Each year the NCAA’s men’s basketball tournament is a blessing during the month of March. It helps get basketball junkies, like me, through those last tedious days of winter.
Of course, to be a junkie in full bloom one must still play the game. Since I quit playing basketball in 1994, I suppose I’ve been a junkie in recovery. Yes, I’ll always miss the way a perfectly-released jump shot felt as it left my fingertips. Nothing has replaced the satisfaction that came from stealing the ball from an opponent, just as he stumbled over his hubris.
The years I spent covering college basketball, as a writer, helped to soothe my basketball jones. Since the improvisational aspect of basketball has always appealed to me, from my seat on press row my inclination was to pay particular attention to players who had a special knack for seizing the moment.
While basketball is in some ways a finesse game, there are brutal truths to be reckoned with. Although I’ve heard people claim that we can’t remember pain, I’ve not completely forgotten what it felt like to dislocate my right ankle on the afternoon of April 20, 1985; I was undercut finishing a one-on-five fast break lay-up. I'd love to say the ball went in the basket, but I don't remember that part.
What I do remember is flopping around on the hardwood, uncontrollably, like a fish out of water for a minute or so. Take it from me, dear reader, popping your foot off the end of your leg hurts way too much to forget -- think James Caan in “Misery” (1990).
Three years before that injury, my then-34-year-old nose was broken in the course of a basketball game. In that time, the Biograph Theatre, which I managed, had a team in a league called the Central Basketball Alliance. Other teams were sponsored by the Track, Soble’s, Hababa’s, the Jade Elephant, etc. Personnel-wise, it was an off-shoot of the Fan District Softball League, with some of the same characters ... and, I do mean characters.
The morning after my nose was bashed in by an opponent’s upwardly thrust elbow, while I was coming down from a failed attempt at snatching a rebound, I went to Stuart Circle Hospital for treatment.
My nose wasn’t just broken, it had been split open at the bridge in three or four directions. The emergency room doc used Super Glue and a butterfly clamp to put it all back together. This was before such glue had been approved for use in this country, so he asked me not to tell anyone what he had done; I hope the statute of limitations has run out.
Then, while I was waiting around in the lobby to sign some papers, my grandmother -- Emily “Villa” Collins Owen -- was wheeled by, stretched out on a hospital bed. As I grew up in her home and was still very close to her, it had the same shock effect as accidentally seeing one’s parent in such an abrupt context.
We spoke briefly. She said she was feeling a little weak from a cold and had decided to spend the night in the hospital. She lived just a few blocks away. Pretending to ignore my gripping sense of panic, I calmly assured Nana (pronounced Ny-nuh) I’d be back during visiting hours, to see how she was doing.
That evening I took my then-12-year-old daughter, Katey, with me to see Nana. The doctor came in her room and told us she’d be fine with a good night’s rest. Katey and I spent a half-hour making our 83-year-old Nana laugh as best she could … feeling a little weak. Six decades before she had trained to be a nurse at that same hospital, which has now been converted into condos.
Nana died later that night; it was in the wee hours of March 5, 1982. Had luck not interposed a fate-changing elbow to my beak, Katey and I probably wouldn’t have had that last visit with her. Which means I have to say the palooka who elbowed me in that basketball game did me a favor. Perhaps in more ways than one.
In order to keep playing in the Biograph’s games in that season, I needed to protect my nose while it healed. So, I got one of those protective aluminum nose-guards I’d seen players wear. It was a primitive version of the clear plastic masks in use today.
As a kid, I saw NBA great Jerry West wearing such a broken-nose-protector when he was playing his college ball at West Virginia. It impressed the 12-year-old version of me to no end; I marveled at how tough and focused West was.
Wearing what was to me a Jerry West mask, I played the rest of the CBA season -- maybe five more games. Now I believe that period was about the best basketball I ever played. Not wanting another whack to the nose made me a little more careful.
The team didn’t lose another game that year; the Biograph Naturals won the league’s championship. It has taken the passing of time for me to realize that in testing my nerve, in a fashion after the way West tested his, I had been living out a dream.
It seems some lucky breaks can only be detected in the rear-view mirror.