Play the Ball,
Don't Let It Play You
© Copyright 2015 by Carl Winderl
I did not set out to win, to earn, a scholarship to play hoop in college, to be awarded one.
It just turned out that way.
I first started out playing hoop to gain approval. That I now know.
My earliest basketball memory dates back to my fifth or sixth Christmas, when my favorite uncle, dubbed “Unkie Bob” by my two younger sisters and me, gave me a basketball as a present. After I ripped through the wrapping paper I discovered a bright red, square cardboard box. And nestled inside it swaddled with white tissue paper lay a bright orange basketball, emblazoned with one word, “Voit.”
What I next remember about that singular momentous event is Unkie Bob regaling family members with how he discovered upon returning home from the store that someone had switched basketballs, replacing some cheap-ass outdoor rubber playground ball with a $10 Voit. He beamed as he told and retold the discovery around the Lucky Strike dangling from the side of his mouth, while he exhaled huge lungfuls of smoke through his nostrils, for emphasis, his trademark smirk.
Now that I know what I know about Robert Clifford Winderl, that someone was probably him.
Nonetheless, that basketball travelled well with me, to 6 different elementary schools and 3 different junior highs, back and forth between Canton and Cleveland, Ohio, and between Florida and Ohio, until I ended up for good, no, once and for all in Pompano Beach, Florida, where I attended for the first time ever, the same school – all year long from the first day of classes in September until the last one in June. For three years in a row. Until I graduated from that school: Pompano Beach Senior High School (PBSHS).
That final long-distance move to Florida was occasioned by my father fleeing the long arm of the law in Cleveland to parts unknown while we skulked out of town days later with all our earthly possessions crammed into the nooks and crannies of a 1954 Ford station wagon. Which included my basketball, of course. He rejoined us in Florida some few weeks later, after having successfully hid out along the East Coast, then hop-scotched his way to Florida and finally landed on home base, Pompano Beach, and us. For a short while anyway he stayed with us.
I and my basketball though bounced into town first, and foremost.
Of all the toys, clothes, and books that came and went and were left behind, discarded, outgrown, cast off or cast away, during the many many moves of my childhood, brought about by the need, usually, for a cheaper, smaller apartment; a better-paying, more manager-friendly waitress job for mom; or a mess to flee from which my alcoholic, robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul father had made yet again, that basketball was a constant.
Not because I played daily with it.
Sometimes it would lie untouched and fallow between moves, kept in its slowly disintegrating faded red square cardboard box, until it became too dilapidated to move, and so that box also became just another something to cast off, as if some shed skin from the molting of second to third grade or from Ohio to Florida.
But not ever was the basketball left behind.
Gathering oil stains and asphalt grime, even though the nubs started to wear smooth, it stayed with me.
In seventh grade, toward the beginning of school, during early October, my birth month, I first remember realizing that ball would, could, provide the approval I’ve lifelong sought.
We were living in Cleveland with my dad’s mother, then Marie Ryjowski (she passed as Marie Myslenski, following her fourth husband in turn to her grave) but known simply as Grandma Ry by me and my sisters; she had taken in my mom, me, and my sisters because her 2nd of 4 sons had abandoned us to gallivant around the country in search of wine, women, and song. Mostly after alcohol, though, and the never-quite-elusive-enough easy lays.
But he had just returned to Cleveland after his most recent guilt trip only a couple weeks after I’d started at yet another new school, as usual weeks after the official first day of school so that I could enact my annual role as new-kid in the already established classroom cliques. And we were all living with Grandma Ry on the first-floor walk-up of the up-and-down duplex she rented from some old couple in her parish church. My afternoons and evenings were spent there, with my sisters, while at night I shared a bedroom with them.
By day I was manfully trying to fit in at my second junior high in two months: Albert Bushnell Hart Junior High School. Known more simply as A.B. Hart. Or simpler yet just A.B.
On some mid-October Sunday afternoon, after a massive traditional Polish meal, following mass at Grandma’s Church, the Polish National Trinity Catholic Church, which we all dutifully attended, including my dad, and his baby brother Bobby, our Unkie Bob, the 3 ‘men’ of the family, and the well-travelled basketball, went for a walk, in search of a hoop court.
Unkie Bob had arrived for the weekend, to stay over for only a couple or three days because he just happened to be between jobs, and wives. But not women. He actually stayed a few weekends, and the weekdays in between, which my sisters and I really liked, because he was far and away our favorite uncle, or aunt.
The three of us walked in the direction of a nearby court I thought I knew of, on a blacktop playground just a couple blocks past Miles Standish Elementary School, where my sisters were in fourth and first grades. They were in the formative stages of learning to adjust to being the perennial new-kid in the classroom, and they were adjusting about as well I was in those days, which wasn’t very well at all. And not because they were girls.
My father and uncle each had a few shots and couple of beer chasers or so in them from the massive meal: “over the lips and over the gums, look out stomach here it comes!” toasted my dad.
How could I not be a poet after hearing toasts like that during my formative years. Whenver my dad happened to be living with us, that is.
Or as I came to later realize, that little ditty my father rhymed before meals & drinking, was actually an alcoholic’s way of saying “Grace.”
All that drink was on top of what they’d already downed before and right after mass. So they were feeling no pain, as they often proclaimed in those days, and chain-smoked in the crisp Cleveland autumn open air. They cajoled and jostled each other waving their lit smokes grandly as they eloquently joked and joshed each other, and dribbled back and forth between themselves and me. Mostly, I recall, they double-dribbled. And travelled a lot.
Occasionally they let me touch the ball.
Now that I reflect upon it, more or less 4 years from retirement as a writing professor, back then: they were just babies. Really. My dad was 33, and my uncle 26; and they shared the same birth day, December fifth.
Seven years separated them in time, but only in time were they separated. When in space, together they were inseparable, and couldn’t have been more like twins unless they’d been born 7 minutes apart, not 7 years.
Plus, my uncle always acted older than his age, I’ve been told, while my father never acted his.
