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  • September 24th, 2017

THAT’S THE WAY THE BALL BOUNCES

By Joel M. Vance

I turn 83 t0morrow, and have pretty well abandoned rambling afield in deference to my creaking bones. In the past three years, I’ve endured a stroke which bunged up my left hand,had a carotid artery Roto-Rooted, and a five-month siege of pancreatitis where I was tube fed a diet which resembled nothing so much as pureed Purina Hi Pro. Except for a tendency to bark uncontrollably at the full moon, I came through all this in pretty good shape.
But I have to admit that some mornings when I struggle out of bed I feel like a octogenarian-wait a minute! I am an octogenarian! I deem it as some sort of miracle that I’ve lasted this long. The Asbury Methodist Church yard is filled with graves of Vances who didn’t make it this many years. Fortunately, I am not yet an incompetent, sluggish dotard. We already have one of those and one is too many.
There must be a reason for this genetic anomaly and I owe it all to basketball, a sport that was barely out of the peach basket era when first I was introduced to it in an alley behind our Chicago apartment building. Baseball was the game for my crowd and we played in sand lots and wherever we could find an open area in which to play catch or some sort of a pickup game. Basketball was as arcane to us as rugby or cricket. I had pushed a basketball in the direction of a rickety goal in the alley but saying that I “played” basketball was as truthful as if I had said I had “flown” an airplane because I had built a balsa wood model of a World War II fighter plane.
But when we moved to Missouri in 1948, and I got off the school bus at Keytesville elementary and high school, I found that basketball was as holy a pastime as attending church on Sunday, something that neither I or my parents had spent much time doing. “You play basketball?” Asked a kid, which I discovered was the same thing in Missouri as introducing yourself. “Sure” I said, confident that basketball couldn’t be any tougher than playing burnout catch with my friends in Chicago.
He hustled me into cramped, tiny gym where what seemed to be every kid in school was playing a before class pickup game. He shoved me onto the floor and said, “you’re shirts” which made no sense, although half the boys seemed to be semi-naked while the other half wore shirts. Somebody threw me the ball and immediately all the half naked players charged me.
It was like being the last member of Custer’s command while several thousand angry Native Americans exhibited ill will. Utterly panicked, I threw the ball without any aim mainly just to get rid of it. It described a lovely parabola and swished through the net as adroitly as ever Steph Curry shot a 45 foot three-pointer.
As an aside the president at the time, my fellow Missourian Harry Truman did not rescind my invitation to the White House (although he never issued one in the first place). My reputation as the Windy City Whiz lasted exactly until afternoon when we had an eighth grade game and I managed to shoot not once, but twice, at the wrong basket (I missed both times). I forgot or never knew that the teams changed ends at halftime and when the second half tip came to me I saw nothing but open space between me and what I thought was our basket. No shirtless heathens were charging at me, and in fact the other team was more than happy to let me score for them.
From then on my high school basketball career got no better (or worse). I’ve written in my book Down Home Missouri, how the cheerleaders for New Franklin high school cheered for me, causing my coach no end of confusion and probably would’ve earned me a seat even further down the bench from him if that is been possible without my having to sit on the floor.
I maundered my way through four years of high school basketball, mostly polishing the bench with the butt of my threadbare uniform, but I never got basketball out of my system. I played intramural ball at the University of Missouri but got kicked out of it when the supervisor of the program caught me playing for two different teams. I wasn’t very good on either one of them but it kept me in tip top shape.
My basketball career began long ago in Dalton, Missouri a flyspeck on the Show Me state map. We lived in a ramshackle former railroad hotel with no running water and an outhouse up the hill from a cistern which theoretically would have provided drinking water if we been fool enough to drink it. We didn’t even bathe in it, preferring to cadge water from tenant farmers on the farm which my father owned.
My father and I fashioned a minuscule court up the hill adjacent to the outhouse and erected a homemade backboard of green oak planks which warped in agony in the heat of a Missouri summer. This insured that any ball shot against the backboard would carom off at unexpected angles. I needed to be as nimble as Steph Curry to corral rebounds before the ball bounded down the steep hill and into the street. Hundreds if not thousands of times, I leaped down that hill like a mountain goat. It was during those frantic descents into the dusty street that I learned to curse like a Parris Island drill instructor.
