Cinderella Teams and Hoosier Dreams

About this time of year, when the boys were just beginning to talk, I handed Javi his milk in the morning. He toddled over to the couch like an old man. He climbed up, pointed to the TV, and repeated over and over “Ball? Ball? Ball?” I didn’t need a doctor to diagnose his condition; I knew he had March Madness.

Where I grew up, basketball is almost a religion. There are only about a thousand people who live in the tiny towns in our district, and attending a game means driving a half hour or more across narrow highways through the prairie—a Hoosier-esque display of headlights against a darkened horizon. Small high school gyms would be filled to the rafters on Friday and Saturday nights. The smell of popcorn and nachos lingered in the air mixing with the smell of sweat and the shrill shrieks of the referees’ whistles.

Without the entertainment venues in larger places, the social scene in small communities centers around school functions, and basketball—being in winter with less work for farmers to do—was easily the main attraction. I spent so much time in gyms as a kid, whenever I go inside one today, I feel a certain kind of peace—similar to walking into a church. My favorite court of all time was at my grandparents’ machine shed.

The shed had enough room to house a tractor, combine, a couple pickups and grain trucks. Tucked inside as well was a basketball stand that my father sauntered together with scrap iron. The board and hoop had been bought and attached to the stand. My siblings and I spent hours and hours playing HORSE or one-on-one. We used a piece of duct tape to mark the free-throw line. In elementary school, keeping my head up, not looking at the ball, I dribbled all over the shed, around a cherry picker, tool benches and seed bags. As I got bigger, layups and free throws became my obsession. Eventually, I spent my time trying to master the cross over or reverse layup. In high school, whenever I needed to think about things, I’d always go shoot baskets.

In grad school, some of the guys in my department and I would play pick up games on Friday afternoons. I hadn’t played in years, and it felt so good to shoot around. Like riding a bike, the muscle memory gave me my shot back almost immediately, though maybe not with the same accuracy. I’d show up early to have time on the court to myself. Shooting baskets has always been some kind of meditative practice for me, and I miss it now more than I thought I would. My husband bought me an all-weather ball and tells me I need to start going to the playground at lunch—with all the middle schoolers—and play again. If the wind dies down around here, maybe I will.

What childhood games do you still play?

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