I was raised in a family that loved sports. My father coached high school football and refereed high school basketball for thirty or forty years in North Jersey. It was understood that his three sons would be involved in sports. Both my brothers played basketball at Davidson College. My younger brother even got some all-American honors, and the Nets drafted him. In high school, I played basketball and football, and I went on to play two years of football at Virginia Tech. My sister, the youngest of four, escaped some pressure to participate in sports, but she spent a great deal of time having to suffer through her brothers' events.
I enjoyed football but was not passionate about the game. I only played two years because I was a 215-lb. center. The linemen were nowhere near the size they are now, but I was still 35 or 40 lbs. too light. I went into premature retirement when I realized that it would be hard to compensate for my lack of size with my lack of speed.
I have many good memories centering on my participation in sports, even though by best count, my skill levels were only slightly above average. That said, I have always loved the quote, "The older I get, the better I was." As tales of sporting glory are told through the years, the distance between memory and reality often grows. When it comes to my sports "careers," I don't have that problem. The highlights of my sporting days and the moments of glory were rare, so they remain clear in my head. I realize that I played way above my skill levels in sports, so I have never felt a need to embellish as I talk of past "glory."
While playing high school basketball, I had some limited success. In a typical game, I would score 15 points while shooting somewhere around a scorching 21% from the field and about 26% from the foul line. The scouting report on me was that I would shoot from anywhere. Adding to the 15 points, I would grab about five rebounds and a couple of steals and commit four very offensive charges. I guess the four charges made me realize that my focus should be on football.
I do have to share that magical basketball game many of us who have competed are lucky enough to have had. My team was playing Englewood High School, and they were stacked with tough inner city street-ball players. Our team was weak, and the chance of beating Englewood was virtually nonexistent. Let's face the facts. They had players who could actually dunk.
Liking the street-ball style contact (as above noted by my history of charging), I was having my magical game. Everything I threw up was going in, and I had more than 30 points as the game was winding down. With seven seconds left in the game, we were down one point and had the ball. My coach called time out and, in the huddle, set up an out-of-bounds play to get the ball in my hands because I was on fire.
Well, here it was -- my chance to be the hero. One more bucket, and we would beat this perennial basketball powerhouse. I was just seconds away from being carried off the court and forever etched in the memories of the fans of Passaic Valley High School.
The out-of-bounds play worked as drawn, and I got the ball at mid-court. The clock was ticking away... 7... 6. I took two dribbles to the right, as my defender shuffled ahead of me... 5 ... 4. I then decided that reversing directions by dribbling behind my back was the best option. (You need to remember that very few people dribbled behind their backs in the late '60s and early '70s. In the Garden, they still went wild each time Earl "The Pearl" Monroe or Walt "Clyde" Frasier accomplished this dribbling feat. That fact would not alter my thought process.) I had decided, and I was going behind my back and heading to the rim, as the clock ticked to 3. The excitement was building, and the fans were on their feet screaming. I started to cut left and pushed the ball behind my back and directly off the heel of my left foot. The ball rolled across the floor, heading out of bounds as the clock ticked... 2... 1... BUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.
I have always been thankful for my fateful dribble. To this day, it serves as a reminder to me to live the good life because the line between hero and goat is very fine. Many sports heroes who have fallen from grace in recent years must have forgotten about their behind-the-back dribble moments. Their success has clouded their judgment and created egocentric mentalities as well as lifestyles. Respect for the game and those who have supported them is often lost in the shuffle. That mentality is often a path that takes people straight from "the thrill of victory" directly to the "agony of defeat."