Last week I spent much of my time in the passenger seat of my parents’ car, riding around on the surprisingly snow-free roads in southern Minnesota, on the way to a variety of basketball gyms and arenas.
Anytime I take a trip back home during the winter, it’s guaranteed that I’ll spend at least a dozen hours in wooden bleachers or plastic seats watching all levels of basketball, from good college teams to bad junior high teams. I’ll watch girls who can shoot from 25 feet and men who can’t make a layup from five feet. When I’m not traveling in the car, I’ll be at my parents’ house, watching television. Watching NBA basketball. Talking college basketball. For the Fury family, winter wasn’t about ice-fishing. There were no snowmobile trips or outings to the ski slopes. It was hoops season. As a kid, I even shot all through the winter months and not in our school gym. I’d don on a big coat, a stocking cap and a pair of what I called my “shooting gloves,” ones that weren’t as thick as a normal glove and gave me a better chance of gripping the ball. I’d shovel off the court at the Janesville city park or in front of our neighbor’s garage. It wasn’t a good time to work on dribbling, but you can shoot in any weather. If all games took place in 10-degree weather with scattered flurries and a brisk wind, I’d now be in my 15th season in the NBA.
I didn’t shoot outside on this trip home. But only because I no longer own a good pair of shooting gloves. Instead I now spend my time back home consuming basketball, not playing it. Here then, some notes from a week in the stands and on the couch.
* We attended my nephew’s eighth-grade game, which his team won rather convincingly over a group of youngsters who all appeared to be playing with two left shoes and all thumbs. The winning Fulda Raiders didn’t exactly rely on a balanced offensive attack in the victory. A tall, talented kid who’s more advanced than most of the kids was as out of place as Wilt in the NBA in 1962. He drove the lane when he wanted, hit any layup he wanted and grabbed any rebound that didn’t fall into the hands of his teammates. When he left for a C-squad game, the offense faltered but my nephew’s team held on. Who knows what they’ll be like in a few years or if that kid will still be the best player on the court. During my 8th-grade season, we played a team that never lost in 7th or 8th grade. They were led by a 6-foot playmaking guard who had the body of a man and dominated in games played by boys. He didn’t grow the next four years, was a decent player as a junior and didn’t even play basketball as a senior. And we beat his former teammates twice, including once in the playoffs.
A few years ago I watched an old tape I have of several of my 8th-grade games. Not sure what was more shocking, the hairstyles or the shorts. Both were obscene. On the tapes, you can hear my hasn’t-quite-reached-puberty voice squeak through the near-empty gymnasium as I called for outlet passes and pushed the ball up on what could theoretically be called a fastbreak, if only everyone wasn’t so slow. In one game I airballed a free throw, a humiliating event made more troubling by the fact I won that year’s state Knights of Columbus free throw championship. I did make the second one. I’ve talked enough about my 8th-grade basketball exploits? Okay.
* My family’s quiet. We don’t make scenes in public and are hesitant to reveal feelings in private. But many family members have no issue with letting basketball officials know when they’ve missed a call or two.
My uncle Mike, the longtime women’s basketball coach at Minnesota West, does this as part of his living and is something of a legend when it comes to battling the stripes, though the referees may use another description when they gather to discuss the state’s coaches. My dad and oldest nephew also voice their opinions. Don’t get the wrong impression, they’re not obnoxious or over-the-top. It’s the standard ref complaints from the stands, simply vocalized a few times a game.
Still, dad once received a joke technical foul from a chubby homer ref in a junior high game. He was in the stands at the time and the shame caused by the ref stopping the game, turning and delivering the universal sign for a T caused him to quiet down for the rest of the game, if not the next one. But the last few years a new voice has emerged on the scene: my sister. My quiet, unassuming sister has no problem pointing out three seconds or offensive fouls. It’s disconcerting, especially when it becomes a family chorus. Me? I never say anything when I’m at a game. That T my dad received in the stands left an impression on at least one of us.
