Bean-pole, stretch, high-pockets, legs, stork, stick, slim, goofy, geek... oh, and the jokes. Whoa, don't let go of the kid, it's windy, he might blow away. We can't keep him dressed, clothes just drop off him. Hey, why don't we stick him in the ground and run the flag up. He was standing in the hall the other day and I mistook him for a coat-rack. It’s a good thing he's got a big nose, that's how we find him. Da-da da-dum... then comes school.
In high school I was somewhere between barely adequate and passable in sports. I had the misfortune of being blessed with desire and the fantasy of being good, although talent-wise... I got short-sheeted. Still, I tried.
Football was a disaster. At six-foot two and one hundred-twenty pounds sopping wet in my freshman year, I could barely hold up the stupid tackling dummy without jarring my teeth loose. Having been cut from the JV team, I referred to myself as a wide end, so wide I could watch the game from the stands.
I played basketball... well, sort of. I remember try-outs for the JV’s as a freshman, running up and down the court, forward, then backward. First without a ball-- which for me was better-- then, trying to dribble while running front, then back.
Usually, when it was my turn, the coach would close his eyes when I attempted this drill. I’m not sure, I think he day-dreamed of coaching in the NCAA. After I hit my feet with the ball once or twice and had to chase it all over the gym, he’d open his eyes and tell me to rest up, "Try it later, kid... much later."
The coach was truly amazed with me. I remember him remarking on the fact I did a lot of running, though it seemed to him, he said, "It’s all in the same spot."
He tried to make me a player because of my height. They needed someone tall to rebound and get the ball to the fast short guys. Unfortunately, my body wouldn’t do what either coach or I commanded. I was a step behind everyone on the give and go drill. When I gave, my guy was already gone. I had to chase him to give him the damn ball, and then go, somewhere, anywhere.
Needless to say, I didn’t make the cut.
That would have been the end of my story except for the fact I was tall and the school needed some tall players, even on the varsity.
So, the next day, after being cut from the JV‘s, taped on my PE locker was a note from the Varsity coach, it read: Dave Ross, Report to Varsity practice at 3:30 pm today. Signed by the varsity coach himself.
Coach Young, I remember his name because I thought he might be mentally imbalanced considering my junior varsity debacle.
There were two things I felt, reading that note. First, someone was playing a sick joke on me, then, oh mercy! the panic that it was really legit and I was going to have to practice with guys that really knew how to play.
It was the latter.
At 3:30, I nervously made my way to the gymnasium trying to look like I had some reason to be there with these jocks who all had real beards and actual muscles. Geez, I was just starting to get my pubic hair.
They all had green and white practice uniforms with numbers and white shoes, Chuck Taylor Converses in those days. I had gray gym shorts and a white t-shirt, with Ked’s black and white high-tops.
When they went through their warm-up drills I heard the screech of the shoes echoing on the polished hardwood. Every few seconds the coach blew his whistle and yelled out instructions, "weave!"… "fast break!"… "zone up."
The guys looked really graceful doing lay-ups and passing drills... wow, the rhythmic percussion of the ball being caught solidly and passed crisply to the next man. I stood there, mouth open, mesmerized... and paralyzed.
Coach was carrying a clip board, he looked at it, then over at me, I had nowhere to hide and he yelled, "Kid, don’t stand there, get at the end of that line and do some lay-ups."
I can’t relate how stricken I was. My heart pounded and jumped to my throat, I was sure I would pass out right there. I turned white, whiter and finally, dead pale.
But, it was easier to get into the lay-up line than to stand there seeing all those guys staring at my stick-legs protruding from my shabby gym shorts. I took my place praying my wobbly toothpicks would keep me standing.
As the line moved forward and longer behind me, it dawned on me, it would soon be my turn to catch the toss from the feed-line and take it to the basket. The coach, the players, everyone in the gym would witness my athletic ineptitude.
Unable to prevent it, I was at the head of the line and the guy from the feed-line fielded the shot by the player before me, turned smoothly and casually lofted the ball for me to catch and lay it up.
What followed was a defining moment of personal tragicomedy, indelibly marking an impressionable teenager’s image of himself.
I was late getting started because I was all wrapped up admiring the feeder’s graceful ball handling. So, I accelerated as fast as I could and started my ascent, three steps too soon... wrong foot.
That’s when I realized the ball was now coming down ahead, too far ahead. I reached out with both hands and one of my feet came up from my miss-timed jump and hit the ball squarely on the bottom.
I tried vainly to catch it on its way up, but that only resulted in my having both arms flailing in the air in what looked like an aborted attempt to take flight.
The accounts from there are many and varied, depending on who you ask. The coach related watching the flight of the ball as it soared to the upper reaches of the gym and lodged itself in the cross members of the ceiling structure where it remained for all four years of my varsity basketball career. It may still be there for all I know.
The bewildered athlete behind me recalls I landed on all fours with an ungraceful thud, picked myself up as if nothing had happened and vaporized to the rear of the feeder’s line, oblivious to the fact there was now no ball for the lay-up drill.
You’d think, after my experience with basketball and football, I would have abandoned further desire to become a multi-sport athlete.
You would think, but you’d be incorrect.
I next turned my athletic prowess to becoming a baseball player. Here, the disadvantages of being tall and skinny can far outweigh the advantages, particularly in my developmental stage.
The act of trying to swing a baseball bat is an event you do not quickly forget. The bat seems to have a life of its own, with you attached to it. You see the ball flying at you, your face contorts, you swing. The bat stays where it was while your body twists into an elongated pretzel, then, after the catcher has caught the ball, the bat decides to re-act to centrifugal force or some other idiotic phenomena.
It releases from its once stable position in an arc of intensity dictated only by the precise point at which you realize you are still holding it. From there a multitude of results can take place, none of them are what you intended. Either you’re immediately pulled across the plate in front of the catcher who is in the process of throwing the ball back to the pitcher or you stand there hanging on for dear life as the bat continues on its merry way, completely around you, twisting you from the top downward until you crumple to the ground in a knotted heap and then begin unraveling like cheap thread. Then again, possibly, at some point during this maneuver, you become aware that the bat is no longer in your hands and you have probably killed someone.
Catching the ball is speculative when you are in this particular stage of development. What usually happens is, you make this sort of arm sweep, your mitt bent downward and back, your wrist forward. There’s no possible way in the world you can catch in this position, but you try, at the last instant watching as the ball hits your wrist-- which hurts terribly-- or worse yet, seeing it miss your wrist and rocket directly into your groin, which permanently disables you.
You know, I eventually did get my own varsity locker, God knows, I couldn’t go anywhere but up.