Church was fun, especially the parts that weren’t churchy. I got my first sports uniform when I joined the Westmont Methodist basketball team. We all agreed that our color was red which meant we all had to buy red shorts. The rest of the outfit, well…varied by man. My uniform was an undershirt, and a pair of red silk shorts with a double stripe down the side that Ma picked out. No number. No lettering. Then, add in my black and white sneakers.
I knew zip about the game. My experience consisted of tearing the bottom out of a bushel basket, tacking it to the side of our garage, and flipping a deflated ball at it.
The team, all six of us, piled into Coach Billy’s’ car once a week for an hour of practice at the Lincoln School gym in Downers Grove. Billy had just started college at North Central in Naperville. He was a semi-star at Downers Grove High. He’ was too young to be called Mr. Cloverton and too old to be called Billy, so we din’t know exactly what to call him. He was really great. I guess we could all see ourselves some day in him.
The gym had a creaky wooden floor with an oval track that ran around the perimeter above where the spectators sat. It had a clock and a scoreboard, and a list of all the teams in the league:Westmont Methodist, DG Methodist, DG Congo, Westmont Catlick, DG Lutheran, Westmont Baptist and DG Pisco.
Billy’s silver whistle was permanently stuck in his his mouth. Tweet tweet tweet. “Okay, from now on, call me Coach. Our first game is two weeks from Saturday with Congo.”
It was cold in the gym. There was no locker room, so we all would get out of our coats and pants and shirts right there at the bench, revealing the uniform we had on under.
The backboards were wooden and balls colliding with them created bedlam—loud thumps competing with squeaky tennis shoes and high pitched pre-adolescent male screeching echoing off the walls. We ran around like chickens with our head cut off, basketballs flying in all directions, our spindly bare legs sprouting goosebumps. We soon worked up a sweat.
Tweet tweet tweet. “All right, gather round. Only five guys can play at one time, so someone is going to be sitting on the bench with me during games. No moping ‘cause you don’t happen to be playing. Everybody will get a chance. No picking your nose. Scratching your butt. No chomping on your Baby Ruth candy bar. All eyes on the game.
“Now, we’re going to do some drills. Form a line right here. Look at me. The idea is to dribble the ball toward the basket. Head up and palm down. Don’t slap at the ball. Dribble. That means push the ball down with the palm of your hand, your fingers really. No slapping. Like this.”
Billy pushed the ball down to the floor and glided to the hoop with four long strides, two dribbles with his left, crossover, and two with his right. He elevated effortlessly and angled a soft shot off the backboard that glanced through the hoop. He came back toward us, languidly, the ball in one hand against his hip. Just the way he walked you could see he was a real pro.
“Coach…” Benny Yianokopolous says, raising his hand.
“What is it, Yianokopolous?”
“On the court it’s all last names, partner. I’m Coach.”
“I can’t do this, Coach.”
“Before you even try?”
“You’ll still have five guys for a game.”
“You’re not quittin’, Yianocopolous.”
Billy bounce-passes the ball to Yiano. “Take the ball. Dribble in for shot. You’re the first of the Mohicans, pal.”
Benny fumbles the ball but picks it back up. Faces the basket. Takes a step and a dribble. The ball careens off his knee and rolls away toward the mat that’s tacked up against the wall behind the basket.
“I told ya’, Coach.”
“Go get it, Yianokopolous. Throw it to the next man. Go to the end of the line. It’ll come.”
Well, Benny was right about one thing. He’s the worst of us. Nobody’s much good, but a couple of guys, me not included, can at least dribble without having the ball come down on their foot. One or two can actually shoot. The ball rarely goes in the basket.
A couple of the guys wear boxer underpants and the others had briefs under their shorts. I don’t know which is worse. The boxers immediately begin to sneak down, peeking out from under, making the victim a total dork. I’m glad I wear briefs. I was that is, until Yianokopolous nudges me to sneak a peek at Goddard whose briefs are way too big. Exposed is his entire scrawny package—picture a robin hatchling. Everybody begins tugging at their own uni shorts, looking up to see if there are any girls in the peanut gallery above.
Tweet tweet tweet. “At the next practice, I want all of you men wearing an athletic supporter better known as a jock strap.” We look at each other wearing a goofy grin. “Ask your dad to give you a hand with the purchase at Pleshars. Any questions? Good.”