At the gravel and ground-down broken glass asphalt court with rusty scalloped backboards and tattered nylon nets, three seventh graders from my school shot around. Two I recognized as toughs little more skilled at hoop then than I was, but I didn’t know them by name; the third kid I did know by name, Mike Rushnok, who was in Mr. Lewanowitz’ history class with me.
Mr. Lewanowitz was known throughout A.B. as the “geography Nazi,” for his unstinting demands that all of his students know all of the countries of the world and their capitals. I actually enjoyed his class and found satisfaction filling in over and over his mimeographed world, hemispherical, continental, and regional maps with the absolutely correctly spelled names of countries and their capitals and the precisely placed ‘stars’ locating each capital. He taught us to be junior cartographers, certain those boundaries and names would stand the test of time.
I hope he died well before the end of the twentieth century; I’m sure his heart couldn’t have taken the nearly annual shifting boundaries and renaming of the world’s countries hastened by the millennium’s demise.
I wonder if he ever read “Ozymandias”; that could have eased his passing.
Even as a transfer student in Mr. Lewanowitz’ class I was starting to achieve star status, but not Mike, not that I think he really cared about that. He chose to shine elsewhere.
On that old blacktop court on that Sunday afternoon, the 6 of us agreed to choose up sides for some 3-on-3; I was on Unkie Bob’s team along with nameless tough #1, while nameless tough #2 was the third on Dad’s team with Mike.
I forget how long we played those half-court games on that idyllic fall Sunday afternoon, sunsplashed under clear blue cloudless skies infiltrated by the occasional waft of smoke from burned leaves, causing an ache in the lungs from a too deeply in-drawn breath of air; but I do remember two other things.
First, I mostly ran around that half-court perimeter trying to stay out of the way when we had the ball, occasionally being given the ball for a pity shot, usually a lay-up. Never a really wide-open one. And when we didn’t have the ball, I ran around trying to get in the way, usually forgetting about my man, nameless tough #2, leaving him wide open for lay-ups. Which he almost always made.
I was so small, scrawny, and weak-skilled in those days; I barely knew which side of the ball was up.
At least by then I knew that I didn’t have to always jiggle the ball in my hands when I first received it, so that the word “Voit” was on the top of the ball, and facing me so that I could easily read it, before I started to dribble, pass it, or even take a shot.
So, in my brain I was making progress in learning to hone my hoop skills. Almost entirely self-taught in those days.
And secondly this too I remember from that day: on the walk back home to Grandma’s my dad and Unkie Bob went on and on about what a good player Mike was, especially for his age and size.
He’d more than held his own with them, especially Unkie Bob, who was the widely-regarded family athlete of his generation, having been good enough as a football player in high school for the Canton Mckinley Bulldogs to be personally scouted by the esteemed Woody Hayes from the Ohio State University. But Unkie Bob nixed all that when he and his friend Charlie Zander got themselves kicked off the team before the end of the season for disciplinary reasons.
As I found out years later during a drunken bout of one-down-man-ship between my father and Unkie Bob, their favorite remorse-filled drinking game, those disciplinary reasons resulted from a victory party into the wee hours of a Sunday morning that concluded just in time for mass. The post-game celebration had included lots of beer and several cheerleaders, including the daughters of a prominent teacher and the head guidance counselor, whom my uncle and his best friend Zander had deflowered after their cozy swittcheroo foursome had drained every last brown neck down to the dregs.
For some reason, as the gist of the story went, even in the many re-tellings and versions I’d hear over the years, the four of them had the “brass balls” to attend that Sunday’s earliest first mass, still in their party clothes. Unfortunately, the parents, school officials, the coaching staff, and the parish itself were not as forgiving as apparently God had been on that early Sunday morning. And so to that, for years on end, my Uncle Bob attributed the downward spiral of his life.
Which included him playing switcheroo once upon a time with a basketball, for me.
I didn’t know all or any of that then on that Sunday as we re-traced our way back to Grandma’s house. But I did learn loud and clear what my dad and uncle thought of Mike’s hoop skills, and mine, by what they said about him, and didn’t about me.
Even though it was my ball, not his old under-inflated almost worn smooth nameless one, that we’d played with.
When they talked as we walked I knew my dad and uncle spoke truly, for the cool fresh air and invigorating exercise had sobered them up some. Their heads were probably clearer than they had been all day, and would be, since I knew that back at Grandma’s they’d start knockin’ ‘em back again – “bendin’ & flexin’” their elbows, as they liked to call it. Why Grandma always supplied them so readily with bottles of the really hard stuff and cases of the brown necks still escapes me.
But it never has escaped me how all my dad and Unkie Bob said about me on the way home was how glad they were that I had such a nice basketball to play with. Oh, and that I was lucky to have a friend like Mike, who was such a good basketball player already. They wondered too if he’d grow up to play high school ball at Holy Name High, at some other parochial school, or just play at some public school with a bunch of junglebunnies.
My only other hoop memory of seventh grade involved not me but my really good friend Robert McCormick, who had been chosen a Gym Leader second term by Mr. Kirschner, our P.E. Teacher, and whose eye I ever unsuccessfully attracted in class by my puerile efforts at just about any gymnastics activity, except that I ever strove to excel with hustle and verve.
Coordinated and skilled I was not, yet, but I’d manage to figure out a way to manufacture those two attributes, along with tenacity. Or maybe it was just plain fool Polish doggedness.
Because I was smarter than the average kid in P.E., I realized that my below average athletic skills and experience could be incrementally made up for with hustle, verve, derring-do, and just plain old determination – not to quit nor flat out give up when beaten or knocked down, especially when losing and particularly when losing was inevitable. Even when losing was long and drawn out, which I had plenty of opportunities to practice at and gain experience from. From losing, that is.
So as a gym leader, Robert got to play in the-end-of-the-school-year teacher-student basketball game. Played on a Friday afternoon right after the last lunch period, so we were exempt from classes if we went to the game, billed as a “fund raiser. Which of course every student in the school attended, even the proto-nerds, the unofficial local chapter of Future Geeks of America, of which I was probably only a dis-honorary member in those gawky-awful seventh-grade days.
