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Woster: Life lessons taught from the game of basketball

Some kids are born with the ability to dribble and shoot. I had to work at every part of the game just to make a team.

Terry Woster
Terry Woster
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James Naismith invented the game of basketball in 1891. Gosh, I remember the time it took to climb a stepladder and get the ball out of the peach basket after every score.

Oh, of course not. But it occurred to me the other day that it has been 60 years since I played center for the Chamberlain Cubs. They had cut the bottoms out of the peach baskets just a few years earlier.

Seriously, in the beginning, every time someone made a basket, someone else had to climb a stepladder and fish the basketball out of the peach basket.

How long do you suppose it was before someone said, “This game is boring.’’ Someone else, probably a product sponsor on television looking to jazz up fan interest, said, “Hey, what if we cut the bottom out of the basket and let the ball just drop through?’’

Now, there is someone who should be in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Instead, we fill the hall with the people who shoot the ball. I doubt there is a single person in the hall of fame who climbed the stepladder. Where would the early game have been without them? One made basket and game over.

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It does take at least one made basket. Sometimes during our pickup games at recess in grade school, a basket was hard to get. The bell to end recess and get to class occasionally rang in the middle of a scoreless game.

For me, it didn’t get much better as I grew older. Some kids are born with the ability to dribble and shoot. I had to work at every part of the game just to make a team. I finally figured out I would never make it on scoring or ball handling. That was halfway through my freshman season. I led the team in one category — most splinters from long stretches riding the bench.

Up to that point, I had dreamed of being a superstar, a legend like Bill Russell of the Celtics or Bob Pettit of the St. Louis Hawks. I watched televised games of Elgin Baylor making his gravity-defying moves. Nobody else could hang in the air for what seemed like minutes. Nobody else could move his body so far across the floor without touching the ground. He was a magician.

I would turn off the television and go across the street to the neighborhood hoop. It was a rusted ring bolted to a pole. It had no net, and it was at least six inches higher than regulation. I tried to imitate Baylor, picturing in my mind his grace and body control.

The packed earth of the court fell away to a steep gulch about 15 feet from the hoop. Every move I’d make, every step I’d take, the ball would bounce off my toe or my knee or clang crazily off the front rim of the basket. Down, down the gulch the ball bounced. Trudge, trudge after it I went, down and up, down and up.

Dreams die hard, but sitting on the bench gives a guy time and incentive to reflect. Eventually, I saw that defense took mostly work, not natural talent.

So did rebounding. Players with talent could do those things, but sometimes they didn’t care to work at those parts of the game. For them, it was grunt work, I guess. For me, it was the only path from the bench to the court. I still watched Elgin Baylor. I still admired Russell and Pettit. But I no longer dreamed of being them. I just wanted to get in the game.

Finally, my senior year, I worked hard enough to get playing time. Sometimes I scored a few points – 16 once in a game at Redfield.

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Somehow the world kept on turning. Most times I didn’t score much at all. I never, ever dribbled the ball. I defended, and when I got a rebound, I looked immediately for a ball handler. My teammates like that about me. It occurs to me, if I had been around when Naismith invented the game, I would have been the guy climbing the stepladder to get the basketball.

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