In my last post, I came down pretty hard on professional athletes, a group
for whom I have no particular dislike, I just didn’t want my sons to be one
of them. Jim told me at age nine that he was going to be a university professor–and that was the dream I wanted to hold. Jim was a gifted student with at an early age, 18 months, pronounced love of books and reading. His brother Dan had an early love of business, a toy cash register being a favorite toy.
I had an early and pronounced dislike of anything athletic—so, of course,
I had two athletic sons and eventually married a football player/high
school coach, who had become a high school principal. And attended
endless athletic events and spent several years in weekly/daily phone
calls with recruiting coaches…..blah.
Now that the athletic part of my life is over—and behind me by
20 years—I hope to finally face the devils in my memories.
As a child, I hated activity games and competition–dodge ball, soft ball, even red-rover. While the other children were playing games, I was always wandering around the edge of the playground, lost in my imaginary scenarios [See Calvin & Hobbs]. In junior high I was on a volleyball team…..and a complete dud. I never ever tried out for any teams in high school, though I fostered a secret dream to be a majorette and strut down the football field. But, I could not play a musical instrument and probably could not have marched in time anyway.
So, I had a son who early on loved sports, one of his first words being “ball.” He loved to compete. We would not allow him or his brother to play little league baseball, due to the behavior of the parents, which appalled me—a mistake on our parts. Finally we relented and let the boys play little league football, with me in the stands in terror of injuries. Jim, a wonderful runner, was a terrific end, scoring often. Dan did not like being shoved around by the other kids or getting his clothing dirty. In sixth grade, Jim went out for basketball, having spent several previous years shooting baskets in any available hoop. We were the kind of parents who reluctantly, finally put up a basketball goal on the garage roof after realizing that our kid was really good at basketball. We did not put up a goal early and encourage him to shoot. He showed he loved to shoot, so we dragged ourselves along. We gave him so little advance help that I always wondered what would have happened if we the parents had set the goals instead of Jim.
Jim’s whole basketball career was like that. He set the goals and dreamed the dreams—and his parents kind of grumbled along behind him, trying not to thwart him. We were not pushy sports parents. In fact, when Jim was a high school freshman and it was obvious that he was going to play varsity, I begged the coach to not play him for a semester. The week before the season started, the athletic director came to me and said, “Jeanne, Jim is going to play Varsity.” My heart sank and I requested that he not start at first. So, he was the first sub in at the first game of the year and for several games, until the coach told me, “Sorry, he’s earned the right to start.” In his first game, the score was close at the end and the opposing coach kept shouting, “Foul the freshman!” Jim marched up to the free throw line three times, each time scoring twice, and we won the game. I was amazed at how cool he was—-and quit pestering the coach to keep him on the bench.
Jim was poetry in motion on the basketball court and he loved the game with a pure and whole-hearted devotion. He seemed oblivious to the spite and grumbles around him, wanting everyone to love the sport as he did—and dedicate the time he did. The summer between his freshman and sophomore years, he shot 10,000 free throws. His step-father-to-be, Max, the high school principal, would often go into the gym and retrieve balls for him. Of course, the other players were not that devoted. And, I finally had to put my foot down at Jim’s intensity—no more than six hours in the gym practicing, a day—and then he had to go do some other activity, such
as ride his bike around town or go fishing or do something besides basketball. As one of the coaches pointed out, he was about a half-step short, which eventually led to the end of his career. Not being quite fast enough is a killer in college basketball, though he did okay in high school. Jim was a wonderful shooter, with a graceful left hook. He set the school scoring record, which he still holds, and was on the top-ten in the state free-throw list his senior year, week after week. He set 26 school records in all and was named an Indiana All-Star.
I didn’t love basketball and spent a couple of years when Jim was in middle school being coached in the techniques of the game by the high school athletic director, my friend Paul Scifres. I was so proud when, finally, after months of trying, I could discern a “moving pick.” “Picking corn”—I never did figure that out. I loved to watch Jim play, though I cringed at every mistake and was wounded at every nasty remark from the crowd. It took all my courage to endure it. Odd to think how horrible it was for me when so many parents would truly enjoy having a child who was a gifted athlete.
Dan, who was not as athletic as Jim, preferred sports like golf. His skill in managing developed in middle school and he was a manager for football and for basketball all four years of high school. In his freshman year at IU, he was a student manager for the Men’s Varsity Basketball team, under the direction of Coach Bob Knight. Dan’s business skills were obvious and useful, early on in his life. Of course, I went to the games to watch him “manage,” a tradition of support in my family. When he was at IU, I was delighted to watch him on TV, rushing out to wipe a spill on the floor or handing a towel to a player. Reliability, another skill recognized early, caused him to be often sent on road trips to film and later edit games of opponents. It was time consuming tasks like that which led him to give up being a team manager after his freshman year.
Both of my sons eventually learned that sports can consume one’s life and that there might be other interesting things in the world to do. Athletics, starting in Jim’s sixth grade and proceeding through college, took 10 years of my life. I learned a lot of lessons about life and people, but I never stopped wishing that my sons were competing in the world of ballet or opera. They scoffed at such silly ideas, so I endured athletics as best I could, but I never found it an ennobling experience. It was something I endured because I loved them, but those were dark and hard years in my life.