Wednesday, January 2, 2013

My Ultimate Basketball Career Highlight: January 7, 1963

On January 7, 2013, I will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the all-time highlight of my career as a junior high (Hillcrest Junior High School) and senior high school (Fayetteville [Arkansas] High School) basketball player.

The setting was this: the B-team of the Fayetteville Bulldogs was playing in the finals of the West Fork Invitational Basketball Tournament against Cedarville (a "town" located somewhere in Arkansas, I think). We had won two previous games to make it to the finals. Teammates were Eddie Guinn, a high school junior, and Louis Bryant, Kenny Ramey, Bill Crook, Steve Slack, and Freddie Gabbard, all high school sophomores.

The West Fork gym was the typical small town gym that also served as an assembly meeting space and a place for plays, concerts, sermons, speeches, etc. On one side of the basketball court was a steep bank of bleachers for spectators; on the other side was a stage. Both team's benches were on the side with the stage because the bleachers (which were permanent, not sliding like at Fayetteville High School) were so close to the basketball court that there was no room for a team bench. As a result, our backs were to the stage where cute Cedarville cheerleaders were urging on their team. (The Bull Pup B-team had no cheerleaders, of course.)

As with any small gym crowded with people, it was hot that night. Mighty hot. We played a tight first half and were tied 28 to 28 at the half.

It was my night, and I was hitting everything that I shot, so during the second half, the Cedarville Needles (or whatever they were called) started guarding me very closely. A few minutes into the second half, the highlight of my career occurred, but first a little more background.

As I mentioned it was quite hot in the jammed West Fork gym. The play was all-out, up and down the court. Naturally, we were huffing and puffing and dripping sweat. That created a problem: the B-team wore hand-me-down uniforms whose shorts became translucent (some said close to transparent) when they got wet. (And the basketball shorts in 1963 were very short compared to the shorts now worn by basketball teams.) My mother pointed the problem out one night after a game, urging me to wear something underneath the basketball shorts other the customary athletic apparel. I laughed her off.

Of course, the thought that the mighty Bull Pups were running around 4/5ths naked was not on my mind as we started falling behind the Needles in the second half. Then came the play: I was on the wing and someone whipped an errant pass headed toward my feet. I bent over to catch the ball; at the same time a wild-eyed Needle crashed into me, knocking me to the floor.

Sitting on the floor in a puddle of sweat, I knew something was badly, tragically wrong. My behind could feel the floor with no translucent polyester cloth in between the two. The behind of my sopping wet shorts had split open. Maybe I should have taken my mother's advice. I was exposed to the world.

What to do? What to do?

The refs had called a foul on the guy who had plowed into me, and I was facing a one and one at the foul line. I sat watching as players moved to take their positions for the free throws. I had to get up. What to do?

I looked over at the coach. He hadn't noticed anything. He wasn't going to bail me out. I heard no laughter or screams from the crowd. So I did what I had to do. I stood up, walked to the free throw line, and with the hot gym air streaming into the ripped out bottom of my basketball shorts, with a red face and pounding heart, I MADE TWO FREE THROWS!

After that I ran over to the bench and pointed out the breech in my decorum to the coach and the laughing Needle cheerleaders behind him. A timeout and emergency exchange of pants (many thanks Freddie Gabbard) and I could return to the game, which we lost when the Cedarville punks started making all their shots.

In retrospect, I have been prouder of those two free throws, made in extremis, than any other thing I did on the basketball court (not that there were very many highlights to choose from).

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