Sometime in the school year of 1973, the duo of Cheech and Chong came out with a comedy album featuring a novelty hit song titled Basketball Jones. It was filled with bald-faced cliches and overwrought background singers singing the refrain over and over. It was dumb. And we loved it.
Yes, I am the victim of a Basketball Jones
Ever since I was a little baby, I always be dribblin’
In fac’, I was de baddest dribbler in the whole neighborhood
Then one day, my mama bought me a basketball
And I loved that basketball
I took that basketball with me everywhere I went
That basketball was like a basketball to me
I even put that basketball underneath my pillow
Maybe that’s why I can’t sleep at night.
That song, while it was a parody, was actually quite descriptive of my life. I was obsessed with basketball from the age of eight or nine years old. I got good at the game, was a starter on every team on which I played, and achieved some heroics along the way such as sinking a half court shot at the buzzer to beat a rival and win the conference championship. Just like you pretend on the playground.
By the age of sixteen, as a junior in high school, I’d reached six feet in height and could touch the rim with ease. At 137 lbs, I was lean and fast, and had built a flashy game around the style of Pistol Pete Maravich. Perhaps that was a mistake.
When cross country ended in 1973, I showed up for basketball practice and quickly learned that being a transfer from another school meant having to start all over. The varsity team sorted itself out with some pretty fine players and the rest of us muggled around on the JV squad. I was a starter there, but it didn’t mean too much. Come varsity game nights, we sat sweatless and morose on the team bench.
I still wore glasses, and at that level of basketball, they were not helpful at all. During one practice, our top forward came down with a rebound and mashed my wire-rimmed frames into my face. The lens popped out and shattered into a thousand tiny fragments on the slick gym floor. The look on Coach Ron Johnson’s face was beyond disappointment. I felt guilty and chagrined.
Rather than buy me contact lenses, which I would have preferred, my mother dragged me to the optometrist for a pair of black horned rimmed “sports glasses.” Those were awful. Sickening, really. I couldn’t see out the side of my eyes, which is important in basketball, especially for my sleight of hand game.
Our team did win the Dekalb Holiday Basketball Tournament that season, and I got some playing time when we ran up the score. But mostly my classmates and I toiled away in empty gyms on Saturday mornings. We played the same offense under the guidance of the assistant coach, and I scored plenty and helped lead the team. That didn’t transfer to varsity action.
If anything, showing leadership at the JV level led to confrontations with other teammates. One of them accused me of being arrogant and looked to start a fight in the locker room. He was bigger and stronger. I was not about to take up his offer to slug it out.
The fact of the matter is that competition for playing time is ugly in the underbelly of any program. That’s why I liked cross country. You either ran faster, or you didn’t. That gave me great admiration for guys like my teammates Bob Baert and Dave Brown, Orland Cole and many others who put in the mileage week after week in cross country, competing mainly in Open or JV races. That respect continued through college when many other guys ran 70-80 miles a week along with the varsity guys and appreciated the sport for perhaps different reasons than the fastest among us.
Sure, there are measures of success in basketball, like points and rebounds and steals. But one still has to impress the coach in terms of game awareness and fitting into the system. I admittedly didn’t always have a grasp of the bigger picture, at least not at that age.
Ten years after high school I was playing in pickup games at a local high school and had learned much more about the game after hours honing my Basketball Jones in Open Gym. I’d settled down the floor game and worked as a swing forward. I didn’t weigh much more, perhaps 145 lbs by that point, but I could still jump and run better than most players. After finishing a game, I walked off the floor and met up with the assistant coach for whom I’d played JV ball in high school. “You know,” he told me. “Maybe we made a mistake with you. You’re really good.”
“No, probably not,” I told him. “At that age I didn’t really understand the whole game the way I should.”
It was nice to receive that compliment anyway. Yet a part of me never trusted that coach. At one point during the JV season that year, my friends Paul Morlock and Rob Walker rode out to visit a college in Pennsylvania. We left on a Thursday as I recall, and were back by Sunday.
That Monday when I showed up for practice, the assistant coach treated me with a weird deference. That weekend, we were scheduled to play my former teammates from Kaneland High School. I was excited to have the chance to meet those guys on the floor, but when the game began, the coach had me sitting on the bench. I’d started every game up to that point in the season. Anger welled up within me. It was embarrassing to not play against my friends. What would they think?
