James Harden disciples shoot 100-100 from the foul line. I turn my own TV into a whiteboard, trying to invent a defense that forces the offense out of both the pick and roll and 40 foot three pointers, trying to save the game from its robotic motions, ranting as young players poached from college on draft day play a form of basketball that should be in a theater instead of a gym. Student-athletes? Does anyone even talk about this anymore? Is there even any pretense there? NBA teams should give draftees scholarships, now that’s a message that will look good in the evening.
This one-sided one-on-one I set up is over. Kids versus grownups. Morning versus Evening. The game is over with a warning. What is the game really about? The score? The highlights? Where is the emphasis on team loyalty, education, and lessons kids can absorb instead of grownup stats and contracts? Because what the game is really about, the real education, and the real heroics behind the game sneaks up on you in the evening, until you are alone under the streetlight, thinking of your hero, counting down, 3-2-1.