The great March blizzard of 2008 forced the postponement of today's IHSAA boys' high school basketball regional tournament at Seymour. New Albany's undefeated Bulldogs must now wait until Monday to resume their pursuit of a championship, albeit one largely rendered moot by the continued existence of class basketball, which put an end to whatever merits the sport of high school basketball still had prior to the institution of egalitarian mediocrity a decade or more ago.
Today marks the 30th anniversary of my final regional basketball appearance as a member of the Floyd Central varsity in 1978. Another reminder of this long-forgotten (and forgettable) occurrence came earlier this week, when the New Albany Tribune profiled former FCHS head coach Joe Hinton, who won a sectional title with Paoli last weekend. Joe's pushing 70, but still in the thick of it, and doing what he knows and loves. More power to him, even if we didn't always see eye to eye back in the day.
One such tumultuous time when we were on entirely different pages was late in the basketball season my senior year, as a decidedly non-illustrious career was fast approaching a merciful conclusion. At a practice session just prior to the 1978 sectional, the coaching staff revealed the official tournament roster, and the list didn't include my name.
Granted, the omission was fully deserved based on pure performance, and yet I was annoyed at the slight, responding with a two-hour concentrated display of faux "go team" enthusiasm and contrived, entirely mock rah-rah, which somehow was mistaken for genuine depth of feeling, resulting in my reinstatement to the roster the following day.
Happily, or so it seemed, I'd neglected reporting this turn of events to my father. Unhappily, his friend and my coach had already done so, which may have been the intent from the beginning, and the whole off-and-on scenario did little to improve matters on the home front. As Gomer Pyle said often at the time, "surprise, surprise, surprise."
Thinking back on it from the vantage point of three decades, I can't attribute truly coherent motives to my teenaged ambivalence about sports, these games being about the only form of communication between a father and his son. The father was an ex-Marine who had traded athletic opportunities for three years as a gunner on a Navy ship in World War II and was keen – perhaps overly so – to see his son succeed at basketball and baseball.
However, the son just wasn't wired for that kind of pressure, at least during those hormonally-charged years, and surely it is indicative of the fundamental disconnect that while I always enjoyed the games themselves and still do, as a precocious reader, my favorite book about sports was Jim Bouton's "Ball Four," which celebrated baseball while exposing the vacuous and inane nature of jock culture.
Bouton spoke to me, fervently and personally. I fancied myself a thinker, not a sweathog. I'd have gladly settled for "lover, not a fighter," except that I hadn't been able to convince the girls of my credentials in the former, and in truth, doubted whether any such talent existed, and so it came back to my brain and I against the world. Suffice to say that according to the flavor of the time, locker rooms were mind-free zones, and brains in sports were the object of suspicion unless one happened to be an otherwise illiterate point guard who could remember the plays and run the offense.
There I was, off the senior-dominated basketball team and then back on it, contemplating yet again how it came to be that we were such underachievers, utterly failing to capitalize on the potential predicated by all observers, including my still simmering dad … and understanding, as I always had, that it all owed to a lack of cohesion. In other words, too few of us liked each other, and this distaste had a way of being glaringly obvious on the court, to Joe Hinton's fuming dismay.
Our sectional draw was a breeze. We were lumped into a bracket with smaller rural schools as a result of one or the other cynical maneuverings common to the political byways of the purportedly pristine Indiana state sport of basketball, which naturally had much more to do with smoky hotel rooms at the national party conventions of the 1920's than the farmyard ideal preferred by so many fans. They probably knew better, but worshipped just the same.
We won the sectional and advanced to play Scottsburg in the Saturday morning game at the Seymour Regional the following week. The Warriors, from a school far smaller than ours, had nonetheless soundly thrashed us at home a few weeks earlier. In today's parlance, Floyd Central had "match-up" problems with Scottsburg, which is to say that they had one of their finest teams ever, and was better than we were at almost every position. I knew there would be little playing time for me, and at that point, it really no longer mattered. Amid much hoopla and a special pep rally, we boarded the bus on Friday afternoon for the 40-minute drive, an early evening shoot-around, a buffet meal and an overnight stay at the Days Inn.
At this juncture, two worlds were about to collide. While some of my best high school friends were athletes, only a couple of them were on the basketball team. I ran in different circles, and at various times, there was beer involved, though seldom if ever during the basketball season; ambivalence aside, I tried to play it straight as often as possible. But for the Saturday regional festivities, a few of my heartier partying friends had reserved a room at the very same hotel where the team was staying – only my buddies called it the Daze Inn, and planned to treat it accordingly.
Unsurprisingly, Floyd Central exited the tournament in the morning session, and Scottsburg advanced to meet Clarksville in the evening finale. I'd like to remember that in defeat, the team came together and grasped an eternal truth or three, but from my perspective, all I felt was relief that it was over. There was a post-game chat and showers, and we returned to the hotel to eat and waste an afternoon before riding back to the gym on the bus and watching the championship game, which was to be our last obligation as a dysfunctional unit.
By the time the bus exited the Daze Inn parking lot several hours later, I was blissfully smashed. The bathtub in the party room was filled with canned beer and ice, and the story already was making the rounds as to how the designated underage beer buyer had run into a few of our teachers at the exact same package store and exchanged pleasantries with them. I was just happy to shed the weight of expectations, though clueless as to how the future would play out.
Eventually one of the assistant coaches dressed me down outside in the courtyard when he saw that I had a smoldering Swisher Sweet in my hand.
Did I really want to be kicked off the bus and suspended for smoking?
No, not at all, because I'd already decided that my final act of courageous defiance against The Man would be to drink a beer on the team bus in route to the evening game, and this I proceeded to do, crazily intoxicated, strategically seated all the way in back, a Schlitz Malt Liquor Bull artfully hidden in my gym bag, top popped discretely, and chugged quickly before being hidden again for the ride home with my parents afterward.
I'm neither ashamed nor proud of these recollections. I did what I could with what I had at the time, and if I had to do it over, I'd have worked harder at sports than I did -- not for anyone else, but for me. Seems that the work ethic came later in life, and so be it. In truth, the thing I miss most about high school is singing in choir, not playing ball. I didn't know it then, but I know it now.
I'm hoping that in the cosmic scheme of things, that's all that matters. If it isn't, I may be in trouble. Good luck to all the players in this year's tournament.
If you're lucky, you'll forget all about it very, very soon.