Friday, April 21, 2006

A Story Of the Kid Whose Shots All Went Swish: His 7th-Grade Coach Told Him He Could Wear His No. 32 Jersey for Only Half Of the Team's Games

I was trying to make some sense out of what was in an old cabinet in the garage the other day -- something I do about every 10 years.

Stuck in a plastic bag was a newspaper clipping from May 29, 1977.

At the time, editors of the "Iowa Living" section were looking for stories for a series called "Those Were the Days."

In the story I wrote, there was a box, in italics, that said, "This is another in a series of responses from Register staff writers to a request for stories about turning points in their lives. Several of the stories actually are about turning points; others are about incidents remembered in vivid detail. This one is about neither."

Here's what I wrote:

I guess it happened when I was 11 -- the first time someone told me I was going to be a star.

Jack Fulton and I were shooting baskets in the alley behind my house in Cedar Rapids one spring afternoon. My shots at the goal my dad had attached to the garage were following the usual pattern.

From 10 feet the ball swished the net. From 12 feet...swish! From 15 feet...swish!

"You know," Fulton finally said after watching me make basket after basket in the era of the now-outdated push shot, "I'll bet you get four varsity basketball letters when you get to high school."

I blushed, of course, when I heard that. After all, Jack -- three or four years my senior, already well on his way toward attaining his eventual height of 6 feet 7 inches and a very good player himself -- was the resident basketball genius in tour neighborhood.

So when he said I had the tools to get four varsity letters, that meant I'd get four varsity letters. Upon hearing the news, I knew there would be no end to my accomplishments as a basketball player.

Murray Wier was an outstanding player at the University of Iowa in those days. I have never been much for hero-worship, but I did admire the things Wier -- a small man playing a large man's game -- could do with a basketball.

So I probably identified with him. After looking at the size of my parents -- both under 6 feet -- i realized I was not destined to be a 6-7 Jack Fulton or even a 6-3 Anybody Else.

But forget that. I could shoot. Man, could I shoot.

I knew very early, of course, that I would someday surpass of of Wier's records at Iowa. The crowds would cheer when I dashed out of the locker room onto the Iowa Fieldhouse court.

I would lead the Hawkeyes to the Big Ten championship, become an all-American and go on to perform great deeds in a professional league.

But, as all the great ones say, none of it came easy. It took practice. Countless hours of it.

The first time I shot at a basket, the ball I used was not even a basketball. It was a football. That was the kind of neighborhood we had. A ball for all seasons.

I would shoot anything to sharpen my eye. AMy mother still chuckles when she recalls the early morning sessions in the backyard I had with a mangled, frozen orange peel and a waste basket.

Orange peel? Waste basket? Yes, you'd be surprised how good it makes you feel to hear the "clang" a frozen orange pool makes when it hits a metal container at 7 a.m.

I was an authority on every church gymnasium in Cedar Rapids. I played in tiny gyms, big gyms that had low ceilings, gyms that had wooden floors that were so dead the ball wouldn't bounce.

I even joined a church seven miles from my home so I could playh for the basketball team. All in the interest, of course, of preparing myself for stardom.

I performed my great shooting act at the YMCA, the Community House and at just about every outdoor court in every alley in town.

We had no team at Lincoln, so my first stop as a school player was at Wilson Junior High. Was I ready when the coach posted the time for the first practice of our seventh- and eighth-grade team? Was Harry Truman at Democrat?

It bothered ma a little at first that all of the eighth-graders and 90 percent of the seventh-graders were taller than I was. No matter. I woujld outshoot all of them, I told myself.

And, of course, I could do that. Sitting 10, 12, 15 or 20 feet out on the court, I could whip any 6-footer in pure shooting.

But when it came to running the fast break, playing defense and rebounding, I guess I still had a thing or two to learn.

The coach saw it right away. That's probably why he said I could wear my No. 32 jersey only in every other game.

"The other times," he snapped, "another kid will wear the jersey."

Looking back now, the guy -- fool that he was -- was tryhing to tell me something. Like, "Flake off, kid. Basketball is not your game."

I tried not to let it bother me that I dressed for only half the games. Whenever Fulton would ask how I was doing, I'd brighten up and say, "Jack, I'm outshooting all of 'em."

In my private moments, I told myself I would grow and be able to rebound as well as shoot. I would zoom all the way up to 5-10 or 5-11. I'd show 'em. A nd, of course, I would continue my unbelievable shooting.

But you may as well know now. My competitive basketball career all but ended with that seventh-grade team. I made a pass at playing for the sophomores, but I learned the same tough lesson: not tall enough, not quick enough.

At some point in the next year or so, I made the decision that if I could not display my shooting arts in the great arenas of the nation, I would do the next-best thing and write about the shooting of others.

A poor alternative, to be sure. But in my mind, I would always know I could outshoot 'em all.

I can still do it, of course. I will take on any of you hotshots out there -- all of you 7-foot, full-ride scholarship, all-America superstars -- in a no-holds-barred shooting contest.

I'll go one-on-one with you anytime. Your driveway or mine.

You see, I will forever feel that seventh-grade coach was wrong. Don't forget, my shots go swish.