The other day I went up for a jump shot and came down on somebody’s foot. This was the result.
It was roughly my 48th ankle sprain, which is surprisingly high since there’s only about 3 inches of air between my foot and the floor at the height of any of my jumps. (And by the way, it’s not as bad as it looks. It’s only been two days and I’m already walking fine with minimal pain. I just need the swelling to go down.)
I got my first ankle sprain about 30 years ago, going up for a rebound and coming down on someone’s foot. Had to use crutches for several days and an air cast for a few weeks. But despite a steady stream of sprains and virtually zero quickness/athleticism to start with, I can’t give up the game.
My dad put up a goal in our driveway and I’d shoot on it all the time. It was usually just me by myself since my brother was never too interested in the sport and there weren’t really any other kids my age on the block. We had a big tree in the front yard that would block any shot past 10 feet from the left side, and the whole driveway was only about 17 feet. Even though I wasn’t supposed to do this, I’d throw the ball onto our roof. As it bounced back down I’d curl off of a pretend screen and fire up pretend game-winners all afternoon. Naturally, if I missed the shot it was because I was fouled, which would lead to two free throws. (And yes, there were an inordinate number of lane violations on those game-winning free throws.)
I guess this came in handy at one point in my little league career when I made a buzzer-beater to win some random tournament that was important to me at the time. Only time I ever got carried off the court that didn’t involve yet another sprained ankle. My favorite college player was Mookie Blaylock and my favorite pro was Mark Price, who is the reason I was a Cleveland Cavaliers fan until the Thunder showed up. (Price, like my mom, is from Enid, OK).
I was the best player on our little league team, which meant nothing because our little league team was terrible aside from winning one random tournament. I didn’t realize how poorly coached we were until I started playing for the junior high team and realized I didn’t even know how to properly block someone out for a rebound.
I could always shoot the ball pretty well, but I had absolutely nothing else going for me back then. Even fully grown, I’d be slower and physically weaker than just about all of them, but at the time I was one of only two guys on the team who hadn’t gone through puberty yet.
It feels dumb to say a random junior high basketball practice was one of the worst days of your life, but it’s true for me. Setting aside losing a loved one, this was probably it. There were about 25 guys on the team at that time, but after a few practices and scrimmages the coach sent half of them off to a side court. They could do whatever they wanted, but they wouldn’t have any chance to suit up for a game or even be seen. There was no assistant coach and the head coach just worked with the top 10 or 12 on the main court. I was in that group, until the coach told us to line up and run a Figure 8 drill. I had no idea what that meant but I was standing right where one of the outside lines began, so a couple guys formed a line behind me.
I’m sure everyone else on the team had run the Figure 8 drill before but not me. I asked the guy behind me in line to go ahead of me so I could watch it once but he didn’t want to. So the guy in the middle started the drill by passing the ball to me. I just passed it back to him. (It’s supposed to go to the third guy, who is on the opposite side of the court.) The coach got mad at me and told us to start the drill again. I decided that the coach wanted a bounce pass instead of a chest pass, so when the drill resumed I tried that, instead of passing to the other guy. Our coach had a pretty bad temper and he immediately banished me to the side court, where I stayed the rest of the practice and the rest of the season.
I remember getting home from practice, going to my room and just bawling. Our team was pretty good (we went 18-2), and there’s a chance I wouldn’t have been able to crack the rotation regardless, but of course I thought I deserved a fairer chance. By the end of the season, everyone except me and one other guy who had been banished to the side court had quit the team. I stayed on because I thought I could crack the rotation for the freshman team the next year.
I’m going to admit up front that the second part of this story is strictly based on my memory, which is definitely both faulty and biased.
Whereas the 8th grade team began practices a couple of weeks before the season started, the freshman team had them as soon as school started. I had worked on my game a lot in the past year, and I showed up at practice confident and ready to impress the new coach. Most of the basketball team was also on the football team, so they weren’t at these practices. We had about 10 guys practicing, and I was clearly one of the best players. I just knew I was gonna get my shot.
