Where I grew up in eastern North Carolina basketball was religion. And we practiced our religion so much I can remember lying on my grandmother’s couch unable to move due to cramps in both my hamstrings from dehydration.
Stopping play to get water out of the backyard water hose – we didn’t have bottled water in those ancient times – was against the rules in backyard battles on packed earth courts.
We played other sports and games outside as well but we played basketball all year round. When it was too cold to play outside, we made indoor goals out of cardboard, coat hangers and yarn. We used rolled-up socks for basketballs and had dunk contests in our hallways and bedrooms. Even when inside, we were outside kids and most of our parents have some piece of broken furniture to prove it.
Basketball was an oasis for us. It was how we made friends. There were no play dates then, you met your friends playing in the neighborhood and on the playground. When I moved to Durham as a teenager the first friends I made were on the basketball courts of Morreene Road Park, Archdale Park and at the basketball courts at Duke on Anderson street. For many of us, the most exciting part about getting a driver’s license wasn’t dating but rather having the ability to drive all over Durham and Chapel Hill seeking out pick-up games.
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It’s quite different for today’s young B-ball enthusiast. Where basketball was once about meeting at the park or playground, today it’s about leagues and traveling teams and money for road trips and hotels. Kids who are on the outside of those phenomena simply don’t play the game as much.
The love of the game is still there but it’s expressed quite differently. When we pretended to be Dr. J or Michael Jordan we were pretending outside with a basketball in our hand, not inside the house holding a video game controller. There was no Internet, no online games with people you can’t see. If you wanted to trash talk, you had to do it to someone’s face, which meant you had to think about the repercussions and consequences of your statements. Yes, we wore mullets, Jheri Curls and parachute pants, but we played ball like our lives depended on it, just for the fun of running up and down the court, shooting the ball and calling out the names of our heroes: Magic, Bird, Jordan …
I recently began introducing the game to my son. Basketball is a great way for parents to get out of the house, play and spend time with their kids. I hope my boy loves the game as much as I do, not for trophies, or for barbershop bragging rights. I don’t care if he’s good or not. I hope he loves it because I know how much joy I got out of the game as a kid. It may not be his thing and that’s perfectly cool, but I want to make sure that basketball gets a fair shot. Imagine how thrilled I was a couple of weeks ago when I found out about Phil Ford’s Basketball Workshop and Book Signing at Southern Season in Chapel Hill.
My son, of course, had absolutely no idea who Phil Ford was. I could say Ford was a three-time All American, an ACC player of the year, second pick in the NBA draft and Rookie of the Year in the NBA, but at 7, the significance of those feats would not register on him. Yet, unlike my father whose descriptions of greats like Elgin Baylor and Jerry West were limited to words, I had the advantage of letting my son experience Ford’s magnificence through YouTube.
Ford’s workshop was incredible. The proceeds from the event and Ford’s book, “The Kid Who Couldn’t Dunk,” went to Ford’s Foundation. The foundation fights childhood obesity. Ford took time with each child instructing them on the mechanics of shooting and basic ball handling.
He also dropped several pearls of wisdom on not only the youth but on us old folk too. When some of the youngsters looked down about missing shots, the Carolina great asked them how many shots they thought he’d taken in his life. Ford’s answer, hundreds of thousands. The message: Practice. Keep shooting the shot not taken has a zero percent chance of going in.
That is a life lesson. I urge you to get outside this spring and take advantage of this awesome weather, grab a basketball, and see what the court has to teach you.
Howard Craft, a playwright, lives in Durham.