Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Memory dribbles on of small town sports

By Elaine Shein

When university players from Maryland and Duke battled at the NCAA women’s basketball playoffs last night in Boson, and on the men’s side LSU took on UCLA in Indianapolis the night before, there probably were basketball fans in many rural areas across the nation that were glued to their TVs.

Well, at least before or after chores were done.

Listening to the squeak of the running shoes, the buzz of the time clock, the shouts of the coaches, the dribble of the ball and the swisssssssh as the ball sliced through the net reminded me of what it’s like to play sports in rural communities.

We often drove long distances, an hour or two or more, to get to the games and returned home in the dark. We hoped our parents would be there to pick us up, and that the local small-town grocery store/coffee shop was still open for us to spend an hour or longer waiting for our rides.

I still marvel at the patience of the store owners who allowed us to dawdle for so long, nurse a few pops and share a community bag of chips for a whole team. We giggled, argued, flirted and acted like a bunch of hyperactive teenagers, which we were.

Some bookworms crawled into pages of homework; they slumped down in the corner of the table, tried to block out the ruckus and scribbled furiously in notebooks so they could sleep on the long morning school bus ride with less feelings of panic.

We prayed that the roads weren’t too icy, dusty, or muddy and that our rides to games and home again would be safe. We had our share of flat tires, being stuck, and even occasionally getting lost.

Sports in small town gymnasiums aren’t like the huge spectacles that we have witnessed at various universities during these playoffs. We usually had room only for narrow benches along one wall and no fans. And usually the only fans were the players from the other team that traveled with us that night on the bus (men and women usually traveled together to games at the same rival town to help save costs).

There were the coaches, the bus driver and depending on the town, the odd curious bystander that had nothing better to do that night. There were no bands, cheerleaders, television cameras, talent scouts, loud music, confetti, or even extra seats for fans. To be honest, even if our parents were our biggest fans, they usually were home on the farms doing our chores so we could compete in the sports we loved.

In the NCAA playoffs, we learn that universities work hard to attract the best athletes. These wonderfully gifted competitors are coaxed to come from all over the country (and sometimes abroad) and offered scholarships as they fight for a place on the team.

In small towns, we welcomed whoever could show up for a game and could dribble a ball, swing a bat, run without tripping, or even just knew which way to run. Often the same small core group of players competed in every sport together because there were no other players around. We often played shorthanded, whatever the sport, because we had just enough players to avoid a forfeit but not enough players to be able to have regular substitutions. We were extremely exhausted by the end of the games.

While some people might think this would lead to a lack of talent, it was this type of situation that led to such a close-knit team. You knew everyone so well that you’d anticipate every move, vow to protect each teammate from injury, and yes, when a certain player broke her glasses several times in one season from too many sports, it was those loyal teammates that pitched in to buy the new pair of glasses when her parents refused to buy any more glasses.

(Perhaps it wasn’t loyalty, now that I think about it, but they were embarrassed by the tape in the middle of my — I mean, this player’s — glasses.)

Farms are busy places and we learned early that not all of us could compete in all the sports we wanted. In my case, I lived 11 miles from the town where I attended school. My father became my first economics teacher as he explained supply and demand (he demanded chores be done and my brothers and I supplied them) as well as the wear and tear principle.

Wear and tear happened to tires and vehicles used for frivolous purposes such as travel to and from sports. Apparently the amount of wear and tear is directly proportionate to how frivolous the trip is. Driving 22 miles to town and back was much, much worse than driving 164 miles to the nearest city where we could get machinery parts. Needless to say, using this same math led me to do poorly in my first real economics class I took at university.

But I digress.

In high school, after he allowed me to try various sports through the prior years and increased my love for them all, my father threw an ultimatum: Pick only one sport for my final year in high school.

It seems the fuel price had gone up, and add this to the wear and tear principle, multiply by the amount of chores I was now capable of doing with my increase in age and maturity: the final answer was it had now become outrageous to allow me to participate in more than one sport. Just one. One.

It was the most difficult decision I had to make for the whole last year of high school. Algebra had seemed easy compared to this complicated decision for me. Which sport did I love more than the rest?

So tough to ask someone who bought her first ball glove, a battered decades-old flat gray glove for 10 cents from a classmate … on her second day of school in Grade 1.

Within a week of buying that glove, I pitched my first strike-out against the same guy, who probably regretted selling me his dad’s glove.

In hindsight, I now realize I was probably a better negotiator with that kid when I was a six-year-old on a dusty playground than when I was a mature Grade 12 student facing my father.

So which sport did I pick?

As I watched the NCAA playoffs, I thought about this. I think it was basketball, but I’m not sure. All I remember is that the following year, my first year in university, I eagerly joined up with every intramural sport on campus: 11 sports in total.

I treasured every moment of those games, and some of those teammates from my school and university days remain some of my closest friends.

And listening to the squeaky shoes, swishing ball, buzzing clock, and frantic shouts of the coaches and players last night, my heart skipped a little as I recalled the passion that always lives in the soul of an athlete, even when that humble small town gymnasium no longer exists.

My hometown school closed permanently in 2004.

1 comment:

Gary L. West said...

Elaine, your comment reminded me of when I was in school (Echo High School, Class of Nevermind) and pretending I was a jock (because all my friends were) playing in what was then Oregon's "B" leagues. That's the league where everyone plays 8-man football (which now I think is call the Single-A division) and there were lots of small baskeball courts in our Big Sky Conference.

We used to travel to small schools like Cascade Locks, Dufur, Condon and Helix, from one end of the state's northern tier to the other. One of small schools we played occassionally was in Umapine, northwest of Milton-Freewater. That gym was so small that the walls were out of bounds and the top of the keys on each end of the court reached the half court line. Once you got the ball past half court, you could actually go clear back to about the free-throw line on the other end of the court before being called for going over-and-back.

Oh, and the things I learned on those bus trips.

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