* This is a pointless appeal, one that has no hope of finding a receptive audience, not in a world where the bottle lobby owns so much of Washington and the state legislature. But is it possible for high schools and colleges to begin serving sodas in cans instead of 20 oz. bottles? I probably consume more soda than 99 percent of the population, which is not something I’m proud of but must acknowledge. But I’ve grown to dislike the fact every Dr Pepper, Coke and Pepsi at a basketball game comes in a plastic bottle instead of a tidy aluminum can. It’s too much. It grows flat by the end of the second quarter and warm in the third. On the other hand, I do remember a time when schools did not allow any type of sodas into the gym. You had a better chance of lighting up a cigarette in the stands than you did sipping on a Dew. For god’s sake, the floor could get sticky! At least those days are in the past. Now bring on the cans.
* Last Friday we went to the men’s and women’s basketball games at Minnesota State University in Mankato, where the hometown Mavs play in the Taylor Center, named after a former Minnesota legislator who happens to be a billionaire who owns the Timberwolves.
Growing up, the Mavs played in Highland Arena, which was the site of the first game that saw me shed tears. That came during the 1982 season, when I was six and the Janesville Golden Bears lost in the regions by a single point, partly because a player from the opposing team poked one of the Janesville players in the eye, causing a late turnover, which eventually led to water falling from my own tear ducts. When I was in Minnesota, the Mankato men always had good but not great teams. In the last decade, under head coach Matt Margenthaler, the Mavs have had great teams. Last season they made it to the national semifinals, though they’re struggling this season after losing several top players. Margenthaler is a superb coach, but his sideline mannerisms could frighten small children, much less grown men. You almost expect to see his bald head smoking from the intensity he radiates as he yells at officials and his players. If he hasn’t broken a foot while stomping the court by now he never will, despite his best attempts.
We watched the Mavs lose against Northern State, which is perhaps most famous for once being coached by the legendary Don Meyer, who retired in 2010. Meyer’s gone but his tactics remain. Northern State is a hard-nosed defensive team that lives to take charges. It’s always a bit strange seeing a tough team that falls down the second an offensive player initiates contact. They can handcheck and shove and bully the offense for 30 seconds, but then somehow flop to the ground the second a guy drives to the paint or creates a bit of contact with his shoulder. Northern State drew numerous charges on the Mavs and tried for many more. Flopping’s practically an epidemic in the NBA these days. So maybe I should blame the pros for Northern State’s defense. But it’s actually the legacy of a coaching icon.
* I know the cliche just like everyone else: Defense wins championships. It’s true. But the game also involves taking the orange ball and putting it through the hoop and you win games that way as well. Unfortunately, I didn’t see a ton of offense during my Minnesota basketball overdose. It’s disturbing to look up at the scoreboard halfway through the first half of a high school game and see a team with 6 points. Then again, as a former gunner, I am biased. Games like last season’s NCAA title game between Butler and Connecticut make me want to disavow the game of basketball. And my old JUCO team at Minnesota West set a school record that still stands for most points per game in a single season, so I take pleasure in watching teams that can light it up. Did we win a conference or state championship that year? No. Did we play great defense? Um, no.
* During halftime of a high school game we watched, my niece won a couple of games of lightning against other girls. She’s in sixth-grade. She’s short but has a nice touch. She eliminated many of her counterparts and was one of the few who could actually make the initial jump shot, while many of the other girls struggled to even hit the rim on the follow-up layup. Good little shooter. Pretty sure I could still take her in H-O-R-S-E, especially if we play the game outside, in the cold, with scattered flurries.
* On January 12, I rode two hours with my parents to Fulda to watch my nephew’s 8th-grade game, followed by dinner and a boys’ varsity game. We then made the two-hour drive back home. We got home around midnight. Mom and dad went to bed. I planned on doing the same thing but instead turned on the TV. The Big Ten Network was replaying the Minnesota Gophers’ surprising victory over Indiana. I stayed up until 1, even though I already knew the outcome. After watching Dwight Howard conclude his record-breaking free throw effort against Golden State on TNT, I finally called it a night.
It’d been a long day. I needed some rest – we had four more hours of basketball the next night.