The End of a Dunking Career

By the end of my first year of college, I weighed 160 pounds — thanks to the “freshman 15”. I weighted the same three years later, the day I got married. About six months after our wedding, we were visiting my family. I pulled my shirt up and mentioned to my mother, that I couldn’t figure out what was causing the scars along my waist. She burst out laughing, asserting, “Those are stretch marks!”

I had never heard the term before. But that explains why I never dunked a basketball again! My wife insists it was her great cooking. It didn’t help that teaching and attending night classes, pretty well eliminated my daily basketball games. I did play basketball occasionally while teaching at Ottawa Hills High School, and served as the freshman basketball coach for three years.

Some of most exhilarating moments of my life during the university career were spent “runnin’ the hoops” at the student Rec Center. From November through May, I played at least two or three times every week. It was a genuine natural high for me — truly blissful hours. Nothing elevated my spirits more than a sweeping skyhook over a taller player or my patented Wilt Chamberlain finger roll. As age slowed my game, I had to rely more on finesse and deception than on strength and speed. More and more, I was trotting down the court calling, “Trailer! Trailer!” But I was out there!

Eventually, my body began to take longer and longer to recover after each basketball session. Of course, part of the problem was I couldn’t just go out and run a couple games, shower, and leave. Rules of pick-up basketball dictate that winners keep playing, taking on the set of challengers. Loose and you leave the court. Calling out the familiar “I got game” to get in rotation to challenge the winners. No, I had keep playing until my team was defeated — occasionally up to two hours. And I didn’t settle for just playing the old guys or the hackers. I took on the big boys, occasionally including varsity players — including a few who went on to play pro ball here and overseas.

I developed many lasting friendships playing the hoops. Jack Taylor was one of my fondest teammates. Jack was taller and a better player than I but we enjoyed playing together — probably because we were both quite a bit older than most of the students we found on court. The students at the rec center nicknamed me “Big Man.” Many were surprised to find out I was a professor and frequently students passing me on campus would call out, “What’s up, big man!” Many of the students went on to successful careers as school superintendents, principals, teachers, coaches, even a state legislator (Randy Gardner).

Jan and I had an unwritten understanding: I received no sympathy for basketball injuries. And there were a more than a few: sprained ankles, cuts, bruises, gashes, jammed fingers. Usually the worst were ankle sprains. They meant no ball for 3-4 weeks. Though they hurt and occasionally I had to hobble around on crutches, the most disconcerting thing was not being able to run the courts.

Once, during an outdoor summer pick-up game, a Charles Barkley wannabe came charging in for a rebound, popping the crown of my skull with an elbow. Blood gushed, streaming down me face, soaking my shirt. It must have been quite a scary sight. One player dashed over to a dorm and called 911. Sirens blaring and red lights flashing, the rescue squad responded in a couple minutes. I knew I wasn’t seriously hurt, but those head cuts are hard to stop bleeding. The medical personnel helped clean me up a bit and stopped the bleeding. Worst part was I got stuck with about a $50 bill for the emergency run.

Giving up basketball was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. It took $4000 worth of dental surgery (and 25 years of my wife saying “You’re too old for this”) to convince me it was time. The last few years I played, I always wore ankle braces and a mouth guard. Well, almost always. I had accidentally left my mouth guard in my gym shorts. After the clothes dryer melted my guard into a blob, I promptly bought a new one. But before I molded the guard to fit my mouth I played one game — my last. In a contest for a rebound my chin met the back of a guy’s head. Ouch! I immediately knew I was going to be paying the “Stupid Tax”! One of my upper front teeth was cracked, requiring its removal, plus a bridge that necessitated the destruction of two other perfectly good teeth to support the bridge. That ended my basketball career.