During the month of March, each year, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is a blessing. The surprises and suspenseful moments of the games help get basketball junkies, like me, through those last tedious days of winter. Every March, as my favorite teams are eliminated and my brackets crumble, I cling to the notion that by the time of the two Final Four games, at least the warm weather will have arrived..
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 in my life has replaced the satisfaction that came from stealing the ball from an opponent, just as he stumbles over his hubris. It's especially nice when you get to shoot an uncontested layup, as a result -- providing, of course, you don't miss the snowbird.
The years I've spent covering college basketball, as a writer, have helped to soothe my basketball jones. Since the improvisational aspect of basketball has always appealed to me, from a seat on press row it's fun to watch particular players who have a special knack for seizing the moment. If it's a player you've seen plenty of, sometimes, from the expression on his face, you can sense what he's about to do.
While basketball is in some ways a finesse game, injury-wise, if you play enough of it there are some brutal truths it will inevitably serve up. Although I’ve heard people claim that we can’t remember pain, I have not 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 layup.
While I'd love to say the ball went in the basket, I don't remember that part. What I do remember is flopping around on the hardwood floor, uncontrollably, like a fish out of water. 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).
But this story is about another injury. On March 4, 1982, my then-34-year-old nose was broken during the course of a basketball game. In that time, the Biograph Theatre, which I managed, had a men's 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, the CBA was an off-shoot of the Fan District Softball League, with some of the same 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, after getting an X-ray the next day, I was waiting around in the hospital lobby to sign some papers and my grandmother -- Emily “Villa” Collins Owen -- was wheeled by. She was stretched out on a hospital bed. As I grew up in her home and was still very close to her, it had the same panic impact as 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 this 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 the morning that followed.
Had luck not interposed a fate-changing elbow to my beak, Katey and I may not have had that last precious visit with Nana. Knowing my grandmother, I'm not at all sure she would have let anybody know she was in the hospital. At least, not right away.
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.
You see, 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 future-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.
So, 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, maybe more purposeful. Which, apparently, was just what my game had been needing.
Our team didn’t lose another game that year; the Biograph Naturals won the league’s championship. In looking back on those weeks after my grandmother's death, I can easily see that in testing my nerve, in a fashion after the way West had tested his, in the spring of 1982 I was living out a boyhood dream. Some of the game's lucky breaks can only be detected in the rear-view mirror.