Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Elgin Baylor of Showing Up Reliably

An American boy wants nothing more than to be viewed by his peers as “coordinated,” whch is to say athletic, but I surmised early on that my body and mind didn’t see themselves as a team. I would aspire to one thing — hitting a pitched baseball, for instance — and my body, tiny [see photo!] until the age of almost 17, would do quite another. I didn’t learn to ride a bicycle until eight. I was 15 when I began to swim, to whatever extent I can be said to swim.

For years, I hoped in vain that my incomparable enthusiasm might be perceived as adequate compensation for my ineptitude. I’d be the first boy on the local baseball diamond of a summer morning, and the last picked for a team. (There were more inept boys than I, to be sure, but they had the sense to stay in their bedrooms with their stamp collections, microscopes, Erector sets, or slim volumes of Mallarme.)

At 15, I tried out for a Colt League baseball team. Attempting to make up for with zeal what I lacked in ability, I shouted so much encouragement from right field — chattered, in the spicy argot of the diamond — that the pitcher whom I was encouraging gazed out at me incredulously. Elsewhere, though, I enjoyed a brief reprieve from the humiliation that followed me onto every field and court of play when my junior high school announced a school-wide table tennis competition. Maybe 18 months before, my dad had bought us a ping pong table (a rare thing indeed in view of my parents’ fervent disinclination ever to spend money on pleasure), and I’d found that I had a knack for the game. I wiped the floor with my opponent in the first round. My second opponent, the sort picked maybe second for every team, sneered delightedly at the sight of me, and snorted, “Well, this shouldn’t be so hard.” I wiped the floor with him, and advanced to The Final Four, only to be unable to compete owing to an allergic attack of the sort I’m enduring a million years later as I write this.

Not long thereafter, or maybe a little bit before, I played in two all-star basketball games. (One made the team simply by showing up reliably for after-school intramural sports. I couldn't dribble, pass, or shoot very well, but was the Elgin Baylor of showing up reliably!) In the 9th grade all-stars vs. faculty game, I was held (LOL) scoreless, and nearly trampled by my one-time art teacher, Mr. Selleck. Who’d have guessed that he was such a beast on the court? In the game against the mid-year 9th grade all-stars, though, I actually scored a basket, and my gentle giant teammate Tim Thomas, 6-2 at 15, marveled, “Way to go, John.” I will never forget his having done so.

All of which leads up to a particular sportsnite (that is, sock hop) at which, typically, some boys played basketball in the gym between dancing with actual girlies, who no doubt just loved being shoved around the dancefloor to Percy Faith’s "Theme From A Summer Place" by boys drenched in sweat. Excruciatingly shy as I was, I spent most of my time in the gym, where, at one point, an impromptu four-on-four basketball game shaped up. Of the eight players involved, I was chosen eighth, but will never cease to be grateful to Mr. Jim Bristow for making it seem, as it came time for him to make his third selection, that he was eager to have me. A (very) rare moment of empathy and graciousness! 

As I recall, I was held scoreless. A decade and a half later, though, in an impromptu contest at Hollywood High School, I drove the baseline as fiercely as Mr. Selleck had all those years before, and scored, prompting the guy who was supposed to be guarding me to shake his head and rue, “Big Man (I was the only one in the game over six feet tall) drives hard!”

One of the best moments of the '70s for me!


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