After half, the coach finally put me in the game. I was wild at heart by that point, and playing recklessly. I picked up fouls, and the referee was a former teacher from Kaneland that counseled me to settle down. But I couldn’t. I was so frustrated and angry at the hard sleight from the coach that I nearly fouled out with ugly hacks and raw defensive moves. It wasn’t me that was playing by that point. It was my wounded ego.
Following the game, I asked the coach why I didn’t start. “You missed a practice,” he told me. “That’s against team rules.”
“But we told you that we were doing a college visit,” I protested.
“Doesn’t matter,” he replied. “Don’t miss practices.”
By that point in the season I’d begun not to care about basketball so much anyway. Indoor track season was approaching and my interest in hoops was waning. Still, there were a few games to make it through. As one contest wound down and the varsity pulled away from a weaker team, I watched the clock tick off the seconds until there were only thirty left in the game. My playing time that season was always confined to the last two minutes or so. After sitting in the stands for that long, getting in to play without warming up was almost a worthless thing to do. So when the coach turned to me with thirty seconds to play, and asked, “Cudworth. Do you want to go in?” I shook my head no.
That next summer I didn’t show up for basketball camp. But following the senior season in cross country, I showed up for basketball practice thinking I’d give it a go. Immediately, another teammate and I that skipped summer ball were sent to a corner to “practice passing.” We were in the dark part of the gym, actually, when my cross country coach Trent Richards walked by and said, “Cudworth. You know you’re not going to play this season, right? You didn’t go to basketball camp. I talked with Johnson. Don’t waste your time. We’re starting indoor track in December.”
He was right. In fact, our entire senior class didn’t get much playing time that year. The coaches made the decision to transition to younger players and bring them up from scratch rather than give the seniors a chance to play much. My friend Paul Morlock did go out for hoops, as did another friend Curt Berg. They saw little varsity playing time, and at one point a group of us sat up in the stands chanting their names to get them into the game. Maybe it worked. Maybe it didn’t.
That year I played intramural ball, and illegally switched teams in mid-season to help confront a bunch of cocky guys beating up on other lesser squads. During the championship game, play got rougher until their big center flipped me over his shoulder. I slammed to the ground. Before I knew what I was doing, I jumped up and slugged him flush in the eye. I could feel my knuckles embed in his flesh. He reacted with a wild swing that I ducked. Then I ran out the door into the cold winter air and kept running all the way home. That night, I got a phone call at home telling me not to come to school the next day or I’d get beaten to a pulp.
Forty years later, I showed up for a high school reunion and the guy I punched was sitting at the front of the room. I blanched at the idea that he might recall our encounter. But he didn’t. I reason that he was in so many fights that he didn’t recall that lone punch I threw.
Following my aborted career in scholastic basketball, my younger brother Greg entered high school and earned All-State Honorable Mention. He went on to play D1 basketball for Kent State University. As I mentioned in an earlier article in this series, my father had moved us from Kaneland to St. Charles in part to advance my brother’s basketball career. And it worked. He built his vertical leap to 36″ and had a wonderfully soft left-handed jump shot and a mobile floor game. He was a joy to watch when I got the chance to see him play between my college time and commitments.
I’d also loved watching my oldest brother Jim play basketball when I was growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He was an exceptional all-around athlete who ran a 4:40 mile as a freshman in the late 1960s. He could dunk the ball from a standing position and was great at defense. He played a season at Millersville College until he contracted mono.
My other brother Gary was a great defensive player with quick hands. He later became a competent fencer and exceptional table tennis player. We both won some local tournaments in that sport. But mostly we enjoyed hitting Open Gymn.
As adult siblings, we played together many times over the years. We jokingly branded ourselves the Flying Zambini Brothers. One time we were shooting around on an outdoor playground basket when a group of much younger players showed up and challenged us to a game. They had no idea what they’d just done. We wiped the court with them, including a couple resounding dunks from Greg.
I have no regrets about my Basketball Jones. All that lateral movement kept me largely injury free as a runner for many years. The jumping also prepped me for competition in the steeplechase, where the act of stepping on the barrier and leaping over the water jump was just another day at the office for one of the Flying Zambini Brothers.
As for me and my temper, I learned to tame it thanks to an incident I witnessed at Open Gym one Saturday. A player known for his temper got worked up and started threatening everyone. He even picked up a chair as if to hit someone. At that point, a massive former football player with a scary blonde buzz cut stepped in front of him and said, “Go ahead. Hit me. It will be the last thing you’ll ever do.”
The chair dropped to the floor, and the player walked out the door. We all went back to playing basketball, and I vowed never to lose my temper again.