Between cross country season and the start of indoor track at Luther College, I’d often play pickup basketball in the gym. While I’d ceased my official basketball career after junior year in high school, my game actually improved because I was a Gym Rat by nature. All winter long, my brothers and I would hit open gym on Saturdays and Sundays to play basketball all afternoon. We’d start at noon and play all day until the gym closed at six p.m.
Playing basketball was great cross-training for track, plus it provided a consistent outlet for competitive energy. The proprioception was good for the legs, and an excellent injury prevention measure. I later read that world-record holder Sebastian Coe spent 6-8 weeks doing bounding and strength drills. Well, I’d play basketball all winter and be ready for indoor track come January and February.
At Luther, I was in great basketball shape in late January when I walked past the freshman college team practicing in the gym. A friend of mine and former high school teammate played on the team. I stood there thinking that it might be fun to scrimmage them if I could put a team together.
Back at the dorm that afternoon, I started asking other expatriated basketball players if they’d like to scrimmage the freshman team. There was immediate enthusiasm for the idea, and I recruited all the best athletes I could find. We had some big guys too, for the rebounding. We set up a time with the freshman team, and it was game on.
The romantic plot would have our hardscrabble dorm team winning. That did not happen. We played even with them for one half of basketball. Our street ball carried us that far, but the freshman team pulled away in second half. Raw talent does not often win out in the real world of sport.
That said, there were some joyous moments during the game. One of our long jumpers, Jeff Wettach, came flying down the court to pin a layup against the backboard. We worked up some plays that were effective the first half. But as our big guys tired, the rebounding was a lost cause.
I scored nineteen points in the game, so I felt personally satisfied with trying that proving ground on the basketball court. I think there was a score to settle within myself. The whole thing was a bit of a prick move on my part, sort of trying to make up for faltering in basketball during my high school years. From then on, I settled into pickup ball never wondering whether I could compete with “real” ballers. I’d proven that I could at some level. Yet I knew that real college ball was a ton tougher than some scrimmage on a Saturday afternoon. That was all I needed to move on in life.
By that point in time, the indoor track season was calling. The month of February rolled around and our team started traveling to meets in LaCrosse and other colleges with indoor facilities. My basketball fitness proved helpful when racing on the 176-yard indoor tracks with tight turns and slippery floors.
I also high-jumped some, but by college standards, I was a below-average jumper, clearing 6′ 1.5″ at a LaCrosse dual meet. That day, a gymnast-style high jumper from LaCrosse was experimenting with a handspring style of high-jumping. He ran straight at the bar, did a frontwards flip, and then dove over the bar. There was one problem with his technique: no one could tell if one or both of his feet were striking the ground on takeoff. The rules state that high jumpers must use only one foot to leap. That said, I watched that guy jump seven feet, but he was disqualified for improper takeoff.
I ran the mile and two-mile at most indoor meets and took the baton for relays. As a freshman, I was approximating my best high school outdoor times on the indoor track. All winter we trained through snowstorms and freezing cold weather. Every night after showers we’d march from the fieldhouse up to the Union in sub-zero temps and my big head of hair would freeze solid like a helmet.
Then we’d scarf down dinner and kid around until it was time to head back to the dorms and study. But most nights I’d go play ping-pong with my friend Jim Nielsen. After that, I might get around to studying.
All that distraction with basketball and table tennis and kidding around was still better than going out drinking every night. Still, I do recall a fun evening with my friend Dave Hanson and some other teammates. We retreated to some downtown pub and had a few 50-cent beers. The joint had blank walls on which everyone was drawing pictures, and the bar welcomed it. So I drew a hot-looking nude girl on the post and we all had a good laugh about it. I remember walking back from the bar on a freezing cold Northeast Iowa night without many cares in my head. The beer in my brain and the stocking cap on my head was enough to keep things warm.
Then March came around. Indoor track was over and it was time to face the real world again.