My life on the bench
March 11, 1977
Varsity athletics are but one of the frauds worked upon the innocent young by our school systems. For years I nursed a minor grudge over my being relegated to the bench as a high school basketballer, but the truth was that my skills were not nearly good enough to make up for my lack of height, not to mention my lack of seriousness about sport.
My teammates all went on to make useful lives as Army generals, university administrators, prison wardens, entrepreneurs, and school teachers, proving that perhaps I was mistaken when I dismissed the character-building aspect of our mutual time on the bench. Worked for them, anyway.
My equally undistinguished career at a junior-high basketballer are described here.
"March madness" is upon us again, the time of year when basketballs and cliches fill the air like leaves on an autumn afternoon. The annual state boys' basketball tournament always reminds me of my own brief career at Springfield High many years ago. I'd spent two years as a starter at Washington Junior High. (Dressed in striped trunks, we looked a lot better than we played; in the 1962 city tournament for ninth graders one forward for Grant named Martin outscored our whole team, 41 to 39.) I made the Senators' sophomore team, but by the time the season ended, I and several teammates of equally modest skills had spent more time on our butts than a cross-country bus driver.
It was like this . . . .
There wasn't much money in the athletic budget for uniforms for the sophs so several of us had to make do with gear handed down from varsity teams long past. Most of the hand-me-downs were so big that some of us had to tape the trunks to our torsos to keep them from falling off. Worse, the numbers on our jerseys half-disappeared when we tucked them into our trunks. It must have given the scorekeeper fits trying to figure out whether to score a foul against No. 10 or No. 18 when he could see only the top half of the number.
One or two of the players didn't need tape because the excess jersreyage padded out their waistlines enough to hold their pants up. But even that sometimes caused trouble. You see, one of the problems caused by wearing hand-me-down uniforms was that some of us had the same number. During one game at the armory—we were playing Lincoln I think—the coach sent in a forward named Dave Kratzer. Dave was wearing the same number as a teammate already on the floor, so the coach ordered a quick change on the bench. When Dave pulled his jersey out, his trunks, bereft of support, fell down to his knees. I think it was then that Dave, standing in front of several hundred wide-eyed fans with nothing standing between him and humiliation but a jock strap, decided to give up organized ball.
Dave was one of a half-dozen bottom-of-the-barrellers who occupied the remoter reaches of the Springfield bench. None of us shared the coach's low opinion of our abilities, of course, and we chafed under our forced irrelevance. We dubbed ourselves "scrubbies," a term of indeterminate meaning that nonetheless managed to convey exactly our situation on the team.
We made the best of it. Torn tendons may threaten the player on the court, for instance, but boredom is the bane of the bench-sitter. Some of scrubbies became close observers of visiting cheerleaders, often attacking the study with such concentration that they lost track of the score ("What score?" ) of the game ("What game?" ) on the floor. Once we even choreographed the bench; at a signal we all simultaneously crossed our right legs, then, at a later signal, uncrossed them and crossed the left legs. Teamwork, coordination — we had it all.
We described ourselves as bench-warmers, but there are no real benches on a basketball court, of course. Folding metal chairs are the rule, and we worried about the shape and condition of these sideline seats the way some of the starters fretted over their ankle wraps and for the same reason — they were essential to our game. (We got blisters like the starters, only they weren't on our feet.)
The worst part about being a bench-warmer was having to warm the "bench." They were always cold, especially in the armory. No one who's never plopped bare thigh on bare metal can appreciate the reluctance with which we trudged to the sideline after our pregame warm-ups. Talk about playing with pain! It got so bad sometimes that we quit jumping up and down to join the huddles because every time we did the chairs would cool off and we'd have to warm them all over again.
Not that we missed much by sitting out the huddles. Huddles grow like onions, with the coach in the center, the starters crowded in a ring around him, the second team outside them, and so on. We scrubbies on the outermost ring were so far away from the coach that we couldn't hear a word he said. (It was a blessing for which we were then insufficiently grateful.) It would have helped if one of use had had the wits to learn to read lips, but, as teammate Phil Neubich once pointed out, if we'd had brains we wouldn't have been there In the first place. Anyway, it didn't matter. The only direction we needed was how to get from the huddle back to the bench.
The only time any of us really got to play was in an unofficial practice game with Lanphier at the end of the year. The coach, having nothing to lose record-wise, put in a few of the scrubbies just to see what he'd missed. We did well, considering. It should have been a triumphant moment. Unfortunately I had assumed that, like always, I would spend the game on the bench, so just before game time I dined on a big bowl of Chilli Man chili. For three quarters that chili and I jumped, ran, started, stopped—did all those things, in sum, that make basketball such a different game from, say, parchesi.
I got twelve points and a killer stomach ache. After the game the coach came into the locker room to offer his congratulations. "You guys looked pretty good out there, " he said, surprised. But I was in no mood for compliments. By then my stomach was going into sudden-death overtime, and the coach's praise, which at any other time might have made even cold chairs and saggy uniforms worthwhile, fell on dead ears. They could have named me pope and I would have said, "Some other time." I parted ways with my coach, my hopes for a basketball career, and my supper all at once in the locker room that night.
The scrubbies finished the sophomore season without making it into the Big Game. The next year five of us forsook varsity ball and formed an intramural squad called, inevitably, "The Scrubbies." We won the SHS championship two years in a row; we were prevented from also winning the ritual season-end games with the faculty squad only by the willingness of those learned gentlemen to cheat like bandits to forestall a loss to a student team.
Several years after high school, one of our loyal band was asked what he'd gotten out of playing for the red and black. He thought for a moment, then said, "That eight-pound MacGregor medicine ball I swiped my junior year." So much for character-building. ●