By Christopher Cudworth
Last night I spend 90 minute shooting baskets during Family Night at Open Gym. I’ll be sore tomorrow I’m sure. I don’t play much any more.
From a young age I played the game and played well enough to be a starter all the way through my sophomore year, when I moved from one high school to another and took on the role of the lead runner rather than a hoop star.
My younger brother assumed that mantle. He earned All State Honorable Mention. At 6’6″ and a vertical leap of 36″, he went on to play Division I basketball at Kent State University.
It drove him a little nuts that articles about his high school basketball career often confused our two names. Local sportswriters accustomed to covering my running exploits would transpose my name onto his stats. “Chris Cudworth had 36 points and twelve rebounds in a stunning performance against East Aurora…” one article said.
It was a perverse sort of revenge for my own aborted hoops career. My parents never bought me contact lenses and playing with glasses resulted in more smashed lenses than I care to think about. You get gun shy about that after a while. Plus we moved twice during crucial times. Once going into 8th grade and again in the middle of my sophomore year. Starting over in sports is never easy. That’s perhaps why running was a clear choice. You either run fast or you don’t.
But I never gave up playing basketball during my 20s, 30s and 40s. My game actually improved with time. The flashy style of play I’d evolved in testament to my favorite player Pete Maravich grew into contest of creative problem solving. My behind the back passes had more purpose. My shooting only got better with adult strength and time.
One day a former coach walked through the open gym where I was playing and stopped to watch. He walked over after the game and said, “Maybe we made a mistake with you.”
I told him, “No, you didn’t. I was skinny and immature in basketball. I’ve gotten better with age.”
I’d quit my senior year when it was obvious from the first day of practice that missing basketball camp that previous summer to coach a local track club was a mortal sin in the eyes of the coaches.
But age eventually does catch up with you in sports like basketball. The last time I played competitively was 10 years ago. The body forgets all about ballistic sports when all you do is run and ride. So shooting baskets last night was fun, but not an encouragement to go back to the game. Plus my “hops” have softened and ability playing basketball would be more like a chess match. I can still jump up and touch the net halfway up but reaching the rim? Might be tough.
There are some fun memories to draw from a runner’s devotion to the game of basketball. I once sank a half point shot with four seconds remaining to win the conference title for our 8th grade team.
Then there are thousands of flashy baskets and no-look passes to satisfy the soul. All those Sunday night games with other guys, bumping and passing and blocking and shooting. It saves the soul.
It was always interesting to transition from cross country shape into basketball shape. Endurance running does not prepare you for sprinting. It can only provide the baseline endurance. That’s why we all did “killer” drills running from the baseline to the free-thrown line and back, to half-court, three quarter quarter and full court. If you were good and quick you could do all that in 30 seconds. Killer drills. They lived up to their name.
For the love of the game
The specifics of so much of my basketball career are mostly forgotten of course. Those memories do however reside in the soul of creativity and desire. I loved the game of basketball for its creativity and speed. I actually only legitimately dunked the ball on a 10 foot basket one time. My hands were too small to palm the ball so I had to jump and get a full basketball’s width above the rim to slam it down. I had a lot of squeegee dunks but that one clean stuff is not something I’ll ever forget. You feel like you’re flying…and that was how I liked to feel on the basketball court. Either sprinting down the floor for a bucket or a pass, there was freedom in that. And a Pistol Pete flair was always fun to add.
Choosing a role model like Pistol Pete Maravich and modeling your game after that hot-shooting, make-the-tough-plays approach does not endear you to some coaches. Perhaps that was my downfall in some respects. But I think not. It’s much more likely that fate had a little something else in mind. And I’m cool with that. No regrets.
There is still the satisfaction in knowing you can swish a bucket. Every shot is a rehearsal of youth in some way. And that’s always a good thing to retain in some form.