Needless to say the Student Council made a killing, at 25¢ per student, for “charity.”
The teams were any teacher, male or female, game enough to play against the students: the ninth, eight, and seventh grade gym leaders. Robert was one of only two seventh graders on the team.
Mr. Kirschner officiated, more or less ably assisted by Mr. Lewanowitz. Although no girls played on the student team, several female teachers played, the younger ones, who all of a sudden looked very cute. Especially Miss Majewski, the second-year German teacher.
What I distinctly remember was late in the game, Robert dashed after a loose ball near the sidelines right in front of me and collided with Miss Majewski. He stumbled to the floor while she merely ended up losing her balance but caught herself, astraddle Robert, lying on the floor looking up at her.
And here’s what got me, what’s imprinted, indelibly on my memory tapes: as he scrambled to his feet she reached out and cradled his face in both of her hands, and apologized. I could read her lips everso clearly behind 5 or 6 rows of students: “Oh, I’m so sorry – are you all right? I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to knock you down.”
‘Knock him down’? Are you kidding me. She could have walloped me with an ugly stick, ten times over, for just one concerned look like that from her, and to be holding my face in her hands so close to her face while she apologized so sincerely and sweetly. Oh, my, the look in her eyes and the shape of her lips is indelibly printed on my retinas. Obviously.
That was the kind of approval I sought, longed for, all from the crazy bounce of a basketball.
So, thus inspired, I determined to be a “real” basketball player. Not a ‘pretender.’
Still under 5’ as a skinny seventh grader, for me, shooting seemed such an iffy thing, given that I wasn’t even halfway yet to the rim as I stood flat-flooted gazing up into its rarefied stratosphere. I felt that if maybe I squinted my eyes I could make out slightly beyond the rim Mount Everest, or at least Mount McKinley.
That seemed to me like that was too far to loft a shot heavenward; there was way too much room for an increased margin of error with my unpracticed shooting eye. I was too proud to shoot two-handed, but my one-handed shot left some onlookers believing my motion would be better served out on the track where smaller, denser nine pound balls were more suited to that throwing motion.
Thus, on the court my shooting motion looked more like I was heaving the ball at the hoop.
Plus, since there was so much airspace for the ball to go through just to reach rim level let alone add to that an arc to get it above the rim so it could drop through the net, I was sure that added flight time was ample enough for some gangly 6-footer or taller, even at the junior high level, to amble on over and stuff my shot, with or without leaving the floor.
If I wanted playing time with the older and bigger boys I would have to possess some other skill set within my control: so I chose to be the best ball-handler – dribbler & passer – that money could buy. The dividends didn’t pay off initially. But what eventually punched my ticket to college: I grew to be a 6’3”+ guard who could dribble and pass like someone a foot shorter, which I had been for a very long time. Plus I could dunk. Was a 90% freethrow shooter. Was fearless driving to the hoop. And made it a point to go after every loose ball as if my life depended on it. Or as if my spot on the team did. Even if it was just at the end of the bench.
My strategy was not to hesitate even a second to hit the floor, diving and scrambling for any loose ball rolling around there, just for the taking.
Like it was found money.
That was “how” I started out in seventh grade, and “when” I started. I had to start somewhere, and I had to start somehow.
And mostly it was just me on some outdoor court all by myself. Or whenever I could I’d glom onto Robert and some of the older gym leaders before or after school or right before or right after p.e. class when I could hang around for a while, even for just a few minutes, grabbing rebounds from missed and made shots by the older gym leaders, and so I got to work on perfecting my bounce and chest passes to them, especially when they motioned for me pass it to them on the move for their shot, which gave me the chance to practice leading them perfectly so that they could catch it in stride, to make it easy for them to gather themselves, squared to the hoop, on the balls of their feet, and their feet shoulder-width, ready for the smooth jump and easy release of the ball at the top of their jump. Nobody had to tell me to notice those things and record them; I just absorbed it all. Happy to be hanging with older hoop guys who let me hang with them, even if I was only their hoop caddy.
And then in ninth grade I found myself in Florida, for good, well, once and for all, until that is I’d leave for my freshman year in college to go play hoop on a basketball scholarship in Illinois.
Before all that could happen though I’d have to be one of the last three guys cut from the boys’ ninth-grade basketball team at Deerfield Beach Junior High School (DBJHS). I’d obviously gotten enough better from those woeful seventh grade quasi-skills to at least not be among the first guys cut from that team. Some 30 hopefuls showed up for that ninth grade team, and I lasted until 15, 14, or 13. I wasn’t good enough to be twelfth on the twelve man team. Or bad enough to be just a scrub, riding the end of the pine, as we called it in those days.
In fact, that’d have to wait until my junior year at PBSHS when and where I was bad enough to be the last guy sitting on the bench. In such a weird sort of way, I was getting really good at being bad enough of a player to be the super-scrub on the varsity of what was traditionally one of the powerhouse boys’ high school basketball teams in South Florida.
And to think, it all started, more or less, with being cut in ninth grade. In essence, when I wasn’t good enough to be a scrub then.
I didn’t let that deter me though.
I worked even harder during that year for not making the ninth grade team, so that in tenth grade I actually made the junior varsity team at PBSHS. Of course, I was the last guy to make the team, to not be cut. So, for me it was a huge moral victory.
I mean I finally got to say I was on a real team, “had” to go to practice after school, was issued my very first official uniform with a real warm-up jacket, about two sizes too big, and got to wear school-bought white high-top Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars: two pairs of them even – one for practice and one for games only. I prized those shoes so much. And I hated to get them too dirty or worn out, but didn’t have to worry much about my game shoes taking a beating. At the end of the season they looked like they’d just come out of the box.
That was okay. Because after the season, they were mine to keep, and so I took them home, where I still had the box they came in, but put them on a shelf in my bedroom. I didn’t have any trophies of any kind to show for any of my athletic endeavors, and wouldn’t have for a long long time, but those two shoes were trophies to me. Sitting on that shelf they were a positive tangible reminder of what could happen if I worked hard, didn’t give up or quit, especially when it looked like I was going to lose anyway.
