Because basketball remains a big part of growing up for many kids in towns and cities across South Dakota, I figure now and then I should describe how things were when I was playing the game.
I certainly was no superstar, no legend. Except for a pickup game or two, indifferent participation on a couple of intramural teams in college, and spirited one-on-one games with my younger son when he was in his early teens, I left my basketball game on the wooden floor of the Parkston gym at the end of the sectional tournament in 1962.
Those were the days of unique little gymnasiums that made up in personality what they lacked in modern amenities. Over my years as a government and legislative reporter, I watched one small town after another try to fend off school closure or consolidation by building a new gymnasium while population and enrollment dwindled. I guess the theory was that, should the forces of consolidation charge the gates, the town with the newest facilities stood the best chance of surviving. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not. That’s been my unscientific observation over the years, anyway.
Often that move to modernize facilities resulted in the loss of an old basketball gym with a world of character. Sometimes that character was defined by a stubborn heating system, uneven lighting, a visitors’ locker room with a dirt wall and a shower that dribbled even less proficiently than I did on my worst day.
I’ve played in gyms where the end line was painted right up to the edge of the wall, and where tired, gray wrestling mats hung against that end wall so a player driving full force for a layup wouldn’t crack a skull or break a nose against that unforgiving wall. I played in a gym where the low ceiling forced players to skip any sort of arch and shoot the ball on a trajectory as flat as one of Tommy Heinsohn’s jump shot when he played for the Celtics. I played in a gym where the wall at one end held the door to the outside, and one cold winter night I thought I might get frostbite taking the ball out just as two fans walked in that door. I heard of a gym with a pot-bellied stove in the middle of the floor. I never played there, but I kind of wish I had, at least once.
My career? I started late. I didn’t play basketball until eighth grade, even though I was already following the Celtics. No, I thought I’d be another Hank Aaron. Slow and clumsy, unable to get to town for summer practices, I still thought I’d develop into a baseball player. There are dreams, and then there are dreams. I never did play organized baseball, not even T-ball.
Between eighth grade and freshman year, I grew four or five inches. Suddenly 6-1, I attracted the coaches’ attention, until they saw how little agility or talent I had. I didn’t make the team. Not a promising start to high school, but I’ll bet my story could be told by any number of young men and women around South Dakota.
Sophomore year I made a team that played varsities from smaller towns in the area. I tore ligaments in my ankle in the season opener at Pukwana. Junior year, I made the varsity, rode a lot of bench and didn’t get listed on the roster that went to the state B tournament. As senior year arrived, then, basketball and I had our issues.
The new coach, Elton Byre, appreciated rebounding and defense, though. I was willing to work at those. After practice, he’d stick around and work one-on-one. I learned a lot, including why he’d been a star at Reliance and later at Dakota Wesleyan. By the third game I was starting, and I started the rest of the year, right up until I fouled out of the consolation game at Parkston. My career was less than stellar, but I loved playing for the Cubs. I look back fondly on the whole experience.
Also, Parkston had a sweet, comfortable old gym.