At the age of nine years old, I was a big fan of Pistol Pete Maravich, the basketball great who essentially invented the modern game in all its flashy play. While Maravich was a sensation, his talent with a basketball wasn’t enough to lead the teams for which he played to an NBA title.
That’s a criticism often labelled at other players whose greatness fell short of the title-winning standard. Basketball greatness is ultimately measured by the winning records of players such as Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, all of whom won multiple NBA championships.
That said, I modeled my basketball style after a player that I much admired for his creativity and innovation. The height (or nadir) of that imitation was learning to spin a basketball on the tip of my finger. It took me a week of practice to get decent at it, but eventually I grasped the need for a level spin on the ball and how to slap it to keep the revolution sufficient to keep the ball up in the air. I was proud of that achievement, and can still spin a basketball on my finger to this day. Recently I showed that skill to a batch of elementary students during a substitute teaching gig. Some of them actually made progress in their first lesson.
I didn’t bother to tell them how useless it was to learn that skill. But that’s the way it is with so many activities in sports. I once won the football Punt-Pass-and Kick Contest in our town and and advanced to a District competition, but that didn’t really equate to being a football player. My father knew that and told me in no uncertain terms that I was going out for cross country that fall. Still, on a cool fall day in college, I once kicked a football field goal from forty yards out. That’s a pretty worthless accomplishment too.
In baseball I pitched all the way through my junior year in high school, going 7-1 in the summer league. That consummated years of playing that sport from the age of five through the age of seventeen. I recall hours spent throwing into a pitching net, calling every ball and strike measured on the string squate woven into the net with as much honesty as I could muster. Then I pitched and won a championship game for a team that won the Lancaster New Era Tournament. That was the peak of youth achievement in that era. Upon moving to Illinois, there was no league for 13-year-olds in the small town of Elburn, so I tried out for the 16+ year-old American Legion team and made it. Traveling to small towns to play summer baseball was a valuable social experience, and I learned plenty of emotional control and how to handle pressure along the way, but as a pure life skill playing baseball isn’t really that valuable.
Come college I signed up for an intramural Superstars competition in which the Softball Throw was one of the events. I tossed the ball over 300 feet but the other competitors insisted, upon seeing my skinny distance-runner frame, that the measurement must have been a mistake. So I threw it even farther the next time. “Fuck you,” I muttered under my breath. I’ve always hated when people doubt me.
Certainly playing sports builds character in one way or another. I once bowled a 283 when my daughter’s high school friend lorded his first game over me at the bowling alley. I rolled multiple strikes in a row before my daughter turned to me and said, “Are you insane?” And I’ll admit, at that moment, I was out of my mind. I never liked to lose to people who were cocky.
Sports prowess is all about competition, and learning to compete in all kinds of circumstances is one good attribute of having been an athlete. These days my competitive instincts are more constrained, but I still like doing a few triathlons a year. Interestingly, the activities of swimming, riding and running actually are useful skills for lifelong health and fitness. They keep me in relatively good shape and wick off stress.
I can’t say the same for spinning a basketball on my finger, but it still does impress the third-graders in this world. So I suppose that’s good for something.
This life in athletics formed a significant part of my personality. But the other day I was chatting with one of my brothers who lamented how much we’d missed by always being tied up in sports of one kind or another. As artists and writers, it would have been great to go on spring break trips to wild locations, or overseas to visit other countries during college. Instead it was the grind calendar of in-season and off-season training for many years.
There were indeed many thrills earned along the way. Those fueled the dopamine and hormone-driven need for approval. I even lived out sports fantasies in real life, such as sinking a last minute shot from half court in basketball, slamming a home run with the bases full in the final inning, and winning races well into my late twenties. These things happened mostly because I wanted to impress the girls in one way or another. Yet even when I did, those moments of adoration were most fleeting.
I did break the sports addiction cycle a few times. During January Term at Luther College, I traveled at the age of nineteen to do an internship at the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology. For thirty days I pretty much ignored the need to run and just lived, walking through daily accumulations of new snow to hide out in the back rooms of Sapsucker Woods studying the work of the greatest bird artists in the world. Only at the end of the term did I turn my attention back to running.
But one can’t help wonder what other opportunities were missed over the years by dedicating so much time to developing essentially useless skills. My brother made a comment recently that has me thinking about the years and the world in general.
“Fuck sports,” he said. And to some degree, I do agree.