Or even be little more than just a scrub.
In my mind though I was improving; in my mind I had scored a moral victory. I was showing progress. And I was not particularly ashamed or embarrassed to be the twelfth man on that twelve man jayvee team.
Four junior high schools fed into PBSHS. That meant that four ninth grade boys’ basketball teams sent 48 players to that high school, and most of them would try out for the jayvee team. So, in my mind I had not just beaten the odds to barely make that team – I trashed em’.
Plus this: of the 12 guys who made the DBJHS ninth grade boys’ basketball team that I got cut from – only 3 of them were still lacing them up to play with me my senior year at PBSHS. Nine of them got left by the wayside, for one reason or another. Only two of those three would be in the starting line-up with me for our senior season, while the other 1 assumed my old role of scrub, riding the pine.
And this too: I was the second leading scorer on the team our senior year. The leading scorer was a kid from one of those four feeder junior high teams our sophomore year. And the other two guys who started with us didn’t even average in double figures.
As might be expected, I have lots of memories of that senior season playing hoop, especially after all those non-playing years when I just sat the bench and dreamed and prayed and longed and coveted some playing time. Any playing time.
Many of those memories are wildly positive, some just positive, others so-so, a lot of just running up and down the court, a few negative memories, but really only a couple of klunker ones. I’d gotten pretty good at not making mistakes on the court, neither the mental mind-numbing ones nor the just stupid physical couldn’t-be-helped careless errors. I guess the record could speak for itself in these departments: I was a starter, second leading scorer, and had the pick of a half-dozen full rides after the season was over.
I’d gotten some better over the years.
Not all of the memories happened during games, sometimes before or just after them. Sometimes I remember something that happened during a clock stop.
During one of the 30+ games that year, somewhere in the middle of the season, somewhere in the middle of a game, one of the officials for the game was the same coach who had cut me from that ninth grade team, Bob Bidwell. I don’t think that I ever had any real animosity for him cutting me. Really.
In my mind during those tryouts I knew I was a scrub. I knew I was so far behind most of the players, but I also knew I knew how to operate as a less-skilled player, 1 who possessed the intangibles that couldn’t be measured on any stat sheet.
I believed, like I told a reporter after a game in college, after we’d beaten a team we had no business beating, whose starting line-up to a man was taller, faster, more experienced than any of us, “You can measure height and weight. But you can’t measure heart. You won’t ever find that stat in the program.”
I’m pretty sure I didn’t originate that quote. But I got quoted nonetheless for it in the Kankakee Journal. After all, that was our college’s hometown newspaper, and Jerry Hertenstein was the beat reporter for our team. Maybe it helped sell a few newspapers.
So, in ninth grade I was hoping that Mr. Bidwell, or Coach Bidwell, as he preferred we call him in those days, would see that in me. Because as was the case with any basketball team I ever played on, in high school or college, I was about the smartest guy on the team, although I didn’t start to regularly show up on the Dean’s List until the second semester of my sophomore year. Which is mostly why, I think, and I was told too, I ended up first at the University of Chicago for graduate school and then in a Ph.D. program at New York University.
But it didn’t matter in ninth grade, because Coach Bidwell saw me as a scrub, and knew me as one.
He had also been the head coach for the ninth grade boys’ football team at DBJHS. And I was definitely a scrub and a sight to behold on that team.
I maybe could have been measured up at 5’6” and at some point during the beginning of that season topped out at 105 pounds, soaking wet: good enough to be the fourth string fullback; bad enough to be a certifiable scrub, in the eyes of just about everybody, including Coach Bidwell.
No fifth string fullback position existed. I couldn’t go any lower.
All I could do was maybe hope-against-hope to move up on the depth chart.
And I did, eventually.
I was only even on the team because we’d just moved to Florida, for good, etc. Dad had finally caught up to us after his circuitous escape route down the Eastern Seaboard, and I’d been enrolled a week or so after classes had begun, as usual, and since I’d been a late-registrant I was given special dispensation to join the football team even though I’d missed all the grueling 2-a-day practices in the last two-and-a-half weeks of those brutal Florida August dog days. All of which endeared me even more to my new teammates. So, I had that to deal with on top of my perennial new kid in class act.
Oh, and this too was a constant reminder: every guy who went out for the team made it. But only the top 55 players had game uniforms.
I didn’t dress for the first two games of the season. So I had the further distinction of being a scrub sitting up in the stands, not even good enough at being bad enough to sit on the very end of the bench. I would move up on the roster though, to third string fullback, thanks to injuries and a few “quitters,” so that I could then be a certifiable scrub in a uniform at the end of the bench.
I learned there to perfect the surreptitious arts of the scrub, falling down unnecessarily during warm-ups, and on the sly rubbing dirt on my uniform while sitting on the bench, but never ever quite caught on to mastering the finer points of applying grass stains to my white game pants, over my placebo brand knee and thigh pads.
I’d only been cajoled into trying out for the team to please my dad, who had clearly announced while in some kind of stupor that someone in the Winderl family had to step up and pick up the athletic torch dropped by his baby brother Bobby. Amazingly, his eloquence improved the more the more he drank. Or so he seemed to assume in his clouded and addled brain.
I had two elder cousins who should have preceded me into the Winderl Athletic Hall of Fame, or Shame, as the case might be, both sons of Ed Winderl, the eldest of the four Winderl brothers. But the older of my two cousins set his sights on Vet School at the Ohio State University, where he would eventually graduate Number One from their school of Veterinary Sciences, and his younger brother, a year older than me, actually won a golf scholarship to the Ohio State University and was all set to be that Winderl to enter the Hall of Fame. But he got his girlfriend pregnant around Christmas of his freshman year, and my Uncle Eddie insisted he drop out of school, be a man, marry the girl, and be an example to the world: that a Winderl could do the right thing.
