Following football in the seasonal sports rotation was basketball. I never thought about playing basketball before this, my seventh grade year, but since all my friends were going to try out for the team, I thought I would too. I had a really nice arrangement on the driveway behind our house; a goal post, backboard, and goal were set up at the edge of the driveway and the arrangement made a nearly perfect half court. After my brother Timmy and I had diagrammed and painted the free throw line (exactly fifteen feet from the goal post) and lane, complete with hash marks on either side ( just like a real court), the layout was complete. Other than the fact that I had never played basketball, couldn’t dribble very well with my good hand (and not at all with my other), couldn’t shoot, and didn’t understand the game, I was ready to give the game a try. I was above average in height, so I had one stroke on the positive side of the ledger (Timmy and I had received sweat bands for our wrists and a new basketball for Christmas to complete the picture).
When the day arrived for tryouts, I was as nervous as a cat. With little confidence and little skills, it is a wonder that I made it through the drills. I could tell that there was a difference in talent between some of the players and myself, but that didn’t deter me from trying hard. When the coach blew the final whistle to end the tryout and later listed the boys who made the team, I saw my name on the sheet and nearly passed out with excitement (looking back, I’m not sure anyone was cut; there were barely enough trying out to fill the roster). Unlike football, I would not be a starter, but rather ended up coming off the bench for the “B” team. A bench player on the seventh grade basketball “B” team! How much lower could a person go? In one of the final games of the season, the coach felt sorry for me and a couple of the other “splinter gatherers” and we were designated as starters. Somehow I scored six points in that game. I’m not sure how, but there it was in the box score so I must have.
Needless to say, basketball wasn’t “my sport” but when the next year rolled around I was ready for another try. I would say that I spent the entire off-year practicing my game; running drills in the back driveway, shooting until all hours of the night, sleeping with a basketball in the bed beside me, walking to school dribbling the ball all the way there and back, rotating between my right and left hands, and watching Jerry West and Pete Maravich videos, but I would be lying. I didn’t pick up a ball the entire off-season, so my expectations for making the team were a bit misplaced. Dad on the other hand was excited about me trying out again (he was a high school player in his day; the old one-handed set shot his forte) and he pulled me aside with some very important advice. “Ronnie, Coach Lewton is a real old-fashioned kind of guy and your appearance is important. I realize that some of the boys will have longer hair and probably make the team in spite of it (yeah, the fact that they were good might have had something to do with it), but I would recommend that you get a “flat top” before tryouts. I think Coach Lewton would see how serious you were about basketball and it would help you make the team.” I was a little skeptical at first, but being naïve about the ways of the world at this point in my life I said, “Okay”. Of course, this had nothing at all to do with the ongoing battle between me and Dad regarding the length of my hair. Whatever gains I had made over the past couple of years in pushing the length of my hair to finally cover the tops of my ears, were now to be left on the barbershop floor.
I got my haircut the day before tryouts and with dark, horned rim glasses I sure looked the part; if I didn’t make the team I could always join the military. When I came to school that day I noticed a few of my friends staring at me in disbelief, but once I had explained the overall strategy to them, they still shook their heads and walked away. During the tryouts I noticed as I glanced around the group of boys, that other than one or two other kids who were sure to hit the “cutting” room floor, I was the only one with a haircut that looked like a throwback to the basketball days of George Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers. To say I stood out would be an understatement.
After the grueling drills (layups aren’t as easy as they look) and intense pressure of everyone trying to impress the coach, the tryouts came to an end. When Coach finally posted the list of names making up the team, I didn’t see my name listed. Jim consoled me as I stood there, nearly in tears, “That’s okay Ronnie, you can try out again next year. There’s no reason to get upset.” Still dejected I replied, “I’m not so upset about not making the team as I am about getting a lousy haircut for nothing.” It seems that even old-fashioned Coach Lewton was more concerned with talent than with looks.
It was the last time I ever tried out for basketball and the last time I received a real haircut, at least until I was a grown man. Sure, I played plenty of one on one contests out back with my brother, who became an outstanding player all throughout junior high and high school, and honed my skills enough to be competitive in pickup games, but I knew my limitations and turned my attention to other athletic endeavors.
*This story is an excerpt from Always a Little Heathen, to be released on October 14, 2014.