Pickup Basketball Once

In the original post, which i began last weekend, i made a geographic error in the description of the gym basement. Bill Goodner, who should be my editor for all things Castle Heights, pointed out the errors in a Facebook message when he read the post. i have revised the post and added a bit with the memories Bill jogged up for me.

As usual, i have about 945,328 tasks to get done in an hour. i’m so busy i even have passed on a couple of spider solitaire games. But i have been watching a ton of basketball games.

Of the dozen or so sports i’ve attempted in my life, basketball was probably the one i played worse than others. This is disappointing in my mother was a star, a record scorer, a Lebanon High School Blue Devil in the initial group inducted into their Hall of Fame. At five feet, flat. So it is difficult for me to blame my height, or lack of it, for my lack of success. Or rather, my lack of making the varsity at Castle Heights Military Academy.

i made the varsity in football my sophomore year, even was the only sophomore to make a road trip (another story). i was a five-foot-six, 128-pound terror of a linebacker but hurt my knee after the first game my senior year. Thus such silly promise was ended. As noted frequently here, i loved football, especially when i realized i was never going to be the next Red Grange, Jim Thorpe, Doak Walker, or Clifton Tribble and moved to defensive linebacker. i enjoyed the practices as much as the games, perhaps even more so because i got to play more and loved to tackle.

i was a decent baseball player at catcher, outfield, third base, shortstop, and finally years later second base. i had good hand-eye coordination, probably would have been a better catcher had someone given me some technical advice on stopping wild pitches, loved third base, and played okay at 44-46 years old in an adult baseball league (over 33) in the Southwest corner.

Basketball? Well, even though i did not see my height challenge as a limiting factor, it was. Even though i was not particularly good at shooting or dribbling with my left hand nor having a decent jump shot, i was about half decent as a point guard, could drive pretty well, and had a fair to middling push shot from the corners…or at least thought it was pretty good.

Before everyone else grew up and i stayed my junior high height, i was the co-captain of the junior high team along with Clinton Matthews who became a high school star who was superb on the fast break.

Even more so than the other two sports, basketball was a challenge for me at Castle Heights. Post-graduates recruited for their athletic prowess dominated the football and basketball rosters. Nearly all of them were well over six feet, except for some very talented guys who topped off just below six feet, like Phil Turner, and Crockett Carr, who i previously have pointed out had a beautiful jump shot. Phil did too and he was deadly.

For three years, i played JV, “B” team basketball. My senior year, unable to play on the JV due to restrictions, i became the manager, and loved it. But not as much as playing. i said then i am even more convinced now, basketball is the best for a complete workout in every aspect of exercise, all parts of the body, aerobic and an anaerobic. i miss it.

However back then, there were alternatives that weren’t run by any organization. i played in pickup games everywhere in Lebanon i could. Mike Dixon was the usual fomenter of my court endeavors. We played at the old Cumberland gymnasium with college guys. We played at Lebanon High School with our high school friends who were our teammates in Little League, Babe Ruth League, and American Legion baseball as well as the Lebanon Junior high football and basketball teams. We even played at McClain School, in the indoor gym/cafeteria/auditorium or the outdoor recess courts.

In the fifth grade at McClain School, we even came up with a cockamamy idea and  pulled it off thanks to Mrs. Edwards, our teacher, who i must admit was as lax as my mother thought she was when it came to discipline. Townley Johnson, Bill Cowan, i think Henry Harding, several others, and myself created an afternoon game against — and here i’m guessing the other fifth grade class. We staged it in the gym right after lunch was finished and they folded up all the tables on each side. i have no idea how it came out, but i think that is the only time i really got hurt on the court. i was driving on the basket and stepped on the side of Townley’s big foot, severely spraining my ankle.

Far and away, my basketball domain was the Castle Heights gymnasium. With the town boys’ lockers in the basement, across from the football, basketball, and baseball dressing room (did wrestling, soccer, track, and others also share that sweat soaked den?). Further down the hall was Major Baker’s  geometry classroom across from Coach Stroud Gwynn’s General Science Major Tom Harris’ English classroom was in the southeast corner, and in the northeast corner was the famous Major Sweatt’s biology class. i did well in grades in biology but the dead frogs and the formaldehyde killed any ideas of becoming a medicine man. i spent what felt about two years in the jacuzzi with my knee the last of my autumns in the football dressing room. Our locker room was a den of iniquity and high school high jinx, but the gym, ahh, the gym: a place where dreams were made.

So in addition to the three years of junior varsity ball (and there are some pretty good stories about that), the lure of that small gym with seating only in the balcony, two rows of seats on the sidelines and four behind the west backboard, was a lure too hard to dismiss. At every opportunity, there was a pickup game. Sometimes when there was not time to change into gym gear, we would take off our shoes and long-sleeve gray shirts and play in our grey wool or cotton trousers with the black stripe down the side and play until the soles of our feet were pretty much just one big blister.

It was nearly always half court, and it seemed every town boy at one time or another would join in. Jimmy Hatcher was irritating (when he was on the other side, “shirt” or “skins”) because i never could block that shot that came from in front of his face, not above his head. Phil Turner just scored at will. Tommy Palmer was a force but i remember him because he taught all of us how to spit shine, a capability that served me well for thirty years. George Thomas could make ugly shots, but he made them. Burton Humphreys could beat you up under the boards and score at will on rebounds. Mike Gannaway also was good under the boards. Jimmy Gamble had a nice one-hand push shot.

And then there were two who were there pretty much all the time they could be there: Mike Dixon and me. If there was no one else there, it was a continuous one-on-one. We played at lunch time and almost every break that would take us close for more than a half hour. We played after football practice. We played after baseball practice. And there were a couple of times we played after basketball practice. Mike had a two-handed jump shot, and when he got hot, he was as good a field goal shooter as i have seen anywhere.

After baseball practice, we would play until one of two things stopped us. Either Mrs. Fahey, who lived in the apartment at the front of the gym, would chase us out because we were making too much noise during her supper or we would realize we were significantly late for supper at our respective homes. Sometimes it would a double whammy when both of those pickup game interrupters would coincide unceremoniously.

i played pickup games afterwards in college, in the Navy, and even one or two in other places and other times.

i am too old for pickup games now. About five years ago, i passed by a court and took some shots at the foul line. i will not tell you the results, but it was pretty ugly, almost as ugly as my putts. But i’m still putting.

Still, the thoughts of those pickup games in Lebanon, Tennessee remain in my mind pure joy.

Tomorrow, i am thinking i might get that old worn basketball out, pump it up, go  a couple of houses down toward the entrance to our cul de sac where a neighbor with some young children has put up a portable goal and backboard on his sidewalk. i might shoot a few, especially one-handed push shots from the corner.

i’ll miss of course, but i’ll remember.

Yes, i’ll remember.

1 thought on “Pickup Basketball Once

  1. Great basketball pickup games story Jim. Participated in many in my youth in Kentucky…Great fun and memories..

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