I grew up in Indiana. Ergo, I love basketball. I played for hours and hours by myself or with my buddies on the dozens of driveway courts scattered throughout the neighborhood. There were a couple of other schoolyard courts we frequented as well, and weather was rarely an issue. Shoot, we used to shovel the court clear of snow so we could get a reasonably true dribbling surface in the winter-time. It wasn’t uncommon to field a dispute during one of those pick-up games involving a potential foul call in which the defender swatted the offensive player’s stocking cap off his head but made no actual contact with the cranium.
“You got me, dude. Foul.”
“No way, I hit your hat, not your head!”
“It’s a foul, Tim. You know the rules as well as I do. The hat’s an extension of the head.”
Late at night or when the weather genuinely negated the possibility of playing outdoors (below 20 degrees, more than 6 inches of snow, and/or sleet, seemed to be the unwritten criteria), I would play for hours and hours in our basement with a Nerf ball and an old coffee can with the top and bottom removed. Let the record reflect that I went undefeated at Swensen Arena located on the Garden Level of 611 Hillcrest Rd., West Lafayette, IN, from 1969-1978. I’m confident the good folks at the Elias Sports Bureau will confirm.
You get the idea. I loved to play and I loved to watch, and fortunately for me I grew up in a Big Ten college town associated with a school which enjoyed fairly consistent success and in a state where high school basketball was a mainstream religion. (I am not an NBA fan and never have been; if interested in how I regard the professional “game”, Google “Bobby Knight quote on the NBA and you’ll have a pretty good picture). I got to see and even play against a lot of excellent players and rub shoulders with some fairly prominent names in the game.
Consequently, it’s been kind of fun to see my youngest—Luke—become more interested in basketball this year. It may be a passing fancy, but for the moment he is into playing and learning more about it and I am all-too-happy to indulge that interest. Predictably, then, when tasked a couple of weeks ago with reading a nonfiction book and drafting an in-depth review he chose a developmentally appropriate biography of LeBron James, the Akron product and Cleveland Cavalier superstar. We sat together at the dining table a few nights ago as he worked on this assignment and I was catching up on some email correspondence.
“Who was the greatest basketball player ever?”
“Well, okay. Oscar Robertson. Then me.”
Luke sighed the sigh of an 11 year old boy who is thinking “my old man is full of crap” but knows better than to say it out loud. Since I had his attention, grudging or not, I decided to continue.
“You know, I was best friends with the son of Purdue’s coach in the mid ‘70’s, so I got to go to almost all the home games. Once in a while we even sat behind the players’ bench and we could hear everything. That was…umm…eye-opening.”
“Who were the best ones you saw back then?”
“The best was a guy named David Thompson. Have you ever heard of him?”
Luke shook his head no without looking up from his work.
“Google him sometime and watch some YouTube videos. He was fantastic. He jumped higher than Michel Jordan and LeBron James combined,” I exaggerated just a tad. “Larry Bird was great. Magic Johnson was great. Nick Witherspoon was great. You know the guy who makes up the ‘splash brothers’ with Steph Curry—Klay Thompson? I saw his dad play back then and he was really good. Scott May, Ronnie Lester, Tree Rollins, Ricky Green, Darrell Griffith….”
“Were you like any of them?”
“Oh, yeah, right. Sure. Ummm, no. I was more like…” I thought, trying to remember some prominent lefty guard I could ridiculously—but still credibly, to the mind of my naïve 11 year old son—compare myself to. Then it came, and I proceeded to lie like a proverbial rug.
“I was like a guy who played for Ohio State in the early ‘70’s, actually. Allan Hornyak. Yeah. That’s it. He was a phenomenal scorer. He was left-handed, like I am, and he was a really good shooter. And I remember sitting court side during one of the Purdue-Ohio State games he played in and scored, like, 25 or 30 points against us and Ohio State won. And I remember that he swore like nobody’s business. Swore at his teammates, swore at the opposition, swore at the refs. He might have been the most foul-mouthed player I ever heard, now that I think about it. In its own disgusting way it was kind of impressive, I guess.”
Luke’s head was still bowed toward his work and he continued to write, but I saw a grin form on his face.
“Yeah, I see what you mean,” he offered. “It sounds like you were a LOT alike….”