Friday, May 8, 2009

My Life in Sports, Part I

I'm sure that like many basketball fans out there, I have never played basketball. Aside from required instances in junior high and high school where a basketball was thrust into our clumsy hands and we were split into teams and told to "play basketball" by a gym teacher, I have never played basketball at any competitive level.

Part of the excuse for this is that I grew up in a rural, unpaved area in Kentucky. One of the old stereotypes is that the suburban, midwestern players who play basketball at the pro level are great long-range shooters. This is supposedly because the bulk of their lonely existence was taking shots at a basket all day from long range because there was no one else to play with.

However, I didn't even have that much. The lone basketball hoop that I knew of must have been at least 15 feet high, up on a barn, next to rocky, gravelly terrain that would have made dribbling impossible. Basketballs were flimsy devices, willing to deflate on rough play - you needed both the basketball and the pump. We didn't have enough people where I lived for real teams. Even playing softball (never baseball) was impossible because you couldn't get the requisite number of players together. There was no supervision, there were no experienced players and there was no knowledge as to how to improve our skills. Most of my sports were whatever ball I happened to pick up at the time. Kickball and Nerf Football were quite popular.

If I could have played a sport growing up, it would have been Little League baseball. I asked more than one year for the privilege to play. Each time, I was turned down. There was just not enough money in the household budget for travel, equipment, fees, etc. This was the fifth Congressional district of Kentucky, a notoriously poor place.

Furthermore, there was no sports maven at home, ready to indoctrinate me. My father had few dislikes, but one of them was sports. It wasn't that he objected to me playing sports. It wasn't that he was a tie-dyed hippy, either, wanting to spare my tender mind from the evils of the competitive capitalist system. Quite the contrary. My father was tough in just about every sense of the term, a humorously obstinate battler that brooked no opposition. (Honestly, people were afraid of him.) And he decided, somewhere along his life path, that sports were for idiots. ("Did you know that 'fan' is short for 'fanatic'? That's what they are - a bunch a fanatics!") With only one television in the house and only three channels - NBC, CBS, and public television - he was the man who controlled the remote control and the chances were in the low one percents that he would sit down to watch televised sports, or to allow me and my mother to watch them as long as there was "something good on".

Since I was an odd duckling from day one, I wasn't the kind of guy they'd pick first for kickball at school. Anything I learned about sports would have to be learned through cultural osmosis.

At the time, only three adult sports crossed my horizon. The first was football. I was aware of it. We had a professional team - if it could be called that - in Cincinnati, the closest pro town to where I lived. They were called the "Bengals", or better, the "BENGALS" because the name BENGALS was spelled out on the side of their helmets. I also remember that they weren't very good.

Aside from whatever television I could pick up when Dad was working outside, there were two sources of information where I grew up in the 1970s. The first was the local newspaper. Local meaning "weekly", and most of the news was that from farm reports, what was going on at the local schools, some hard-right editorializing, etc. The other was the Lexington Herald-Leader. Both of those papers would write occasionally about the Bengals. Sometimes, the older men would mention them in passing. I don't remember what they said, but the jist of the matter was that the Bengals were not very good and no one should spend much time thinking about the state of the Bengals.

There was only one sport in Kentucky, and that was basketball. The head coach at the time was Joe B. Hall, an assistant under the legendary Adolph Rupp. There was a lot said about Joe B. that was quite uncomplimenary, the complaint being that he did not measure up to his legendary predecessor Adolph Rupp. Kentucky men's college basketball (there was no women's college basketball to speak of) was a big time sport, and already the Big Blue Nation was stoking its sense of entitlement. There was the expectation that we should win the national championship every year, or at least be in the final four.

Joe B. was a runner up to UCLA in 1975, and the Wildcats won a NIT title in 1976, back in the days when an NIT title really meant something. People were still unhappy. He won the whole thing with the Kyle Macy-era Wildcats back in 1978. However, everyone still demanded that Adolph Rupp rise from the grave. (*)

Fate - which mocks us all - was beckoning, although I couldn't hear its call. In 1975, the Kentucky High School Athletic Association reactivated the girls' state championship. My local high school's girls team turned out to be quite good. One day, in junior high school, the entire school was driven on a long bus ride to the Girls' Sweet Sixteen.

Kentucky is one of only three states - Delaware and Hawaii are the other two - that do not have a system separating the tiny schools from the big schools. It was possible for even the smallest schools to ride a run of luck to the tournament. Our county had four high schools up until 1970, and then these four schools were consolidated into one mega school with 1500 students. This brought a lot of basketball talent in one place. One of the smaller schools - Hazel Green - won the Boys' State Championship in 1940; basketball was not foreign to everyone where I grew up.

We had a coach by the name of Roy Bowling who would lead our high school team to at least 70 consecutive wins in girls' basketball. I didn't understand much more about basketball then aside from the obvious, namely that if you put the ball in the hoop you scored two points. We would win the second of three consecutive state championships in girls' basketball. During the 1979-80 season our winning streak was snapped and we failed to make it to the finals. However, the county team would win two more basketball championships before we were "de-consolidated" from a large school into two medium high schools in the 1990s.

This experience meant that the idea of women playing interesting basketball was not foreign to me. If women's basketball basketball wasn't any good, then why was the arena filled to capacity with screaming fans watching a girls basketball game? They couldn't have all been relatives and friends. And this was 1970s basketball. The game was still undeveloped from what it would become, and even I knew that what I was seeing was good basketball. I didn't know that this would set me up for the WNBA years later, and I'm sure that a lot of young women on those championship teams wished it was around then, too.

(*) I have followed the state of Kentucky men's basketball ever since without being a serious fan. Eddie Sutton stayed for four years and almost brought the Wildcats to the NCAA death penalty through his lack of control of the program. (His name is still a dirty word in some Kentucky households.) Rick Pitino brought his carpetbag to Kentucky, and won us a national title before convincing himself that he was a genius in pro ball as well as college ball. (He wasn't.) Tubby Smith was run out of town partly for being black (my take) and partly because he only won one NCAA championship. The Wildcats found their answer in Billy Gillispie, and in my opinion the Big Blue Nation paid for the sin of exiling Tubby.

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