Of course, to be a junkie in full bloom one must still play the game. Since I quit playing basketball in 1994, 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.
Covering college basketball, as a writer, has helped to soothe my basketball jones. Since the improvisational aspect of basketball always appealed to me, especially, I like to pay particular attention to players who have 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 April 20, 1985; I was undercut on a fast break lay-up.
Take it from me, dear reader, popping your foot off your leg hurts too much to forget -- think James Cann in “Misery” (1990). To say that fateful event changed me physically is an understatement; the foot still feels like it’s attached to the rest of me at the wrong angle -- slightly the wrong place. More about that later.
Three years before that injury, my then-34-year-old nose was broken in the course of a basketball game (March 4, 1982). As painful and infuriating as that experience was in the moment, the next day it turned out to be a lucky break.
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, deTreville, etc. Personnel-wise, it was an off-shoot of the Fan District Softball League, with some of the same characters. But with the basketball league there was no pot-smoking or beer-drinking going on in the gym … during the games.
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 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 ways. The emergency room doc used Super Glue and a butterfly clamp to put it all back together. (It’s a little worse for wear, but it still works.)
Then, while I was waiting around in the lobby to sign some papers, my grandmother (Villa Emily 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 unexpected context.
We spoke briefly. She said she was feeling a little weak from a cold and wanted to spend the night in the hospital. 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. Six decades before that day she had trained to be a nurse at Stuart Circle.
Later I took my then-12-year-old daughter, Katey, with me, when I went back to see Nana. The doctor came in her room and told us she’d be fine with a good night’s rest. As Katey and I are both frustrated stand-up comics, we spent a half-hour making 83-year-old Nana laugh as best she could … feeling a little weak.
Nana died in the middle of that same night.
Katey and I wouldn’t have had that last visit with Nana, had luck not interposed a fate-changing spark. Nana would have sneaked into that hospital without telling anyone, if she could have. That was her nature. Seated at her mother’s piano, Nana could improvise endlessly on just about any tune.
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 still-tender beak, 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 in a Southern Conference game, when he was playing his college ball at West Virginia. It impressed the 12-year-old version of me to no end, 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. More purposeful. On defense, I got lower and kept my hands up and extended a little extra. On offense my moves were slightly more planned, more under control. I didn’t know it until then, but that’s exactly what my game needed. I tweaked it to initiate more and rely a little less on being a counter-puncher.
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.
Eventually, I also came to see how much my art matured in the year after the aforementioned ankle injury. While I was on crutches I designed and pasted -up the first SLANT (a local newsletter/magazine I published for nine years). Those artistic breakthroughs for me were facilitated by that injury.
And, although I thought I’d never play basketball after I got off the crutches, like a junkie, I played another nine years. For decades, I absolutely needed what basketball gave me. Then, it seems, a time came I needed to walk for a spell using crutches.
How much my own hubris contributed that broken nose is hard to say.
The college players I write about love the hyper-reality of playing in an important game. They’re hooked on basketball and can hardly imagine the day they will call it quits. They can’t let themselves be much concerned with the awkward landings and dislocations that are an inevitable part of what the game has in store for its junkies.
As fast as the Division I college game moves, the best of its improvisers see it happening in slow-mo vision, at times.
The weather is supposed to be even warmer tomorrow. Yes, it’s not February, any more. The Ides of March brings us brackets to ponder … break a leg.