And so he of course entered the other Winderl Hall. Enshrined next to Unkie Bob.
That all happened years after I struggled mightly through a nightmare season of freshman football mostly holding tackling and blocking dummies for the first string offenses and defenses, and I got to be the dummy fullback on the scout team who let the first and second string defenses pummel me to the turf Monday through Thursday all season.
As was to be expected, in that typical best of all possible junior high worlds, the first string fullback was John Hoffman, 6’ even and every bit of 165 pounds, not soaking wet. To be sure, nobody pummelled him to the ground.
Funny thing. When John was a senior in high school, he was still 6’ tall and maybe 175 or 180, but he wasn’t lean and mean in twelfth grade like he was in ninth. In fact, ninth grade was the last year he played football.
But to Coach Bidwell, I was a scrub on his ninth grade football team.
So when I tried out for his ninth grade basketball team I was still a scrub, perhaps even moreso of one because I didn’t have all that football gear to camouflage my scrawniness; I had to stand on those outdoor basketball courts in just gym shorts and a thin little p.e. shirt. No wonder he cut me. I was a scrub
But maybe I wouldn’t have been so scrubby to him if I hadn’t already been seen and known as a football scrub.
Plus, I kind of knew back then that all these other guys trying out for the team were going to make the team because he’d known all of them since they were seventh graders.
I tried out anyway, hoping against hope I wouldn’t get cut, disappointed when I was, but not crestfallen, the blow itself softened because dad had once again left us for parts and women unknown. Which meant we’d be free for a time from his drinking and arguing and fighting with mom and throwing things and smashing up stuff in the house.
Which also meant I didn’t have to incur his looks and remarks that I’d let him down and was turning out to be such a loser for a son. His firstborn. And his only son.
But I had a year to play hoop and practice and hang out on my own on local public courts and get better and improve at my own speed; at the end of that year I’d muster enough courage and hutzpah, not to mention the temerity, to try out again for another hoop team, the jayvee squad at PBSHS.
I was not so easily deterred.
And it all paid off, so that, three years later, during my senior year when Coach Bidwell was officiating one of our games for the second or third time that season, I wasn’t too surprised when he called me by name in the middle of the game.
The other team had squandered an easy scoring opportunity on a 3-on-1 fast break by making a bad pass that I forced, sending the ball careening wildly out of bounds. I had played really smart defense with my feet and hands, cutting down the angles of the passing lanes.
I’d proved, simply enough, that I was smarter, not more athletic, than those 3 to my 1 on the fastbreak, by simply increasing the degree of difficulty for the bounce pass by decreasing the angle of success. All I’d done was to jump the passing lane. It was a basic math problem that I’d solved “on the spot.” Physics, actually, with maybe a little bit of geometry figured in, just for good measure.
And so the ball had bounced harmlessly out of bounds, behind and beyond the backward outstretched reach of the sprinting player, who’d over-run the pass and the play.
We played our home games in a stadium style, horseshoe-shaped gymnasium with fixed seats for about 2,000 fans above the playing court and with pull-out bleachers on the sidelines that sat another 800 on the floor level of the gym. That bad pass caromed off the base of the stage at the far end of the gym and bounced back under the bleachers and then rolled back under them another 12 or 15 feet, where it came to rest there among the supports and roll-out sliders. I was the nearest of our players to the action, naturally, and so trotted after the ball. But when I saw it sitting back under the bleachers in that rat’s nest of metal grillework, I paused, hands on hips. And Coach Bidwell jogged over to join me, to see where the ball was.
He looked at the ball, then he looked at me.
I looked back at him, then back at the ball, then back to him, to look down at him, not in an unfriendly way, I was just looking at him, and catching my breath. Then I realized I was probably, at 6’1”, a good 2 or 3 inches taller than him then, considerably taller than when I had tried out for him so long ago. When I’d been a measly 5’6” scrub on his football team.
He shook his head at the ball, put his whistle back in his mouth, and then with both hands guiding him crawled in under the bleachers after the ball. When he re-emerged with the ball, he took the whistle out of his mouth and holding the ball under his other arm, looked up at me to say, “Thanks, Carl – for getting the ball for me.”
I think I was pretty much expressionless because I crystal clearly remember thinking, “Gosh, Mr. Bidwell, -- thanks for not cutting me from the ninth grade basketball team.”
Of course I was way too smart to ever say that to him, which is why I know I was expressionless, because to have been that smart alecky with him – with any game official – would only come back to bite me in the butt.
So, we just walked back to the out of bounds line where the ball had approximately gone out of bounds because of the errant pass my smart defense had forced. We stopped. He looked to make sure everybody on both teams was ready to resume play, then he handed me the ball and dropped his right hand to let me know he was counting out the 5 seconds I had to put the ball into play. Which I did. And we got on with our jobs, he to his, and me to mine.
I passed the ball in bounds to Bill Brooks, the other starting guard with me that night, but who had been, coincidentally, one of the starting guards for Coach Bidwell back in ninth grade.
And who on that night passed me the ball so that he could get the occasional assist while I was racking up the points to be our team’s second leading scorer.
To my recollection, of the five or six games he probably reffed that I played in my senior year Coach Bidwell never homered or bonered a call against me. And I remember thinking too after that game, that after almost 4 years how cool it was he remembered my 1st name and called me by it, and I wondered then and wonder now if he ever thought about how he’d cut me and what a difference it might have made if he hadn’t cut me from that ninth grade team.
But I wonder if maybe I wasn’t a better player for being cut, having to learn to deal with the disappointment, and to overcome it. And maybe too for having to deal with bouncing back. Not giving up. Not quitting. Especially when the future looked even bleaker than the past.
My scrub days were far from over though when I started at PBSHS, finally beginning the school year on the very first day of class new, just like everybody else. And new to a sophomore class that included students from 4 different junior high schools. To nearly all those students it must have been a shock having to adjust to so many new faces, all at once, all in one place, and feeling so left out and wondering if or how they would ever fit in.
But to me, heck, it was just business as usual. For nine years every year prior I’d always been at least once a school year the new kid in school.
