Memoires of an Average Athlete

I started out as a skinny kid growing up in small-town Indiana, and developed into an average athlete (not exactly the Larry Bird story).  My sports career is not so much a career as a series of random frustrations. Fortunately, I have a good sense of humor.

My career as an average athlete started with baseball. The guy who lived across the street from us coached the local little league team, and of course his kid was the pitcher. When my father signed me up at age 8 and the coach sized me up, a skinny, wobbly little kid, I immediately had a place reserved on the bench for the next four years. I didn’t grow much during that time, and got lots of rest (and splinters). 

The coach didn’t teach us much or generate much enthusiasm, what with spending all of his time yelling at his kid to pitch better. I did find myself in a game once, playing right field where no one ever hits the ball at that age. If memory serves I might have laid down and taken a nap. So much for pro baseball. No worries, I was on my way to being an average athlete. This was Indiana, so think basketball.

The average athlete thing continued with golf. I finally started growing when I hit puberty, and my coordination improved. I’ve always had pretty good hand-to-eye coordination. For some unknown reason, possibly a grant from the owner of the local Pepsi bottling company, our high school started a golf team. When I became a high school freshman, the golf coach invited me to join the team. I had never played golf before. The team was new, and they were desperate. 

Golf wasn’t exactly considered a sport in rural Indiana back then, perfect for an average athlete. Again, Indiana, think basketball. My first time on the local fairway, I didn’t really care, was relaxed and I did really well. My drives were long and straight and my putts were true, straight into the cup. The golf coach was excited; a future pro on his team.

My second time out, the coach started teaching me how to play golf, hold the club, tee off and putt, and it all went to hell. Let’s just say I saw more sand and water than I do now, living near the beach. Either my first time out was a fluke, the golf coach wasn’t very good or I did a lot better when I wasn’t really trying. Final result, no pro golf career for me.

This brings us to basketball, my one chance to shine at sports. Born a male in Indiana during the Bobby Knight years, my father placed a basketball in my crib as a newborn. I would inevitably either grow up to play basketball or with an inordinate fear of spherical objects. Much worse, I eventually grew to be a tall young man, topping out at 6’7”. It was a blessing or a curse, depending on how you look at it, but at that height there might be a chance for more than average athlete.

My father put up a basketball hoop in our back yard, and there was also an outdoor cement basketball court a block up the street from our house, lights included for night play. I started playing when I could first get the ball to the 10-foot hoop, and never looked back.

Still a scrawny kid, I discovered that I had excellent hand-to-eye coordination. I could shoot the ball with a great deal of accuracy, and the more I practiced the better I could shoot. I grew up in the valley of my small town, where the poor people lived. My neighborhood housed a lot of rough kids, most of them older, and bigger than me.

They often played basketball for money. My accurate shot made me an asset to a team, in spite of my scrawny build. When a big kid chose me for his team, I knew we’d better win. If I didn’t make enough shots to win the game, I would get beat up afterwards. Basketball was in my blood, and I lost a lot of blood as the result.

As I grew taller, I stopped getting beat up so much, but I was still skinny for my height. In my first two years of high school, I could shoot the ball with the best of them, but I was too small, light and skinny to rebound. Then it happened. The summer between my sophomore and junior year of high school, I grew from 5’7” to 6’5”, and I grew another two inches by my senior year to 6’7”. This rapid growth had several consequences. 

First, the doorframe to my bedroom was 6’, I had to get up early every morning that summer to go to work, and I never failed to smack my head on said doorframe. Second, my knees and coordination had trouble keeping up with the growth spurt, and I was so clumsy that if in a hurry I had to go up a flight of stairs on all fours to keep from falling and breaking my neck. Third, the high school basketball coach took notice and my junior year I started getting playing time on the varsity.

For a brief time, I lived in basketball Heaven. My senior year of high school, I started at center and led the team in scoring. In the seasonal tournament I scored 26 points in each of the two final games, although we lost to the local big city team in the finals. Then, a college coach (he later coached for the Los Angeles Lakers, and no, I wasn’t on that team) recruited me to play for him. I was also a good student, with a 3.5 GPA in high school, so I had a state academic scholarship. 

Riding high, I arrived at the college my freshman year to find out that the coach had also successfully recruited the number one high school center from a nearby state. The guy was 6’10”, weighed 290 lbs (to my 190) and was an animal under the basket. He played the same position as me. I was still fairly thin, he was a monster and I was concerned he might eat me. 

