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  • April 12th, 2019

IT’S A ROUGH LIFE

By Joel M. Vance

Back when I was still a kid (I had just become eligible for Medicare which, I thought I was going to need after that girl beat me half to death in a one-on-one basketball game—but more about that later), we poured a concrete basketball court and I carefully inscribed a high school distance three point arc, using a long string and a piece of chalk to mark the distance.

 

Then I carefully painted a black semi circle, a free-throw circle and free-throw line, and lanes. We were ready for homegrown basketball. Now, about that girl— it was a one-on-one challenge between me, and Charlotte Overby, a dear friend who as it turned out not only was athletic (and with the enviable and unusual guitar ability to play and sing a wonderful version of “Rocky Raccoon”) but who also was over infused with competitive fire and physicality that would’ve done credit to Charles Barkley in his prime.

 

The occasion was a party at our place in the country featuring beer, barbecue, and basketball. A crowd of friends gathered in lawn chairs along the sideline of our homegrown court to watch a show down challenge between the two of us. I figured I had all the advantage, first of home court, and second of using my basketball. Not to mention what would prove to be misplaced confidence in my round ball ability.

 

How could, I foolishly asked myself, I possibly lose to a mere slip of a girl? Charlotte had been active in college sports (soccer or volleyball or something other than, as I remembered, basketball). I had, on the other hand, been an avid basketball wannabe since the 1950s, when I gained a reputation as one of the most outstanding benchwarmers on one of the best teams Keytesville High School ever fielded. Or do you court, instead of field, a basketball team?  Ever since those halcyon days when I spent countless hours gathering splinters, I have lusted after that magic moment when I would be in the spotlight, the star of the game.

 

I fantasized about that moment when the coach would insert me into a seemingly lost cause game only to see me catch fire with a flurry of quicksilver drives to the basket, reverse layups, even an improbable tip in (at 5 foot eight I did well to touch the bottom of the net with the tips of my fingers).

 

I played on a town team when I was the sports editor of the Mexico Evening Ledger. The team mostly was composed of local high school coaches, including Gary Filbert, who had played at the University of Missouri, and until he died at the age of 81 in 2011, still competing in senior basketball games.  Gary  had more athletic ability in his crib than I ever did, but his ability to keep sinking three pointers as an octogenarian gave me hope.

 

Once I did get into a game, drove for a layup, and was undercut by some yahoo from whatever team we were playing. Today it would be a technical foul, two shots, and the ball out. All I got was two shots along with a sprained right wrist where I landed. Nothing daunted, I shot both free throws with my left hand and made both of them. It was a glowing moment.

 

 I played endless one-on-one games against son, Andy, and always won, perfecting my crossover drive, my behind the back dribble and layup with the left hand, my pull-up jumper—I had it all until the moment came, as it must to every over the hill jock, that humiliating instant when he goes up with the unstoppable jumper and the kid, grown improbably tall, smashes it right back in his face.

 

Andy developed a fall away jumpshot, much like the vintage Karl Malone who still is the second all-time NBA scoring leader, behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Andy’s shot was unstoppable, and along with his Bill Russell timing on blocking my shots threatened to put an end to my competitive basketball career. No, let’s be honest— it pretty much did put an end to my competitive basketball career. And if that weren’t enough humiliation, I joined the YMCA and played shirts/skins games, mostly with flabby, out of shape middle-aged men, sprinkled with a handful of teenagers. And then one evening I faked a drive, stepped back and shot a three pointer which traveled about 6 inches before some agile young punk slapped it back at me hard enough that, if my mouth had been wide open, I would’ve needed surgery to remove it from my tonsils.

 

Back in prehistoric days when I was playing what we called boys basketball in high school, there was a rumor that girls played what they called “girls basketball” but that was only a rumor around Keytesville High School. We didn’t have a girls team— we had girls who were cheerleaders for us heroic boys—well, for  the starters anyway. Little did I know that my wife to be, Martha Lou, was actually playing girls basketball at Macon High School nearly 100 miles distant from me. They had uniforms and everything!

 

Girls basketball at KHS was confined to school hours . Julia Gaw, a year behind me in high school, says “ I think we played in Phys Ed and know we never played an outside game. Just during Phys Ed. I loved it and wish we could have had a real team.” So the Keytesville girls never got to experience a packed gym on Friday night, crammed with ardent Tiger fans, the entire gym enveloped in a fog of sweaty farmers, a day short of their weekly bath.

 

But Julia’s classmate, Norma Bowen remembers more—that there actually was a girls’ basketball team at KHS.  “The class of ’53 was first after years of not having a team,” Norma says.  “After reviewing the pictures I have, the girls’ basketball team was made up of sophomores, juniors and seniors, totaling 13 in all.  Mary Pat, Becky Jo and yours truly were the seniors.  All I remember is that center line and that actual play was not fun.  We wanted to play like the boys!  With their game we knew the rules.  I do remember we played one or two home games but do not recall playing away from home. I don’t think too many came to see us and definitely not “standing room only.’  Also,  the games were at night.”

 

And Mary Pat said this, “When we started we played in white shorts and T-shirts.  We finally got our uniforms before the Year Book pictures came out.  We played before the boys’ game so we could get the crowd warmed up.” And I won’t touch that comment with the proverbial 10 foot pole.

 

It was true—girls did play basketball in the 1950s, but it bore as much relationship to today’s girls basketball as fifth grade red rag football does to Alabama’s Crimson Tide versus almost anyone. I vaguely knew that North of us in a foreign land called Iowa, girls played basketball according to rules that made no sense. There were six girls on each team, separated by the court’s centerline, three on defense and, on the other side of the line, three on offense.