Fortunately, none of the three PBSHS basketball coaches really knew me from boo. Oh, yeah, I’m sure they knew the hot shots from the starting line-ups of the 4 junior high teams. But as I soon realized not all twelve players of all four of those teams tried out for the jayvee team, either because they’d decided to focus more on football, track, or baseball at the high school level, or they just weren’t interested in high school athletics, like John Hoffman, who’d decided to give it up.
Except there were a bunch of guys like me, who’d gotten cut and were giving it a second go-around, guys who hadn’t gone out for some reason or other in ninth grade but were giving it a shot, and some guys who hadn’t attended any of the 4 junior highs and were new too but reasonably talented and wanted to give it a go.
But in that pool, I somehow stood out enough, hung around long enough during tryouts, impressed just enough with my hustle, verve, or smarts often enough to be the last man on the team. And then the next year as a junior during varsity tryouts I managed somehow a repeat performance making the 12-man squad, evenly divided between seniors and juniors, so in a sense I had moved up, skill-wise, but I was still the team scrub, twelfth man on a twelve man team.
And yet, I did have a varsity uniform, two actually, white for home and midnight blue, almost black, for away. Both trimmed in brilliant gold. So gold it seemed to shimmer. And I got a really cool warm-up, that fit. With my name on the back. Practice shoes and 2 pairs of game shoes. A pair of white high-top Converse All-Stars. And a pair of genuine black high-top Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars. Just like the Celtics wore. And in those days, we were the only team that ever walked on a court wearing them. Of course, to anyone else, those were just shoes.
But to me, I knew, they were trophies you wore on your feet – more than that, they were little lace-ups of Heaven to tie on your soles.
I ended that season as I’d started it, as a scrub, on the end of the bench, the twelfth man on a twelve man team, but I’d picked up a few things, here and there.
And I had two new very nearly pristine pairs of game shoes to display on my shelf at home, alongside my jayvee game shoes. And three cardboard boxes for them on the floor of my bedroom closet.
Then the summer before my senior year I somehow had the wild-eyed perspicacity to find a way to attend a two week basketball camp at Stetson University in Deland, Florida. I’d worked extra shifts at my part-time 15-20 hour a week job bagging groceries at Kwik-Chek to pay my way.
After a half-day’s Greyhound Bus ride I arrived on a Sunday evening at Glenn Wilkes’ Camp. I didn’t know what I was in for, but playing nothing but hoop for two weeks sounded like I’d be doing the next best thing to hanging around God’s court in heaven.
But what really sealed the deal for me and for the most part kissed my scrub-ass status good-bye happened at the end of the first day’s general workouts, all-day Monday – morning, afternoon, and evening – to find out the first thing Tuesday morning that I’d been selected by Coach Joe Cervallo to be on his 15-player roster for the rest of the two weeks
Coach Cervallo was the high-powered head coach of the high-powered Gainesville High School Basketball team, located in the same city as the University of Florida.
He’d had to choose ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth graders-to-be to fill out his roster, but there were only two senior guards, me, and his son Joey Cervallo, Jr., who’d been honorable mention all-state as a junior. I am reasonably sure I gulped when I realized who I’d be playing next to, who I’d be starting with, on Coach Cervallo’s team. But as the week wore on, and then during the next week I realized I’d not been chosen as a scrub; Coach Cervallo didn’t think that of me at all.
In fact, he told me before the weeks’ were over that he picked me on purpose because he was impressed that I was a six-footer who could handle the ball so well, with either hand, and was an outstanding passer. I was stunned. And then I realized, well, yeah, shoot, Joey Jr. could do all those things. But he was only 5’8”. And that would be his adult height, I later found out. While mine would be a little over 6’3”.
Coach Cervallo had chosen me, I know now, to help get his soon used to playing with a bigger guard, who could pretty much do what he could do handling the ball but was fearless at going to the hoop, because my height and longer arms would let me get away with stuff inside that Joey couldn’t dream of. So Joey and I played a lot of one-on-one and two-on-two during those 2 weeks, and that was cool because I realized for the first time in my hoop life that I was getting all kinds of approval from Joey’s dad.
For once a coach saw me not for who I was but for who I could be.
Joey Jr. would also go on to get a scholarship, but to some junior college across the state line in southern Georgia. And after that I don’t know what happened to him. He was still only 5’8”. An inch shorter than his dad.
And with that confidence and with the new set of skills I had picked up in such a densely concentrated space and time I started my senior season ready to crack the starting line-up for the first time in my life.
And I did. As it was, I didn’t start the first game of my senior season but did come off the middle of the bench to score 14 very meaningful and timely points in a low-scoring game (we didn’t even score 50 points as a team – but won anyway), in a tooth-and-nail scrum narrowly defeating the Conchs from Key West High School, a state-ranked 3A basketball program. From that game on though I started for the rest of our 30+ game season.
All I needed – all I felt I ever needed – was just a chance. And that game proved to be it.
But the highlight of my senior year, what would have been the highlight of my highlight reel, had there been such a thing back in The Day, was actually the third game of the season, when I scored 34 points, what would be my personal best in high school.
Well, the most points I’d score in a high school game.
Not such a big deal today, but that was before the 3-point line, and the quarters were only 8 minutes long.
And in that game which we won 64 to 33, over Northeast High, one of our cross-county rivals, 34 points by one player was quite the accomplishment.
In fact, a couple of days or so after that game, the beat reporter for our team at The Fort Lauderdale News, Jon Madden, who’d written the story on our victory over Northeast, stopped by before practice. It wasn’t 3:30 yet, Coach Morris had not given his 1-whistle imperious blast, so we were just jacking around the court practicing our horse shots, not our game shots like we were supposed to be perfecting.
So Mr. Madden walked over to the side basket where I was semi-seriously shooting around, probably working on my left-handed horse shots, as I liked to do in those days, when he told me of a conversation he’d had with his sports editor on the story he wrote on the Northeast game. He said he’d tried to convince him to run the following headline with the story: “Tornadoes Roll: Winderl 34, Northeast 33.” Of course, he’d been told that head would be considered bad taste.
