My days as a hardwood hero
It’s that time of year again, when youth gangs dressed improbably in bloomers and armed with basketballs rumble at the gym to defend the honor of the Red and Black or the Green and White – or, as in my case, the Blue and the Gold. In the mid-1960s I proudly, if ineptly, represented Washington Junior High School, as it then was, on the basketball court. The Warrior teams immediately previous to ours were among the best in the city. When I was in seventh grade, opinion was general that our ninth graders could have beaten most of the local high school teams, thanks in part to the presence of center Calvin Pettit, who went on to become an ISHA All-Stater at Lanphier in 1963 and ’64.
The team of my varsity year looked up to Pettit in every way. Every junior high team in the city had a couple of players who looked down on six feet, but our starting center stood only 5 feet 10 in thick socks. Me, I was a guard who was equally adept at all facets of the game, being too right-handed, too slow and too short.
What nature had not given us we did not try to provide for ourselves. My training regimen included walking over to the Spudnuts shop on Cook Street before practice. My best fast breaks with a belly full of Spudnuts weren’t toward the basket but toward the johns.
Our standout performance came in the junior high city tournament, where we played Grant. It was that night that I learned how Robert E. Lee felt. The Generals were taller and stronger than we were at every position, including cheerleaders. Their forwards slipped past our defenders as smoothly as the school toughs slipped past the rest of us in the cafeteria line. Bringing the ball up court after yet another Grant score, I felt as if I was walking into a classroom to take a test I hadn’t studied for.
The final score was 81 to 39, in spite of the fact that Grant’s coach removed most of his starters when the trend became clear. (I vaguely recall that by the middle of the fourth quarter he had two folding chairs in at guard but my mind might be playing tricks on me.) One of the Generals, forward Skip Martin, had outscored our whole team. Martin and teammate Darrel Jones dropped by our locker room after the game to commiserate, a generous gesture by a couple of decent guys that I like to think was not made at the insistence of their coach.
And so it went. Just after half time in the JV games that preceded ours, we varsity players would leave our seats in the stands for the locker room. Sometimes we heard scattered applause, which I began to worry might be coming from the real basketball fans in the crowds who thought that we were leaving the building.
It was very plain that I had no future on the basketball court unless I became a flooring contractor. I had a grand time nonetheless, thanks to my teammates. When on the bench we amused ourselves by crossing and uncrossing our legs in unison on a signal – the only example of coordinated play-making we were capable of. And while some teams say a group prayer before a game, we stood in the shower and sang “The Duke of Earl.” Our center, D.R., might have been outreached by the bigger centers on the other teams, but none of them had a sweeter tenor voice, and we got a better show in the locker room than the poor ticket-buyers in the gym.
While the Washington girls looked forward to the dances, I looked forward to the basketball season, and for the same reason – it was an excuse to dress up. Our uniforms trunks featured broad vertical stripes of blue and gold. The style if not the colors were taken from the outfits worn by the Harlem Globetrotters. No other team in town wore trunks like those – or wanted to, probably. They lent a clownish aspect to the appearance of a team that didn’t need help in that regard; one year one of our guards disdained sweat socks as unbecomingly informal, and took the floor wearing knee-length black dress socks with garters.
I went to the opposite extreme. My playing ensemble consisted of unbleached white Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars high-tops secured with laces in Warrior blue and gold plus elbow and knee pads in school colors. I didn’t need the pads on the court, since I was anything but a scrapper. I bought them to prevent floor burn when I knelt in prayer before every game to ask God to send me a jump shot.
Contact James Krohe Jr. at email@example.com.