Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Basketball Junkie

Going into the last week of this year’s NCAA basketball “March Madness,” I am currently standing in second place in the Glen Rock Jewish Center brackets. That may sound impressive, however I will certainly topple in the standings over the weekend and fall out of the money because my predicted champion has already been eliminated. All of which means that what once was a potential profitable “investment” (up to half of $540) will become merely a small donation to the synagogue. That’s certainly nothing new. I have been making similar donations via March Madness events nearly every year for as long as I can remember. I did come in second one year, but after I made an expected donation to the synagogue from my winnings, my bank account did not experience a big boost. Oh well.

I have a long and checkered career with basketball—as a player, writer, and very small-time gambler. My playing years began in the youth rec leagues in Savannah, where I was a guard on various community center teams. We young Jews took on young Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Protestants. The South is big on churches and church youth groups. I remember playing games in a huge cement block building called the Tiger Gym. The place was poorly heated by a large pot belly stove located somewhere near midcourt on the sidelines. When you crossed midcourt, you sweated through a blast of hot air, while when you headed to either end, you could freeze your balls off! The floor might also get icy and slippery in the chilly regions far from the stove, making play a little tricky. But it was basketball, and I loved it! I developed a special move on the court. I would drive one way and then send a “no-look” pass toward a teammate. Unfortunately, my teammates were seldom looking for my passes, since I wasn’t looking at them while passing, and the passes often went awry anyway because I wasn’t looking either. Is it any wonder that I spent much time on the bench?

I did play one year for Wilder Junior High’s undefeated city champions in Savannah. I didn’t rack up a lot of minutes on the court or points scored, playing behind Tommy Bonds, who would go on to become a high school star, but I vividly remember heading to the foul line in one game while the cheerleaders chanted “Goodman, Goodman, he’s our man. If he can’t do it, no one can.” I also remember making both foul shots that time. Never underestimate the power of cheerleaders.

Wilder's champs. Tommy Bonds and I are next to each other in the front row.
 Only one of us will become a star.
During my high school and college years, I moved from the court to the stands, and dreamed of a time I might be invited to sit in a press box. I covered nearly every one of Savannah High’s basketball games for the Blue and White. One year, I convinced school administrators to grant me a free press pass that saved me from having to pay for admission to games. No one had ever asked for such a thing before. When it came to basketball, I could be assertive.

Once in college, I became the intrepid basketball reporter for the Yale Daily NEWS. This is not as impressive as it sounds. This year, the Yale team made it to the NCAA playoffs for the first time since 1962, that’s 54 years without winning an Ivy League title. I covered some pretty terrific players during my college years, but very few of them played for Yale. The New York Times never offered me a job as a stringer because we just weren’t that interesting.
Yale Ivy Champ shirt. A true collector's item.
Then I got a new ambition. During one college game, I tried my best to make the bridge between print and broadcast. My close friend Bob Shapiro, who was heading the broadcast team for the Yale radio station, interviewed me at halftime of a game between Yale and Columbia in New York. We had a lively discussion, and I offered some insightful comments that I was sure would impress both students in New Haven and broadcast scouts around the world. Unfortunately, as it turned out, the microphones must have malfunctioned during the interview. People back in New Haven were treated to dead air instead of my brilliant analysis. So it goes.

After college, I filled my basketball fix with occasional pickup games at Y’s in New Jersey and even when on visits back to Savannah. Sadly, my jump shot, never very impressive (my feet seldom got very far off the floor) began to desert me, and my no-look passes didn’t become any more accurate. So I finally retired from the courts and drifted toward an even more depressing basketball avocation—rooting for the hapless New York Knicks. How sad is that!

And every year, I still get back in the game during March Madness. I fill out a bracket, watch lots of games, and pay special attention the cheerleaders. Deep inside, I imagine they’re cheering for me.


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