Yeah, Mr. Madden said he admitted, it would be in bad taste. Because he suggested the sub-head could be: Winderl 34, the rest of the Tornadoes 30. And he figured that would be in even worse taste, he thought, so he didn’t really suggest it. But he said, he really wanted to emphasize to all his readers that I’d outscored everybody that night, including my teammates.
Bad taste or not, that game was a watershed event in my hoop career.
My days as a scrub were officially over.
That game got lots of people’s attention, at my high school, and at other high schools in South Florida. I’d never score 30 points again in high school, but had several games in the 20’s, because I rarely played a game the rest of the season that I wasn’t for much, most, or all of the game double-teamed every time I got the ball or had to navigate my way around the key while the defense played a box-and-1 against me.
That taught me a lot too, and readied me, little did I know at the time, for playing college ball.
Glenn Wilkes himself and Joe Cervallo weren’t the only mentors who reached out to me and gave me the encouragement I’d lacked but needed and finally found in them; Steve Strein was a very very unlikely force in my life that summer and during a handful of games my senior year.
Sometime during August right before the start of my senior year, not long after my 2-week stint at the Glenn Wilkes Camp, a guy began showing up at the lighted outdoor courts in fashionable and trendy Lighthouse Point, situated east of Federal Highway but west of the Intracoastal, where nearly all of the students in the Cool Kids Club at PBSHS lived. While the students in the Ultra-Cool Kids Club lived between the Intracoastal and A1A or – better yet along the beach itself.
The courts though were just a five-minute bike ride from where I lived, on the wrong side of Federal Highway, the Intracoastal, A1A, and the beach. I lived on the wrong side of everywhere, west, wester, wester more, and westernmost of any pretensions to coolness.
Evenso, my bike got me over the westerly boundary line, maybe because there was something about me that didn’t like a wall, real or imagined, and so those courts continued to be my proving ground. Where and when I learned that real players, athletes, in any sport, are made in the off-season. Not during the season.
And that guy who started showing up, Steve Strein, would be my new unofficial coach at the Lighthouse Point Courts where I played nearly every night of the week, if I could. Barring rain. Or some special evening service thing at church.
All I knew of Steve that late summer and into the fall before the season started was that he was in his late twenties, was single, had just moved to South Florida, from somewhere up North, like so many of us in those days, and was a junior high Civics teacher at some private school up in Boca Raton, probably St. Andrews, now that I think about it, but lived in Deerfield Beach with his folks, until he could find a place of his own.
And he had played some hoop in college, somewhere up in the Mid-Atlantic region, as I recall, had been a guard, but had gradually put on some serious weight after he graduated. He was maybe 5’10” but weighed-in easily around 220, not fat, but stocky, on the thick side, especially through the middle. Even so, he still had some good moves, could still handle the ball, hit the open jump shot, if left alone too long, but rarely went to the basket. He just couldn’t jump anymore, too much weight, and a knee injury after college, slowed him down. But he still played solid defense; he was a smart defender.
When not on my team, when playing against me, he liked to guard me, was always hand-checking me, grabbing at my jersey, or if we were skins trying to hold me by the arm, would give me a hip to keep me off-balance, tried to shoulder me away from the hoop every time I crossed the time-line, boxed me out hard but only with the mildest of roughness, and if he couldn’t physically he would vocally hound and harass me. He never hurt me, but he never let up on me. Even if he was sitting out, watching, waiting to play “winners” on those pick-up game nights.
And he was a fun guy. Always talking, yammering, making jokes, not talking trash. And coaching, unofficially. Especially me, I soon realized. Whether or not we were on the same team during those many many pick-up games. Giving me little tips, encouraging me, not just back-patting.
Often, very often, he berated me, not so much for what I did. But for what I didn’t do.
Like he would constantly yell at me to quit passing up shots. To go ahead and force a shot once in a while.
To always be a threat to score, he’d admonish. Make the defense always think your first move was to score. To take it right to the hoop.
Things my high school coach had never said to me. But before my senior year was over, he too would make similar “suggestions.” Once I’d proved myself, especially after my 34-point outing against Northeast, just the third game of our 30+ game season.
Also during that summer I learned, self-taught of course, perfected a sure-fire move to the basket that I’d use in the lane throughout my senior season and well into my first year in college. I eventually would use it less and less in college once I’d attained my full adult height and had reached “jumping jack” status, as one sports writer wrote of me early in my college career.
The move was simple, to a fault probably. Because it was so unexpected and unusual when I put it into practice during a frenetic fast-paced game, especially during our hectic fast-break, full-court pressure up-tempo style of play in high school.
Coach Morris’ philosophy was to create controlled chaos. Or to generate pandemonium in a box.
Back at Glenn Wilkes Camp we had drummed into our little heads, which suited me just fine, the principles and practics of the Pivot Foot. Easy, basic, simple, yet so often overlooked, and under-used.
Tangential, subsequent to that principle, was the Rocker Step.
But I took all the drilling a step farther. Or took it a step back, actually. Then a step forward, or sideways too.
Drilled into our heads was the basic principle that our pivot foot was always the last foot put down after we picked up our dribble.
But I figured out, reasoned, that if I put down both feet at once, at the same time, simultaneously, like by taking a little hop, as I was picking up my dribble, then I could decide which of my two feet would be my pivot foot.
And it was ever so true, according to the rule book, Dr. Naismith’s Bible.
I even checked it with Coach Cervallo, and Glenn Wilkes himself. But I didn’t really work on it and perfect it until after basketball camp. There it was just a theory; back home, during the rest of the summer, I made that theory practical.
Where I honed it and refined it was under Steve Strein’s tutelage.
The twist I gave to the move was that instead of landing from my little hop to face my defender face on, face-to-face, shoulder-to-shoulder, I’d land sideways, with my side or back to him, protecting the ball, a la pivot-foot style, elbows out, ball tucked safely near my mid-section. Ideally I’d land enough to one side or the other of the defender so that I already had a half-step on him. I always tried to use this move solely inside the key, where defenders tended to play tighter “man-up” defense, not at arm’s length, like outside the key.