There was only about a week between the end of football season and the beginning of basketball season. As soon as the football players showed up, the coach just plugged them all into the rotation and sent the rest of us to the side court again. I was so mad that we didn’t even get a chance to scrimmage with them, although to be fair it was the same guys who had just played for an 18-2 team the year before.
This time, enough of the scrubs quit that I got to suit up for the games. Even made the only shot I ever took. But I wasn’t in the regular rotation. At practice I tried to stay out of the way and would rarely if ever shoot during a drill (which was dumb because it was my only skill).
By the end of the season I had decided I was done with organized basketball. The next year I would have been playing for Westmoore High School, which meant competing for minutes with not only those same guys but also the players from the other junior high that fed into Westmoore.
I’ll never forget my last practice with the freshman team. Our season was over and the coach just let us scrimmage the whole time. I had nothing to lose so I just decided I was going to shoot every time I got the ball. Again, memory is biased and faulty but I bet I made about 7 out of 10 and they were all 3-pointers because I was just jacking it up as soon as I caught the ball. I never said a word the whole practice because I was just angry, but after I made a couple I started staring down the coach every time the ball went in. I’ll never forget making the last shot to end the last scrimmage and hearing one of the better players say, “What the hell is going on with Matt today?” That felt pretty good. It was the last real basketball practice of my life.
Sorry for the “Wonder Years”-ish rant. I had a great high school experience, did a lot of fun things and had a lot of great friends. But I’ve always wished I would have stuck with basketball because I know I was good enough to play for the varsity and it would have felt great to make it instead of being a quitter.
I played more basketball after I officially quit than I did before. Once I got a driver’s license I could play in more places than just the driveway. Kevin Ash, Chad Anderson and I had a pretty potent pickup record during our high school days.
In college at OU, I played even more than before. I remember getting done with class, writing my story for the newspaper and then getting to the rec center (Houston Huffman Center, known as the Huff) around 2 p.m. I’d play pickup for a solid 3 or 3.5 hours, then walk the mile from the Huff back to my apartment. That seems insane to 39-year-old me.
After graduating, I took a newspaper job in Lawton and didn’t know a single person in town. One of the first things I did was find out where the pickup games were. The Tuesday and Thursday games at Y were no joke. A few of the guys even played professionally.
I have to give a major shout out to Chuck Jolley, who befriended me from the start and put me on his team every time he could. I was often the only white guy in the game. That was a new experience for me, but everyone respected Chuck so I was good to go. He also invited me to several domino nights at his place, which included his homemade BBQ and lots of trash talk. Doesn’t get much better than that imo.
Trash talk has always been one of my favorite things about basketball. I say a lot of stupid stuff and I’m lucky it’s never really come back to bite me. Once a guy took a swing at me — like a full-on huge swing that would have knocked me unconscious if it connected — but he missed. Another time a guy picked up a basketball, wound up like a baseball pitcher and threw the ball at me from about 8 feet away. But another guy who wasn’t paying attention wandered into the way and got hit directly in the face. Blood everywhere lol. Never saw that dude again.
When I was at OU I’d occasionally run with some of the guys on the basketball team in the summer when they didn’t have official practices. Those OU teams were really good (making the Final Four in my senior year, 2002) and guard Hollis Price was their best player. Once I made two shots in a row on him, talked trash and got to see him go from 25% effort to 75% so that he absolutely destroyed me the rest of the game. It was one of the coolest basketball experiences I’ve ever had.
Talking trash is stupid and immature, so I’m trying to stop even though it will always have a warm place in my heart. I’ve only slipped up once in 2019 so far!
We have a great group of guys at the Earlywine Y that play at 9 a.m. most weekdays. Shout out to Jay Villa for organizing the GroupMe thing and being there almost every day. Shout out to all the rest of the guys too, we generally keep the BSing to a minimum and get some good exercise in.
I can’t remember if it was Boss or Shawn but somebody in the group shared a video recently of some 80-year-olds who still play regular pickup games. I’d love for that to be me but I don’t see it happening. I remember when my dad had to quit playing in his mid-40s and I can tell my body is starting to break down pretty rapidly.
I’m just going to hold on as long as I can, then force my kids to practice 50 hours a week so I can live my dreams through them. Until then, let it rain!