In the Zone
In my younger days I loved to play team sports, and probably spent more time at them than I should have.
Baseball was by far my favorite, and I was actually pretty good at that game. Football was a distant second. Although I played on my high-school team, my career was, at best, one of unfulfilled potential.
And then, there was basketball. How can I describe in few words my basketball talent? “Zero” comes to mind. Or, how about “a long, and ultimately successful, pursuit of mediocrity”? Take your choice.
And yet, this is a story about me and basketball. More accurately, it is a story about one improbable and never-again-approached peak of performance in which my name and that of Michael Jordan might reasonably have been mentioned in the same sentence. Is that too outrageous a statement? Oh yeah. Absolutely. But then, we write these things to entertain as well as for any other reason, so I’ll let it stand.
I think I was 18 or 19 at the time. Ours was a neighborhood team, playing in a city-sponsored league in Philadelphia. We were really not all that bad, which is surprising since I was one of the starting five. Long on hustle, short on talent, I had reached the stage where I knew enough about the game to do what little I was capable of, and stay the hell out of the way of the better players. Usually I could be counted on to contribute maybe 4 or 6 points per game, but hardly ever more.
This night was different. I made my 6-point quota in the first 8-minute quarter and, feeling my oats, kept taking my shots instead of setting up other players as I usually did. And, to everyone’s amazement including my own, most of my shots were going in. When the halftime buzzer sounded, our team captain, George Herrman, went quickly to the scorer’s table, scanned the book, and came back to the bench shouting, “St. John has 16 points! Feed the Saint!”
And feed me they did. No matter where I was on the court, they passed me the ball. I would throw it up, and – swish! Nothing but net! I couldn’t miss.
At one point I drove hard through the circle towards the basket and tripped – probably over my own feet – and, just before my face hit the floor, I threw the ball up blindly in the general direction of the basket. Of course, it went in. As I got up, players on both teams were shaking their heads, some laughing out loud.
Although few had probably ever been lucky enough to experience being “in the zone” during an actual game, they all knew what it was when they saw it happening. It’s a strange feeling of being at one with the game. You just know where to move, you know precisely where the basket is at all times, how much arm and shoulder thrust to put into each shot, what degree of finger roll to impart as you let fly. No conscious thought is required. You just know.
I can’t recall for certain whether the “zone” term was in use back then or coined some years later. One word for the phenomenon definitely in use at that time was “unconscious”. Not a bad descriptor, actually. A more widely used, and considerably less polite, expression I heard more than once that evening was that I was pulling those shots out of a part of my anatomy not normally used for that purpose. Crude, but not without symbolic merit.
We won the game of course, by the resounding score of 80 to 33. And I had scored 41 points in a 32-minute game. I never again came anywhere close to repeating that performance. Only the Michael Jordans and Kobe Bryants of this world get “in the zone” on anything like a regular basis, so once in this lifetime for me is just fine. It makes a nice memory.