So, after landing from the short hop, sideways, I’d give a little head fake, to freeze the defender, maybe get him to lean even closer toward me, thinking I was going up for a shot, that’s when I’d use the step-and-a-half allowed me by Dr. Naismith’s rule book after I’d picked up my dribble. Then I’d cruise usually pretty much untouched and unguarded past the shocked and surprised defender, to the hoop for often an uncontested layup.
I was Kevin McHale before Kevin McHale was insuring his NBA Hall of Fame career with his signature moves in his own private torture chamber around the hoop as a Celtic tormenting big men with his elasticity, fully utilizing his pivot foot and extending to the max that extra step-and-a-half. I was doing that before he was even born. Except I wasn’t 6’11.
I was only all of almost 6’1’’ when I started using it.
I got so good at it that I moved almost in one fluid motion from full dribble, jump stop, head fake, then glide to the hoop or drop off the ball to a wide-open teammate, if some defender jump-switched to pick me up, leaving his man all alone.
It was a nearly flawless move. And it had little or nothing to do with physical gifts. I just worked the rule book to my advantage, because I “figured out the rules,” by using reason. And I put it into smooth practice and execution after thousands of repetitions, on both sides of the hoop, and down the middle of the lane, and with either hand, left or right.
So that I could do it in my sleep. Which I did.
I dreamed of that move. And it came everso true.
I worked on that move during countless hours by myself and even more numberless hours at the Lighthouse Point Courts. Against very live players, of all ages, sizes, and playing levels. With Steve so very often in attendance, sometimes as the recipient of the moves I put on him.
Then the season started. During warm-ups for a home game, five or six games into my senior season, I looked over to the scorers’ table to see that one of the referees for the game was Steve.
Totally unbeknownst to me Steve was a certified State of Florida High School Basketball Referee, having transferred his certification from somewhere up North.
My Steve Strein.
I had to force back a smile when our eyes briefly met; he stood arms crossed, leaning back on the scorers’ table, and I waited in the lay-up line for my turn to drop in a right-handed lay-up.
He gave me an expressionless professional nod of acknowledgment, and I gave him an almost equally expressionless response, except for maybe a slight lift of my left eyebrow.
Early in the game, I put my move on some hapless defender for the first time and scored an easy bucket, despite all the traffic in the lane.
My Coach, Tucker Morris, sanctioned my move but warned me that to the untrained, careless, unwary eye it could look like travelling. So he coached me, no advised, no – admonished me, that if an official whistled me for travelling after the “move” – even once – I was to cease using it for the rest of the game.
But if I heard no whistle, I was to use it, judiciously. My word, even then, not his.
And so I did.
In that first game Steve officiated, the opposing coach who’d obviously heard of me and scouted me, because of the special defensive treatment I received, just about came unglued the first two times I made that move, for easy easy baskets. Ridiculously easy baskets. Or, as Coach Morris really liked to say, left the defenders lookin’ for their jocks.
The third time, just before the half, I used it again for an outragesously easy reverse lay-up, a la Kevin McHale, so long before Kevin was a twinkle in his daddy’s eyes, the opposing coach was apoplectic. Even hysterical at the non-call. Or as Coach Morris liked to say, he went “apeshit.”
I recall the coach screaming to the officials that they might as well give me a suitcase for my travels. Some referees might have called him for a technical foul after that sideline tantrum. I know I probably would have.
But not Steve.
He took the whistle out of his mouth from where he’d stood at the time-line, his position as the backcourt ref on that supposed non-call on my successful move to the hoop, and decreased the distance by half between himself and the opposing head coach still seething and foaming at the mouth just inches inside the out-of-bounds line in front of the visitors’ bench.
I circuitously strolled around them to go back to my end of the court, to get ready to play defense, but I passed them slowly enough and close enough to be party to their exchange, the coach’s over-the-top rant and Steve’s calm, measured response.
I could see Steve was going to talk him down off the ledge. If anyone could do that, Steve was the man.
Steve began, “Read the rule book at halftime, Coach, – on the use of the pivot foot. Page 37, Section C, Paragraph 5. Then sit down and shut-up in the second half or I’ll whistle you for a T.” He paused, as if for effect, and then began anew. “Or I could blow it right now,” replacing his whistle at the side of his mouth.
At about that time I paralleled them as near as I could tactfully get, just to the side of Steve, but on the side away from the visiting coach.
Steve half turned to me, dropped the whistle back into his hand, and barked, “Whatta you lookin’ at 23?!!!”
Only I, who knew him would recognize the merest beginning of a smile in the corner of his eye, that just as suddenly vanished. He glared at me, full-on, hands on hips. Gun-fighter style. Just like I’d learn from him and would use in college whenever I was really unhappy with an official’s call and wanted to make my point, silently. Wordlessly. As Steve also instructed me, no official’ll ever whistle you for a T with that kinda body language.
Oh, and then he squinted at me, and I knew – conversation over.
Next he wheeled away from the coach, who had been suitably dismissed. Steve had style.
I continued on my roundabout path, but remained expressionless at Steve’s reference to my uniform number, except to look down at it, as if to confirm its correctness. But mostly I recall, to hide any smile that might have crept out of my eyes.
Then Coach Morris screamed and stamped at me Rumplestiltskin-style, “Dammit – Winnerdrall – get back and play defense!! And don’t be a damned coke bottle when you get there!”
His imperative returned me to reality and the matter at hand, alerting me to confidently know all was right and restored in the hoop world, on that night, for that game.
Coach Morris never pronounced my name correctly the whole time he knew me, even after I graduated, went away to college, and returned to the gym occasionally, for olde times’ sake; sometimes he didn’t even mis-pronounce it the same way two times in a row.
But I didn’t mind. Didn’t much care. What I heard when he mis-pronounced it was “Winner All.”
And that did not rhyme with “scrub” . . . .
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