I’m too embarrassed to ask anyone for help with my jock. Instead, I sheepishly buy a size “small” on my own, admire myself in it alone in the bathroom, and proudly wear it to school all week before the next practice.
Tweet tweet tweet. We all get three tries dribbling in for a layup. By the third try everyone, even Yianokopolous makes it all the way to the basket. The shot is another matter. Most carom off the bottom of the backboard. One shot out of the eighteen bounces around on the rim of the basket and falls away.
“Yes coach,” Yianokopolous says, smirking. It’s an honor to be singled out with a nickname.
Coach feeds him a bounce-pass again and Yiano manages to catch it this time. “Come over here.” Coach positions him to the right front of the basket. “Look up. What do you see?”
“A hoop with a net dangling under it, Coach.”
“There’s a rectangle painted on the backboard. Right?”
“Why do you think that’s painted on there?”
“Beats me, Coach.”
“To help shooters. Hold the ball with both hands at chin level. Look up at the rectangle. Shoot the ball so it hits the backboard right in the middle of the square. Go for it. Shoot.”
Yianokopolous shoots the ball. It glances off the backboard, through the hoop, and nestles into the net.
“Well, what do you think, Yiano?”
“I think I just made a basket, Coach.”
This is before any of us had a clue. But, we caught on fast. Before our first ever practice was over, we were dribbling the length of the court, the ball often getting there before we did—hitting layups half the time—and shooting free throws as they must have in the bronze age—eyeing the basket from the free throw line, and whipping the ball up with both hands in a goofy between the legs underhand loop-de-loop style.
In our first ever game we got slaughtered by DG Congo who had obviously been practicing long before we were, 17-5. Fitz Fitzgerald scored all of our points. Our strategy was to throw the ball to Fitz and chase him the length of the court where he fired up a shot somewhere in the vicinity of the hoop. Three of us fouled out, causing the referee to rescind the “five fouls and you’re out of the game” rule. Otherwise we would have had to play short handed, and there’s no point in that, as Coach argued. One good thing, we perked up quite a bit in our brand new jock straps.
We started our next practice sitting together on the bench while Coach gave us a pep talk. Tweet tweet tweet. “Never mind the results of our first game. We play DG Lutheran next, and they aren’t much better than we are at this stage.”
He was right. On that Saturday, we only got creamed 15-3. Fitz got all of our points again. Coach singled me out for the job of making the in-bounds pass to start our pitiful offense. The referee throws me the ball after each of the Lutheran’s many baskets. I step behind the line under the hoop, toss the ball to Fitz who dribbles it down court, me in pursuit, and shoots. Without that job, I may not have touched the ball at all.
On the succeeding Saturdays, we are humiliated by DG Pisco, 21-8, crucified by the Westmont Catlicks, 13-6, and mangled by DG Methodist, 19-1. Fitz was sterling, Yiano got into every game for four minutes, and I made in-bounds passes flawlessly, even adding a flourish by leaning back into the wrestling mat nailed to the wall under the basket, and pushing off with my left foot, just the way I saw the star of the Catlicks do. Our last game of the season is against Westmont Baptist who shared last place in the league with us with a record of 0-4. It’s a good game. We prevail 4-2 in a nail biter. Coach takes us all to the Prince Castle in Fairview for a cone.
Coach is more than just a coach. He never laughed at us, and never got mad when we showed almost no improvement all season long. Actually, we did get better. It’s just that everyone else got better than we did. A month after the season ended the team got an invitation to Billy’s wedding in the fancy Gospel Tabernacle Church, a block down from the Westmont Theater, and next to Toon’s Funeral Home on Cass Avenue. We got dressed up and sat together while William Cloverton joined Betsy Tapper in holy matrimony.
I was doing all right with the whole thing up to when I got a funny feeling watching Billy lift Betsy’s veil to kiss her. It took the air right out of me. I realized right then that no way was Betsy going to join in at our games next year—by maybe bringing some oranges for us to suck on at half-time, or collecting the balls after practice and putting them in the travel bag as Billy did. Heck, she probably wouldn’t even come to the games, wouldn’t like the idea of Billy coaching us. Worst of all, Billy might come to the conclusion that he liked doing things with Betsy more than coaching us Westmont Methodist Mustangs. I hate what jealousy feels like.