Athletics have always been a big part of my life. Growing up in Struthers, Ohio, a suburb of Youngstown, sports became an outlet for many and brought the community together. Football is king in the area. Stadiums are packed every Friday night to watch some very talented athletes apply their skills. Basketball became very big in my home town starting in the 60's, thanks to an undefeated high school team of the 1960-'61 season.
After that season, it seemed every kid had a hoop nailed up on their garage. I was no exception. Most days after school, if it wasn't football season or too snowy, I could be found out in the driveway practicing my basketball shooting prowess. I would pick out a spot on the driveway, usually an oil spot made from one of my dad's "Beater" work cars, and shoot baskets from there until I made ten in a row. I'd then move a few feet going in a semi-circle from one side of the court to the other. Make ten shots, move, make ten shots, move until I had completed the entire perimeter around the hoop. Sometimes this routine would take me fifteen minutes, some days hours, but I seldom quit until I completed the drill.
Public outdoor courts were few and far between in Struthers until St.Nicholas Church put up about ten hoops in their parking lot for use by the neighborhood kids. Six hoops were the standard ten feet high and were laid out so that three full court games could go on at the same time. Four hoops were at eight feet for smaller kids to practice on. St. Nick's became a Mecca for area Basketball Players. After school and on weekends, the courts were packed with boys of all ages trying to become the next "Doctor J" or Jerry West of NBA fame. I became a "Gym Rat" and was there most days, always available for a pick-up game.
My grade school had a team that played the other six elementary schools in town. I was fortunate enough to make the team but didn't play much. Boys in eighth grade usually started the games and a lowly sixth-grader like me only got in if the game was a "Blowout". In other words, I rode the bench unless we were killing the other team. Our "Gym" if that's what you could call it, was only forty feet square. Not even half of regulation size. We didn't care, we played like it was Madison Square Garden.
I tried out for our Freshman team in high school. I impressed our coach with my ball handling skills and shooting long-range jump shots. I guess those hours in my driveway were starting to pay off. a week before the season was to start, I got in a heated argument with our coach over some trivial matter I can't even recall. I quit the team. Being the "Hard Head" I was in school, I wasn't going to back down from this Squirrelly Math Teacher who called himself a Coach. Too bad my ego got in my way, I might have had a good career playing high school Basketball.
I played Intramural Basketball all through high school and led the league in scoring. I'd drop the news clippings from The Struthers News Journal on the Math Teacher's desk as I left his room, so he could see how well I was doing. It took me years to realize the only one I was punishing was myself. A clear case of cutting off my nose to spite my face. In all the sports I played all through my school years, that Math Teacher was the only coach I couldn't get along with, unfortunately. I needed a third party to teach me how to swallow my pride. I was selected as Student Athlete of The Year for my class in 1971. A very nice honor, but it didn't do a thing to reduce my over-inflated ego.
I continued playing Basketball at The YMCA after my high school days. It was fun playing pick-up games there against some very good area talent from all over Youngstown. Many of the guys I had a chance to play with and against, went on to successful college careers. I always thought to myself that maybe if I had my head on straight in my younger days, I too, might have got a scholarship. In any event, I truly enjoyed playing the game and it kept me in pretty good shape in my adult years.
Basketball had a resurgence in Struthers in the late 70's. The high school girl's team won the State Championship. The first state champions in any sport in Struthers history. Once again, Basketball hoops sprung up all around town as girls were now thinking they could be playing on a championship team someday, too.
About ten years ago, I was asked to coach a boy's team in Basketball for The YMCA. I had about twelve 10 and 11 year old boys to mentor in the basic skills of the game. It was a lot of fun teaching these kids and watching their faces light up when they mastered a skill I was attempting to teach them. I remembered all the boring practices I endured as a youth and I would frequently break things up at practice to let the boys have fun. After all, I wasn't coaching a Varsity Team and these kids just needed to enjoy the game and learn the basic skills. I kept thinking about that Math Teacher Coach in high school. Just learn to love the game and the rest will follow.
The comedy team of Cheech and Chong had a great routine on one of their albums of having a "Basketball Jones". A "Jones" being a irresistible urge for something or someone. I clearly had the "Jones" for Basketball in my younger days. I never passed up an opportunity to play a game. I STILL have that urge to dribble and shoot a three-pointer and hear that unmistakable "Swish" as the ball falls through the hoop. I still marvel at some of the players I've watched play the game over the years. Especially the ones that had more moves than a can of worms! Poetry in Motion!