He got the playing time, and once again I got splinters (remember baseball?). My sophomore year, I changed position to forward, started to get some playing time, and then injured my leg. I also found that there just wasn’t enough time in the day to practice basketball, travel with the team and handle a pre-med curriculum. Cudos to those few players that succeed as academic all Americans. Their dedication must be way over the top; they must thrive on sleep deprivation.

As I look back now, I’m thinking God messaged me that perhaps I should choose a different path, and that’s what happened. So, no basketball career for me.

I also played a lot of tennis in my younger days. At one point in my late twenties, I started playing with a work colleague who had also been a very low ranked tennis pro, but a tennis pro nevertheless. We played a few times, and he told me my game was outstanding; encouraged me to take it seriously. At 6’7” with a long wing span, a lot of my game consisted of hitting a long ball, rushing the net and smashing the ball back at the opponent when they returned it. 

After playing with this guy for a few weeks, it became apparent that his encouragement was, shall we say, unfounded. I remember a lot of me hitting the long ball, rushing the net and either a) watching the ball fly by me as he hit a passing shot, b) chasing a perfectly placed lob all the way back to my baseline over and over or c) feeling pain when his smashing shot hit me in the ribs. One game on a hot day in July I remember chasing so many of his lobs that I had to stop and sit down in the middle of the court to rest. So no tennis career for me.

Then there was racquetball, the sport of crazy people. I never ever had any ideas about a career in this sport, although I had some interesting experiences with it. In my late twenties and early thirties, I played weekly cutthroat racquetball with two friends, both high school teachers. One of them was approximately 5’11” and hefty, the other 5’8” and really quick. Then there was me, 6’7” and finally gaining some weight, probably 220 pounds by then. I was the slow guy. 

Our idea of racquetball was to coax each other to chase a ball to the front wall and then use that person as target practice before they could escape back to center court. The two of us larger guys seemed to be better at coaxing the smaller fast guy to the front wall, we could both hit the ball really hard, and he had to get faster and faster to survive. This was a great way to work out the week’s frustration, although none of us ever escaped without a couple of circular red welts on various body parts. I’m not even sure we kept score. It was more like war than a sport. The only career I might have had would have included career visits to the ER.

Later in life, at age 50, I returned to racquetball when a good friend asked me if I would like to join him in a game at the local YMCA. I agreed to join him, and he proceeded to kick my butt over and over. As my frustration grew (did I mention he was 65, and really quick?), I bought one of those ‘racquetball for dummies’ books and learned how to play from center court and off the back wall. No more average athlete; I wanted to crush this 65-year-old friend (Yikes!). 

I finally got the hang of it and beat him some of the time. Being an average athlete, I took this as a win (have I mentioned he was 65 and I was 50?). Again, not my finest hour, but we did have a lot of fun. Like the time the ball went into the corner, I was also in the corner, and he whacked me with the racket, instead of the ball. Or, the time I hit him directly in the back of the head with the ball and he couldn’t see for several minutes.

Putting two overly competitive men into a small room with rackets and a hard rubber ball is not a sport, it’s nuts. But we enjoyed it, until the day his kill shot went left, my upper body went left and my legs got all confused and went right, blowing out my knee. So, the 65-year-old dialed 911, and after knee surgery the doctor recommended I take up golf. With all that sand and water, I figured I might as well just go to the beach.

So, that’s pretty much it for my career as an average athlete. As an epilogue, there is the fact that I desperately tried to relive (or actually live for the first time) my basketball glory through my three daughters. I encouraged them, and coached them, and dragged them to practice, and nagged them, and yelled at them…well, you get the idea. The average athlete coaching his children at his favorite sport. Much as with my sports career as an average athlete, this did not go well. 

My oldest daughter put up with me until her freshman year of high school, when she told me she was a swimmer, not a basketball player. My second daughter waited until she was a junior in high school, on the girls’ varsity basketball team and in line to start the following year. She told me at that point that she was a soccer player, having played both sports up until that time, and quit the basketball team. My youngest daughter, with the sweetest jump shot one could imagine, played for two years in high school. She made the varsity her sophomore year, and then decided she wanted to spend her time studying and left the team. (How does a father argue with that?).

Am I glad I played lots of sports? Well, as it turned out I ended up with a Ph.D. in pharmacology and a long, successful career in biotech and drug development. With the sports thing, let’s just say I got a lot of exercise and leave it at that.

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