It also gave me legs of steel and conditioning which possibly has carried over into old age and explains why I too have carried over into old age. Coupled with the erratic backboard was the fact that neither of us had learned the cardinal rule of carpentering “measure twice, cut once.” Somehow, due to our mathematical inefficiency, the goal was about 10 foot six inches above the surface of the court.
I dimly remember that basketball legend Phog Allen, coach of the Kansas Jayhawks, was proposing that the goal be raised to 12 feet, rather than the standard 10 feet. This was to protect against his own Wilt Chamberlain and other seven footers from camping beneath the basket, swatting away everyone’s shots, and dunking 40 or 50 points a game. But it wasn’t designed to prevent someone well below the 6 foot mark from anything resembling the accomplishments of a seven footer. Phog died without ever realizing his proposal and today basketball goals still are 10 feet above the floor surface and even little fellows like me can dunk the ball. Well, no, not like me. I was lucky to jump high enough to graze the net with my fingertips.
Not only couldn’t I dunk the ball, but I was lucky to be able to bounce it on a hard surface and have it come back to my hands. Our coach handed each squad member a basketball with instructions to go home and practice the summer away rather than chasing girls or other more favored pursuits. I was willing, being woefully short on girls to chase, but the ball I was issued had a ruptured seam through which the interior bladder poked like a hernia. Thus, I could begin a dribble but, like a rebound off our warped backboard, the ball was likely to spurt off in unpredictable directions.
Determined to learn how to dribble with either hand, I scattered chairs on the rickety veranda that ran across the face of the hotel at the second floor level I would juke and jink my way down the veranda, the infirm foundation swaying and threatening to collapse the entire structure with every bounce. Every so often the ball would hit on the herniated part and leap over the railing into the street below sometimes in front of a farmer’s truck load of soybeans headed for the grain elevator just across the street, adjacent to the railroad tracks.
I don’t know what the occasional passersby thought when an errant basketball ricocheted off the fractured sidewalk in front of them, but Dalton being the somnolent backwater that it was, anything out of the ordinary was considered entertainment. They probably just thought I was insane, but having to live in Dalton was inducement enough to insanity, so why worry about it?
You’d think that all this practice on a rough hewn court never envisioned by the inventors of basketball, with a ball that might as well have been square, on a court as far from regulation as Arcturus is from earth, and on a surface threatened by imminent collapse, all this would have made me ultimately a legend in high school basketball– an incipient Jerry West, the mid-Missouri equivalent of Cabin Creek’s most famous basketball product.
But it did not give me the ability to sink jump shots from anywhere on the court, average 30 points or more per game, and illuminate the all-state team. Instead I gathered splinters on my butt from sitting on the bench, trying to mentally will my coach into inserting me into the lineup. The ball in real time was round and without random bulges. Further, there were real people rather than chairs between me and the basket, which was a conventional 10 feet from a hard surface floor rather than 10 ½ feet above an uneven and often muddy dirt floor.
It seems to be the fate of geriatric types like me to sit around and catalog our infirmities. I long for the days when I was a comparative kid barely past the mid century mark. I remember years ago when I was in my 60s and still playing semi competitive basketball, mostly going one-on-one with our son, Andy, our daughter’s boyfriend admiringly commented, “Boy your dad sure is an active old guy!” I guess those were the good old days. “Now the operative word is” old”. Even in those halcyon days I could occasionally beat Andy, but then came the game when I went up for my patented jumpshot and he jammed it down my throat. Intimations of mortality. Harbingers of doom.
The last competitive basketball I played was a challenge to a coworker at the Conservation Department, a woman who had been active in college sports. Our sons and I had built a half basketball court and we had a party one night and I challenged Charlotte to a one-on-one. I put a couple of my patented moves on her trying to get a clear path for a layup, but found that it was like trying to take a T-bone away from a Rottweiler. She was all elbows, knees, and slapping hands. I finally won, barely, by shooting three pointers, and realized that youth will out (not to mention athletic ability). Apparently girl’s basketball is a far more physical sport than I realized.
That was a wake-up call, kind of like turning 83 when theoretically you weren’t supposed to. Meanwhile, I think I’ll take a nap.

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