Time Out: June 9, 2010
The death of basketball’s legendary coach John Wooden this weekend caused me to pause and take stock of time. Wooden was 99 years old when he passed. His legacy on and off the basketball court may never be matched and is sure to withstand the test of time. Wooden’s passing transported me back to a time many years ago when the magnetic allure of the UCLA coaching great would almost be transforming to me.
In the summer of 1969, a shy, unassuming 17-year-old from Youngsville, was struggling to discover who he was and could become. The world at that time was incredibly narrow for the young man who at that time was preparing to enter his senior year in high school. All that really mattered was found at home, in school, or in the local communities of Youngsville and Jeffersonville.
My children guffaw when I tell them I had only seen three movies in a movie theater and traveled beyond Sullivan County a total of two or three times when I headed off to college after graduating from high school. Stories depicting the localized life I lived during “my day” seem as put on to them as my dad’s claims that he walked over five miles to and from high school each day when he was young at one time seemed to me. But, the truth was, I lived an incredibly narrow, sheltered life prior to the summer of ’69 and John Wooden was instrumental in opening the doors of possibility.
Always the late bloomer, I was a late arrival at the basketball scene, too. Attending a small Catholic school through seventh grade, a school with no gymnasium and no physical education classes didn’t help. A wild growth spurt at 13 did not improve my image of myself as a basketball player, but it activated my dad’s imagination. The more convinced he became that a kid growing as quickly as I was, would one day become a basketball star, the more I recoiled and withdrew from the sport, convinced someone as gawky and awkward as me could never find the grace and athleticism needed to excel on the hardwoods.
Eventually my resistance would wear down, and I would give the great game a try. A shortage of coordination and skill could not dampen my enthusiasm and love of this new sporting activity. Forced to play on the seventh-grade team during my first year in public school as an eighth-grader, the 14th man to make a 14-man junior varsity squad as a freshman, a hopeless substitute who scored a total of four points the entire freshman year, nothing would push me away from the game. Finally, at 15 or 16, the wild growth spree slowed, my coordination rallied, and my basketball game began to resemble the game Dr. James Naismith had invented.
My modest success only fed my dad’s fantasy of my future hardwood fame and fortune. In the spring of my junior year in school, much to my dismay, he decided he wanted to send me to basketball camp that summer. The idea was terrifying to me. No matter how I tried, I could not wrap my head around the thought of spending a week at some mountain camp in Pennsylvania with over 200 guys. Furthermore, I was sure that the talent level at the camp would be overwhelming, and rather than improve the level of my play, I would be humiliated. Making matters worse, I knew my family’s financial picture left much to be desired and the $100 plus it would cost for me to attend the camp would be taxing on my parents. I dug my feet firmly in the sand and screamed, “No way.”
My dad would not be deterred and sent for the information. A packet from the Top of the Pocono Basketball Camp arrived with a major surprise. The program cover sported a glossy picture of John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood, and the Coach of All Coaches from UCLA. Wooden would be at the camp and kick off the week, providing basketball instruction in the opening session.
The appeal of the UCLA legend was overpowering. Somehow, I could not believe that I could attend a camp and receive instruction from John Wooden.
Not surprisingly, Wooden’s instructional session proved disappointing to the dopey, limited 17-year-old. Wooden, 58, appeared old and frail to a young guy who had lost almost all his older relatives by their mid-60s. His instruction was basic and fundamental, covering topics with which I was familiar. It would only be later in life as a basketball coach when I would come to appreciate Wooden’s obsession with fundamentals as one of the lynchpins of his phenomenal success.
Wooden’s impact on me did not take shape on the basketball court. Instead, it was his powerful aura that compelled me to take the risk to vacate home for the mountains of Pennsylvania. That week in camp was earth shattering, ripping away the barriers of my sheltered life and opening up a world of possibility.
At first, I was almost raucous with homesickness. My first night at camp was only the second night I had ever spent sleeping in a bed other than the one in my attic bedroom at home. One of my roommates was a black center from Manhattan, one of the first blacks I had ever met. We became fast and inseparable friends that week and corresponded by letter for most of the year after leaving camp. I surprised myself to discover that I was not totally socially inept and could make friends with total strangers. And, surprise of surprises, I made the All-Star team during the second of two All-Star encounters held late in camp week.
Opened a new world
Looking back at that week, I have come to appreciate the role it played in opening the narrow confines of my world. Without the magnetic appeal of John Wooden and that week, I sometimes wonder whether or not I would have survived my freshman year in college. The start of my college years was excruciatingly painful, a time of depression and despair, when I often forced myself to soldier on by considering the fact that I had survived that week away from home in summer camp.
I smiled reading a New York Times account of Wooden’s passing when I learned that for most of his retired years, he would return to his hometown in Indiana and visit his high school gymnasium to watch the contemporary high school hoopsters practice. Always unassuming, Wooden would appear unannounced and sit in a corner and just enjoy watching the guys play.
On a local note, the Andes boys and modified sports program finally found a home away from home. The Mountaineers will transform into Rams next year as the Andes boys join South Kortright’s athletic teams.
The South Kortright Board of Education voted to approve a sports merger with Andes and welcomed the ACS athletes into the fold. The merger request was next approved by the Delaware League and soon moves to Section IV for final approval.
Because high school sports mergers can only be approved on a season-by-season basis, the Andes/SK merger is for the fall season of 2010. Barring unanticipated snags, the two schools will seek mergers for boys’ team sports in the winter and spring seasons. Hopefully, the spirit of collaboration might find the new partners seeking expanded alliances in tennis and track this spring.