Last week at the dog park, our pup Lucy was running around socializing with other dogs when a pair of giant brindled animals entered the field. It turned out they were a mix of Rhodesian Ridgeback and Argentinian Mastiff. Big dogs! Yet they were clearly puppies based on their cautious demeanor and oversized paws relative to their overall size.
Their own was a big man. He stood a full seven feet tall. Not wanting to ask the obvious question too soon, I focused on his dogs in conversation. He clearly enjoys his pets. When his big boys got a bit intimidated by a forceful husky pushing them around, he watched them carefully but quietly observed, “They need to learn how the dog world works.”
Eventually the dogs started coming out of their shell of nervous puppyhood. It was their second time at the dog park, and if you’ve ever taken your dog to socialized, you know how it goes. They play and retreat, sometimes growl a bit or go submissive and lie down. It’s not much different than a child entering kindergarten. You want to protect them but they also have to learn how to interact on their own.
As we watched the pups work it all out, I chatted with my big new friend. He is one of those genuous human beings whose humility belies an inner strength. Finally after talking a while about ourselves, I asked the question, “So you clearly didn’t play small forward…” and I laughed.
“I played wherever they put me,” he chuckled. I learned that he played in a pre-eminent Chicago-area high school basketball program. That earned him a full ride at a major college basketball school, where he starred and played in the NCAA tournament. We left it at that because I didn’t feel it was my need to pry into the man’s whole life.
I did learn his first name, which was rather unique. At home I entered his first name and his college program in a Google search and photos from his playing days popped up. Then I discovered that he’d played in the pros as well. In other words, he was once a really great basketball player.
As a kid that’s all I wanted to be. I modeled my game after Pistol Pete Maravich and earned starting spots on the middle school and high school teams before switching schools, where my career lasted one more year before starting to run full time. The summer between my junior and senior year, I didn’t attend basketball camp and that was the death knell for any interest the coaches might have had in me.
Plus I weighed a mere 135 lbs as a senior in high school. In our conference in those days, that was a pretty slight frame. Granted, I had quickness on my side, endurance to last the whole game and a great jump shot, but the most important aspect of any basketball player is a grasp of the overall game. Coachability. Fitting into the offense.
So while my youthful dreams of starring in basketball earned some teenage kudos and a few kisses from the girls, my naive notions of playing at a higher level never came about.
That was not true for my younger brother, who earned All-State Honorable Mention status and played at a Division I basketball program. He was really good.
My course into the world of running worked out alright. I wasn’t world class or even national class at a Division 1 level, but I made the national meet several times in track and helped lead our cross country team to a second place at nationals.
In some ways I wrapped up too much of my identity in those efforts and accomplishments. So did many others from that era. Which why I was rather impressed that the basketball player that I met at the dog park wasn’t keen on talking about his pro sports career. Perhaps he’s not that interested in being known “only” as a basketball player. Maybe he’s happy with a quieter life. I would never want to disturb his peace if that is his choice. I know this guy experienced March Madness like few of us ever have. He was in the thick of it. On a cool March afternoon at the dog park, he seemed to want to be as far away from it as he could be.
His dogs never did let me pet them no matter how nice I tried to be. They circled back to their dog daddy whenever I reached out a hand. I accepted that too. Everyone deserves their space.