Monday, March 15, 2010

March Madness

Most likely a pre-existing condition it is characterized by squandering pay checks in office pools, pizza deliveries and grunts & moans from the coach. If your alma mater isn’t included among the 64 chosen teams you may not even notice all the hoopla, unless of course you have money on the point spread.

Basketball is to urban America what baseball was to the pastoral in our collective imagination. It is an inner-city sport played on pot-holed courts, with dead rims behind chain link. Players held to hard ground as in bondage till they are sprung in manumission. Centuries of hang-time, climbing the air in grace for all those who fell before, they soar toward a promised place. The ball is claimed with a stretch and howl, trunk and elbows contoured like a sax, the way Yardbird held his wail, then passed like notes inside the paint, low post, quick pick and cut could be Miles, these riffs, double pump and a slam. Bodies as instruments in sync, one organism answering as if another verdict just came down.

When I played for my college as a freshman in 1950 it was a finesse sport. I was considered tall at 6 ft. 1. I quit after 5 games when I realized I couldn’t dribble and memorize structural formulas at the same time. My memories get polished every time I play that tape in my head; my fall-away jump shot, my vertical leap, my indefatigable tenacity. Damn, I was great! Ah, that rosy lens of time past….and no one around to dispute my hyperbole.

Now the game is played above the rim; bruised bodies, trash talk along with balletic moves and gravity-defying body control. The last 30 seconds can take twenty minutes and there better be someone around who knows CPR.

I love it all, even the clich├ęs of the coaches who will praise their opponent, like humble gladiators, and then conduct themselves like their lives depended on the outcome.

And indeed it does. Sports programs bring in millions to the college and their jobs are often on the line. It’s fun, it’s entertainment, it’s big business. Successful coaches scout kids in middle school and recruit them out of high school. Some bodies keep growing, others stop. Some are congenitally endowed. To get a scholarship is a prize but the bigger goal is the recognition and TV time to be noticed by the NBA.

The gifted athlete who receives inordinate adoration and privileges early on enters life with a handicap. By age 30 or 35 he finds that his swagger has no market in the real world. Eighty percent of professional athletes are divorced and/or broke within three years of retirement. And the great majority never make it that far. Maybe that’s why I reverted back from jock to nerd.

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