The summer before my senior year in high school, I worked as a coach for the St. Charles Track Club, an organization originally managed by my coach cross country and track coach Trent Richards. When he stepped down a dedicated woman named Carol Rosene stepped up, and I would up one of the assistant coaches.
So my attention was focused on that program, and that meant I didn’t attend the basketball camp run by the high school coach Ron Johnson. I liked Coach Johnson, and he had enormous success with a team on which my younger brother played, reaching the Super Sectionals. My brother went on the play college basketball on a full ride at Kent State University. He was a great player that had developed a 36″ vertical leap to go with his 6’6″ frame. He was a monster around the basket and had a nice left-handed jump shot to boot.
So my 6’1″, 137 lb. frame was not the raw material needed to play basketball in our conference. While I was quick as heck, an excellent ball-handler and shooter, and a starter all the up to my junior year when we moved from Kaneland High School to St. Charles, it was clear that basketball probably wasn’t my future.
Even so, I went out for hoops on a whim that winter after cross country season ended. For a couple days I was shunted to the side with another guy from my class that hadn’t attended basketball camp. Then Coach Richards came by and stood next to us. “You guys know you’re not going to play, right? You didn’t go to basketball camp.”
At some level that disappointed me. At another level it was a relief. My parents never did buy me contact lenses. I was sick of getting smacked in the face and having my glasses shatter all over the gym floor.
As a result I played little during my junior year. I remember being a bit jealous that our flashy forward Jeff Howard had contacts and it seemed to help his peripheral vision quite a bit. Then it happened that I got slammed by an elbow sending my wire rim glasses to the floor where they dissolved into a million pieces of glass. Practice had to stop, and I sensed the frustration of Coach Johnson at having to deal with that delay. Rather than contact lenses, my mother bought me a set of those hideously thick black horn-rimmed sports glasses that blocked peripheral vision even more.
Finally during a late-season game, with the clock ticking down to below a minute, I could see Coach Johnson looking down the bench to give some of us subs a chance to get in the game. I watched as the clock dipped down to 45 seconds, then 30. He called my named. “Cudworth, go on in.”
I sat there for a moment and thought, “This isn’t worth it. If I don’t have value during the actual game, it sure means nothing now.” So I shook my head no.
Years later our assistant coach Jim Parker saw me playing hoops at a local gym. I’d actually gotten even better as a player thanks to hours of open gym basketball. By then I understood the game better too, and had contact lenses to boot. He watched me for a while and came over after the contest and said, “Maybe we made a mistake with you.”
Maybe so. Or maybe not. I’d fashioned my game in high school years after the famous Pete Maravich. I liked the flashy stuff with behind-the-back and between-the-legs dribbling. But my grasp of the game conceptually at that age was a bit lacking. Plus losing out on the chance to play basketball that year was probably good. I struggled with some classes that I had to take, such as economics and government, and hated it all the more. Adding in one more sport to the fall cross country and spring track seasons might have sunk me for good.
But somehow I was given a contact sheet of basketball photos from that junior year of basketball. I remember the game quite well to this day. I scored a bunch of points, blocked a few shots and ran the offense. But the week after that, my friend Paul Morlock, also a member of the team, invited me to do a college visit out in Pennsylvania. We missed one practice as a result of the trip. But when we got back, the JV coach told me, “You’re not going to play next game. You missed a practice.”
It happened that game was against my former high school teammates. It was bitterly embarrassing to be sitting on the bench, and my heart was red with rage at the injustice. But the team turned out to need me that day, so coach tossed me into the game with a few minutes left in the first half. I played out of control with fouls and the like.
That was the same coach who years later made the statement, “Maybe we made a mistake with you.”
Again, no real regrets about any of this. Running turned out to be my thing. And I enjoyed playing basketball for decades after high school, and never felt like I’d missed any real opportunities by not finishing that scholastic career. It just wasn’t meant to be.
For those of us that ‘lived the game’ for so many years there really can’t be any regrets. Last year I met up with one of my gym rat friends and we reminisced about the all those Saturdays and evenings spent playing ball and agreed that it was living life to the fullest. And that’s what you need to fill your basket of recollections. No regrets. Just buckets of fun.