Memorable Moments in a Forgettable Basketball Career
When I watch basketball superstars like LeBron James and Stephen Curry and even rising star Kristaps Porzingis, I am stunned by what they can do on the court. Every game, they each seem to have two or three amazing plays, plays that I couldn’t even imagine much less execute. My concern for them, however, is that they will have so many amazing plays by the time they retire and ease into old age, they won’t be able to remember them all. By comparison, I am fortunate. Since my basketball career was so short and so lackluster, I have about a half dozen good plays that I can remember vividly, and I think about them often.
The Foul Shot. I was always a terrible foul shooter. In fact, when I first started playing in sixth grade, I didn’t even try to make the shot. All I wanted to do was hit the rim and avoid the dreaded “air ball.” So as a freshman on the junior varsity team in high school, I faced a foul-shot crisis. We were down by one point with one second left on the clock when I was fouled while trying to tap in a teammate’s missed shot. Thus, I would get two free throws, free throws that would win, tie, or lose the game for us. Like the “nervous Nellie” that I was, I promptly missed the first one. At that point, our coach called a time out to calm me down, and, I might add, to insert two more big guys who might be able to tap in my free throw if I happened to miss again. Fortunately, Coach also encouraged me to take my time and really concentrate, and he convinced me I could make the foul shot to tie the game and send us into overtime. And amazingly, I did make the shot, and we did win the game in overtime. I will never forget that glorious moment when my second foul shot rattled off the back of the rim and dropped smoothly through the net.
The Long-Range Bomb. I am so old that when I played varsity basketball in high school, they did not yet even have the three-point shot. As a result, the longest shot I ever made, from out near mid-court, only counted for two points, just like any other shot. That’s okay. I’ll take it. As a junior, I didn’t get in the game that often, but on this particular night, we were playing one of the weakest teams in the league, and by the end of the first half, we were well ahead. Consequently, Coach let all the scrubs play for a while, and with only two seconds left on the clock, we had to inbound the ball near center court. Rather than set up inside where I normally would play, I ran out past the top of the key and waved my arms wildly to my buddy Joe who was inbounding the ball. Luckily, Joe saw me and passed the ball to me. With no hesitation whatsoever, I caught the pass and let the shot fly immediately, and the ball hit nothing but net. You heard me. Nothing but net.
The Improv. By my senior season, I got a bit more playing time, but I was not a big scorer. At 6’4”, I was in the game primarily for defense and rebounding. If I wanted to score, I had to corral an offensive rebound inside and put it back in. Late in the season, though, I somehow found myself with the ball in the corner with my defender playing me tightly. Obviously, he had not read the scouting report that said I couldn’t make that shot. So with nothing to lose, I drove around him on the right baseline and hoped to make a layup with my right hand. When I got by that first defender, though, another opponent slid down to help out on defense and to foil my plan. Undaunted, I did something I had never done in a game before; I unconsciously moved the ball to my left hand and shot. Somehow, it went in. If a broadcaster were announcing the game that night, he might have said the following: “LaBate drives the right baseline and throws up a prayer with his left hand. And it’s good! Wow! Nice touch, Jimbo.” And I might have added, “Wow! Thank you, Lord.”
The Pass. After high-school, I played mostly intramurals in college and in recreational leagues after college. One exception to the routine, though, was our annual high school alumni game, usually played during the Christmas holidays when the recent graduates were home from college and visiting their families. I don’t remember exactly how they split up the teams, but I do remember that one of my teammates that night, Billy, was a quicksilver guard who was a year older and a real heady player. I had the ball at the top of the key with him on my right. Normally, I would have simply passed the ball to him and let him call a play, but something magical happened between our two brains. Since the defense was playing man-to-man, Billy gave me a quick nod of his head to indicate that he was going behind his defender to the hoop, and I understood and reacted accordingly. I reached around my defender and threw a bounce pass that Billy caught in stride and converted an uncontested layup. That was easily the most beautiful pass I ever made in my life, one that would make former Boston Celtic legend Larry Bird proud.
The Drive. After college, I volunteered to serve in the Peace Corps, and the government asked me to serve as a “sports promoter” in Golfito, Costa Rica. As a sports promoter, my job was to teach games other than soccer to the young people of that country: games such as baseball, basketball, and volleyball. So with the help of a local priest, we quickly organized a basketball team and scheduled a game with a nearby town. My Spanish was not very good at that time, but with the game tied, and five seconds left on the clock, I knew what to do and say: “dame la bola” (“give me the ball”). Again, the defense was playing man-to-man, and I knew I could dribble around and shoot over the much shorter and slower Costa Rican who was trying to guard me. Looking back, I probably should have given one of my teammates the chance to be a hero. However, since they were all relatively new to the game and reluctant to take the final shot, they seemed happy to oblige me, and they enthusiastically mobbed me when I made the layup and won the game for us. We could not have been more excited.
The Jump Shot. When I returned to the States after my two years in the Peace Corps, I found a job teaching high-school English, a job that also allowed me to coach the freshman basketball team. As a result, I worked out daily with my team, and I was in pretty good shape when the senior-class officers organized a senior-faculty game to raise money for charity. “Sure, I’ll play,” I said immediately, even before I found out that the teams always had to have three females and two males on the court at all times. The game was close throughout, and, like my first Peace Corps contest, came down to the final possession with five seconds left. We were down by one, and we had to go the length of the court to score. Again, too, my teammates were reluctant to take the final shot, so I asked my one male teammate to throw a long pass to me, and I would essentially run the same play I ran in Costa Rica. This time, however, his long pass was deflected, and after a mad and protracted scramble, I had the ball at the top of the key. Knowing I probably did not have time to drive to the hoop, I dribbled once and leaped skyward. At my peak, I released my shot, and, fortunately, it went in. We won by one. Naturally, the entire student body was disappointed, so once again, I felt a twinge of guilt. It didn’t last long, though. As a teacher, after all, I couldn’t just let the students win. I had to give it my best shot: literally, my best shot ever.
So that’s it. I began my competitive basketball career at the age of eleven in sixth grade, and I quit playing pick-up games at church about 30 years later when I turned 40 and feared that I would break an ankle or a leg and have to miss work. So out of all those years of playing, I have six moments, six shining moments that I can recall and relive any time I want. For all my fellow hoopers out there, both male and female, I hope you all can recall your moments of glory, and I hope those moments sustain you when you can no longer drive to the hoop or hit the outside jumper.