By John W. Fountain
Basketball was god. With an orange-red sun kissing the horizon, we dribbled—dripping with sweat in the summer heat as boys, playing on concrete courts the game we loved. Back then, even the least talented whispered college or NBA dreams. Basketball was god. It gave a poor ghetto boy hope. It was glorious, like Dr. J’s cotton candy Afro as he glided in thin air to a thunderous dunk. Basketball was cool, like a pair of white Chuck Taylors. Graceful—like a George Gervin finger roll.
Exhilarating—like the thrill of nailing a shot from deep with a defender in your face. Like the joy of winning a hard-fought game—just for bragging rights.
Basketball gave us status. It was our stairway to heaven. Our worship. Our escape.
In the early ‘70s, on the West Side, we played all day. Sometimes, at night, we shot hoops underneath the stars and a glowing street lamp. Intoxicating was basketball’s lure: glory, fame and the potential promise of NBA contracts someday for some.
Except playing basketball was never really about money. There was a certain wonder in witnessing skill meet talent and talent meet hard work—coming together in basketball perfection.
Once upon a time, we played baseball. In the ‘60s, we had Big League dreams. I hurried home from elementary school to catch the end of the Cubs games. Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins and Ron Santo were my heroes along with Stargell, Cardenal, Bench and Charlie Hustle.
Back then every kid owned a baseball glove. Between us, we had a few Louisville Sluggers. We sometimes pooled our pennies to buy a rubber baseball. We took turns inhaling the scent of a fresh rubber baseball before we christened it with a good smack off the bat on a hot summer’s day filled with frozen Kool-Aid cups, bubblegum and baseball on a vacant lot. Baseball was good. But basketball became god.
I can’t remember exactly when it happened, or why I became more transfixed with developing a jump shot and ball-handling skills than with hitting and fielding. I do know it had a lot to do with Julius Erving, with the fusion of the ABA and the NBA in 1976, and basketball’s ascension to a seemingly new and glorious level.
But here lately, I am reminded of all that is inglorious about the game. Reminded that basketball is big business and that some apparently still resort to winning at all cost.
I’m not naïve. I suspect that for as long as some coaches, parents and other adults see in a young star a potential cash cow, basketball will always have a certain potential for taint.
In some cases, it amounts to the bending, or breaking, of rules—by coaches, teachers and school administrators willing to look the other way when a kid is academically ineligible. Or perhaps it’s that a kid manages to get a passing grade, even when he fails in the classroom—as long as he can soar on the court.
Here lately, I am also reminded that most kids would be better served putting all that time they put into basketball—and football—into reading, writing and arithmetic.
I was lucky enough to have a high school principal and a coach to give me this truth. For them, basketball was always just a game. Never a god.