 

Defensive players were forbidden from crossing the center line and God and the rules forbade that a player could dribble the length of the court as is done today both by those of the male and the female persuasion. Apparently the girls’ rules were formulated by antediluvian men who thought they were protecting womanhood from the ravages of physical activity. Maybe the theory was that full-court basketball would result in some sort of reproductive cataclysm, causing damage to a woman’s ability to do what she was supposed to in the 1950s which was to have babies, stay barefoot (minus Converse sneakers, and spend her days in the kitchen preparing meals for her man.

 

Iowa was the beating heart of girls’ basketball and was, along with Oklahoma, the last state to abandon those 1950s girls’ basketball rules in favor of full-court, five players per side, basketball, just like the guys. Ironically enough, the University of Iowa’s women’s basketball team, recently eliminated my University of Missouri women’s basketball team from the NCAA tournament.

 

The end of girls’ basketball as girls’ basketball began in 1958 when the Office of Civil Rights considered banning six on six round ball but it wasn’t for 37 years that the last game under those rules went into the record books. Texas abandoned six on six in 1978, Iowa in 1993 and Oklahoma in 1995. For the record also the last shot ever taken in a six on six game was by the Pucola, Iowa Indians in the AA state championship game. They beat previously unbeaten Indianola before a crowd of 6500 at the state fair arena in Des Moines. That is 6500 more screaming fans that ever turned out to see a Keytesville High School girls game.

 

Bring on those full-court five on five headbanging, boys rules, cutthroat games! The girls have been liberated. It’s women’s basketball from here on out, and don’t you forget it. That center court line (think glass ceiling) had been shattered and never again, except for the 10 second rule, would be a barrier for women.

 

I watched the 2019 game when Iowa eliminated Missouri on television (something not available when I was decorating the Keytesville High  bench) and saw players (when do girl basketball players become woman basketball players?) do things with the ball that I never dreamed of being able to do— sink three pointers like Larry Bird, drive to the basket like Steph Curry, rebound ferociously and overall play like…. Briefly harking back to that challenge game between me and Charlotte Overby….like Charlotte Overby. There were collisions, floor burns, players limping off court with tendons snapping like bubblegum—all the mayhem associated with big time men’s basketball. Women basketball players had not only been liberated, but had been turned into frightening adversaries, not shy about inflicting serious damage.  Clearly, Charlotte was well before her time, as I was soon to find out.

 

So now we were met on the field of battle, Charlotte and me. We flipped a coin to see who would get first possession and I won. There was no strategy to my game plan. I would do what I had done hundreds of times before when Andy was a wee lad and I could beat him with ease. Surely, if I could put the moves on a seven-year-old boy, I could go easy on a mature woman, beat her with a flurry of enviable roundball ballet, with baffling moves and delicate shots and retire, undefeated amid the adulation of the courtside audience.

 

I dribbled the ball a couple of times, faked right, crossed over to my left and intended to drive in for a left-handed layup, a move that I tried one time in high school, only to have our coach quickly pull me from the game, demanding, “What the hell do you think you’re doing— you can’t even make them right-handed. What makes you think you can make them shooting left-handed?”

 

This time surely would be better (“don’t call me Shirley”), given the weight of my years of experience and countless hours of practice on my own basketball court. Unaccountably I found myself without the basketball. Charlotte not only had stolen the ball, but had planted an elbow in my rib cage that felt as if someone had fungoed me with a Louisville Slugger, Willie Mays model. She also had whirled to the basket, laid in a soft shot off the backboard, and led me two-zip.

 

I had always thought that girls were equipped with two elbows, much like me and the other boys. But apparently, beneath that feminine framework, was a bone structure constructed of reinforcing rod. I very much wanted to rub what I suspected was a blossoming bruise, but male pride reared its ugly head and I took the ball for my turn and cravenly faked a drive and when Charlotte instantly blocked my path, I launched a desperation three point shot that somehow went down. Me, up three-two.

 

Much of the rest of the game is a blur but I do remember glancing to the sidelines to see if my fan base was cheering me on, only to find that they seem to be talking among themselves, busily opening new beers, posing for photographs of each other. Those who were paying attention seemed to be chanting, “go, Char!” And similar supportive exhortations that did not contain my name.

 

It came down to the final possession, score tied. By now the concept of male superiority in what was supposed to be a masculine endeavor had pretty well been destroyed. I was exhausted, bruised and only foolish pride kept me from conceding or inventing some feeble excuse for fleeing to the beer container for relief. It was my ball, one last chance to avoid the inevitable—watching that winning bucket, as Charlotte, fresh as the proverbial daisy, blew past me for the game ender.

 

Breathing like the bull, just before the toreador plants the fatal sword, I faked feebly as if I were going to drive for the basket. Charlotte, perhaps out of respect for her elder, especially one so clearly outclassed, relaxed and gave me an opening and I launched a prayer both Heavenward and at the basket. Perhaps that Presence above, in Her compassion heard my plea and had pity. The ball bounced around, dropped through the net, and I had won the great challenge.

 

“Great game, Char,” I wheezed. “Let’s get our guitars and play “’Rocky Raccoon.’”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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IT’S A ROUGH LIFE

By Joel M. Vance Back when I was still a kid (I had just become eligible for Medicare which, I thought I was going to need after that girl beat me half to death in a one-on-one basketball game—but more about that later), we poured a concrete basketball court and I carefully inscribed a high […]

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