Tuesday afternoon, a package arrived from Minnesota, laden with chocolates and cookies and bars and fudge and wrapped gifts. We took out all the food, separated it into piles – one that will stay in the apartment, another that will go off to work – and then pulled out all the presents, which we’ll save for Christmas Eve.
It’s the annual Christmas package from Minnesota and it’s a highlight of every holiday in New York – Santa in a box, sent by the folks who did his work under the old man’s name back when I was a kid.
The presents? A quirky ornament signifying our marriage, a yearly staple. Clothes, I’m sure. Certainly books. But no gift inside the 2011 box will equal the greatness of the present I received in 1979, when an adjustable hoop with a Nerf basketball landed safely under the tree, tucked away in a big box. I was only 4 but already in love with basketball.
Growing up we opened presents twice, once at the home of my maternal grandparents on Christmas Eve, then on Christmas morning at my grandpa’s farm. It usually proved to be a good deal – if Santa somehow forgot to drop something off on the 24th, he could always swing on out to the farm the next morning and deliver it there, provided a snowstorm didn’t alter his flight pattern. And that was the case with this basketball hoop. This picture was taken Christmas morning, early but not obscenely so – even then, I wasn’t an early-early-morning type of guy.
Apparently, even at the age of 4 I knew my future didn’t include dunks. Instead of using the adjustable slot to set the hoop at a smaller height, I – or, perhaps more accurately, my dad or an uncle – put it higher, the better to work on my jumper. And how about that jump shot? If you took a snapshot of my jumper now at my weekly Wednesday night game with other over-the-hill guys, the only difference might be the shooter’s height and weight. The hairstyle? Similar, with a few more grays today. But the form looks the same. Eyes on the target, hands in decent position. We have to assume the follow-through looked all right.
I don’t know how much this basket cost my parents – er, Santa – but I like to think they got their money’s worth. This hoop traveled back home to Janesville that winter, then made a move to our own new house a few years later, where it earned a permanent spot in the basement. Eventually I learned to dunk – and learned to appreciate the awesome power that came with throwing it down – and the red rim got a big workout. I can still remember watching Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma dismantle Memphis State in the 1983 NCAA tourney with a dunk show that stunned the announcers, fans and a 7-year-old kid in southern Minnesota. That night I was Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon. Later that year, as the Sixers swept the Lakers in the NBA Finals, I betrayed my boys by impersonating various Dr. J dunks.
I don’t know if another present ever topped that hoop.
Over the years, other presents tried. Oh, how they tried. My racetrack and electric football games did their best, but, as I wrote here, because those toys were actually always operating at their worst, they never really had a chance to topple the basic, yet perfectly designed hoop. My electric football game could still be stashed in my parents’ basement someplace, the little yellow figurines still spinning helplessly, hopelessly, looking very much like baffled Vikings defensive backs, all of them frozen in time in athletic-looking positions no actual human football players have ever exhibited, at least not since the time of Slingin’ Sammy Baugh. Every electric football game in history ended in a scoreless tie, decided by coin flip, or a fist-fight between the frustrated players. If it didn’t, you either cheated or are the son of the game’s creator and received secret codes when unwrapping the overrated present.
“See, Tommy, if you turn this little control thing on the bottom of the player, he’ll actually sprint in a straight line down the field, instead of circling nonstop for three hours.”
Electric football…I loathe you.
Not all electronic games from the late ’70s and early ’80s caused such consternation. Take Mattel’s Classic Basketball.
Not the most complicated of games. A well-trained lab rat – one that is shown an hour of Division I game film, taught basic basketball concepts and rudimentary geometry – could have competed against most human players. Left-left-left-up fire. Up to the corner fire. Up to the corner “drive baseline,” and “dunk.” Repeat, and repeat again, until arthritis sets in, somehow even long before boredom does. The defense – a bizarre combination of zone and man-to-man, which was probably designed after consultations with John Cheney and Bobby Knight – could present some problems as the game wore on. The game learned, like an evil robot in a sci-fi flick. The greatest challenge came in tracking down a blocked shot before it bounced out of bounds. Perhaps some people think it’s unrealistic that the single player – that lone red dot – could light up five defenders with such ease. To those people, I say: Did you not see Kobe Bryant score 81 points against Toronto?
This was more of a road game than a home one – at home I had my real hoop. But during long trips to basketball games, this served as entertainment. My dad remembers me playing this nonstop on the long drive to Rochester to watch my uncle’s college team play. That hypnotic ticking must have driven him and my other uncle crazy. Strangely, I apparently played it while curled up on the floor in the backseat, a mystery that remains unsolved.
There was nothing mysterious or complicated about the table hockey game I received around 1985.
Hockey is a religion in northern Minnesota, but we’re puck atheists in the southern part, or at least agnostic. Still, table hockey ruled, as any 10-year-old who’s ever perfectly executed a centering pass with the grace of of a 25-year-old Gretzky will testify. Give hockey folks this – they haven’t figured out a feasible way to make it easier for the casual fan to follow the puck during televised games, but the sport produces great games, from table hockey to NHL ’95 on Sega.
Our basement played host to countless athletic victories during my youth, as I dominated my friends and family in ping-pong and table hockey, all the while my cursed race track collected dust in a corner, the carpet fibers gumming up the wretched contraption.
Rarely did I receive baseball-related gifts on Christmas. With a June birthday, those came during the summer, during the season, when I could run out with my new aluminum bat or wait a few days for a new glove to be broken in. One year I got one of those awesome-looking pitching nets that you set up in the yard, complete with the square target. The only problem? I wasn’t a pitcher. My lone appearance on the mound in a Little League game resulted in zero outs, a half-dozen walks, a few hits, several sighs from my teammates, a handful of smirks from my foes and a mercy killing from our coach. The greatest practice for groundballs came courtesy of the uneven, historic bricks that served as curbs on our street, the road even working as a perfect substitute for the artificial turf I was sure I’d play on some day – if I didn’t make it to the NBA or NFL.
No, Christmas was reserved primarily for basketball gifts, with the occasional Nerf football thrown in.
And it all started in 1979, with that yellow basketball, red rim and surprisingly stylish pajamas.
The dunks, of course, eventually proved to be the hoop’s downfall. Blame Dr. J, I suppose. The somewhat flimsy construction – that cardboard base where you adjusted the height looked like it could be destroyed by a brief rain or a fairly harmless dunk by a chubby and aggressive child – meant it couldn’t last forever. But that was a good thing. By the time it found a home on the curb, waiting pickup from the garbage men, I had moved on to regulation basketballs and real hoops, 10-foot ones.
So, you did a good job back then, Santa. And in 2012, if it fits into the box, perhaps an indoor, adjustable hoop with a Nerf ball? It’d be nice to actually dunk again.