Yeah, just sitting back trying to recapture a little of the glory of, well time slips away and leaves you with nothing mister but boring stories of glory days
– Bruce Springsteen
Compared to most boys, I got a late start in the world of playing sports. As a younger child on Goodman Avenue, our parents didn’t encourage involvement in organized team sports. Hell, my dad didn’t even let me join Cub Scouts, for crying out loud. I got my introduction to sports when we moved to the land of 60 kids (read me); the 500 block of Ridgelawn and Prytania. With St Peters church only a block away, our block was predominately a Catholic neighborhood – translation, lots of kids and they did love their sports.
So I didn’t get started until I was a 12 year-old. Twelve years old is just too old to start unless you had Larry Bird or Tiger Woods natural ability. As a 12-year old, my ability was more like Big Bird or Tigger. I love playing sports and I can hold my own, but I have to practice a lot. I loved playing baseball every day in the park but if I had to pick a sport that I thought I was best in, it would be basketball. I ‘might’ have been good enough to be the 11th man on our high school team, but given my late start, my lack of coaching and resulting lack of personal drive, not trying out for a school team is just one more thing on my list of ‘things I wish I’d done’.
This story is not all about regrets though. By my telling a story about a fun time in high school, this story is really about my first recognition of the value of diversity. I learned, (or first internalized), this on the basketball court. My first attempt of application of a work force with diverse aptitudes and behaviors then occurred as a very young adult, while I managed my own restaurant at Taco Bell as a 20 year-old. When I was managing my own restaurant, I can recall thinking about the ‘mix’ of the people I put together on shifts. I made sure I had at least 1 person who displayed superior attention to the cleanliness of the place, someone who could juggle multiple tasks in parallel, someone who was always ‘cheery’ with the customers, etc.
This is also a ‘glory days’ story. I didn’t really have many of these having not played in Little League or school sports, but I have a few personal sports accomplishments I’m fond of and glad I got to enjoy. I can appreciate why Uncle Rico wishes he could back to relive his in 1982.
Mentioned in several stories like ‘the boys get snipped’ (read me), in our neighborhood we played a hell of a lot of ball; baseball and basketball mostly. We each knew how each other played; our strengths and weaknesses, but mostly when we played together, we knew how to leverage each other’s strengths. This never became more apparent than during the last few weeks of a high school intramural basketball season.
Several of us attended the First Baptist Church out on the edge of town and had played on the church basketball team together there for a number of years. As an extension of our Alley ball playing, we had a well balanced team and always had winning seasons. If I remember correctly, Tim Hardin came to me one day and asked me if I thought we should play together in the intramural league after school. I was a senior at the time and Tim a sophomore. It sounded like fun so we went to ask all the other guys if they wanted to commit to it. Almost all teams in that league were made up of guys who were all in the same grade with each other. There were a couple of teams with just juniors and then most teams were made up of seniors.
We were to be the only team in the league with a mixture of players from just the senior and sophomore ranks. The sophomores were Tim, my brother Steve, Ed Kimble and Rodney Scrobozinski (Scrobo we called him). The seniors were myself, Rob Menzer (read me) and Steve Lakes. All of us except for Rob M had been playing together in the alley and on the church team for a couple of years. We knew each other’s playing styles and strengths very well. So we played…and we were a good little team with varied skills and attributes.
A good basketball team has a player who can dribble the ball down the entire court, through tough pressure – that, or 2 players who are great at working with each other to get the job done. It also has at least one really good outside shooter, someone who can rebound, someone who is strong under the basket and everyone needs to be pretty good defensive players. If you have these combinations and then top that with an ability to leverage each other’s strengths, then you have a really good team. If this really good team can also recognize and take advantage of the weaknesses of the individuals on the other team, you have a winning team.
Of the sophomores, Tim was a good ball handler and could bring the ball downcourt, finding an open man most often. Rodney had above average height and his strength was his ability to rebound. Ed’s strength was his defense under the boards. Ed, Rodney and Steve Lakes together were pretty strong under the basket. My brother Steve was a good team player and could be depended on under pressure.
As a sidebar, once we were playing a tough team in our church league and I was really hot that night, having scored over 40 points, 11 of them being free throws. The score was tied with only a few seconds on the clock. We were taking the ball out at half court after calling a time out to sketch out our last play. The play was supposed to be to get me the ball with the intention of my trying to get off a shot at the top of the key. The whistle blew, signaling play to begin again and I was being double-teamed so Tim got the ball into my brother Steve who was wide open at half court. Time was almost out and he was looking at me so I just yelled to him “take the shot”. From half court, it was a Hail Mary, and it was a swish! We won, Steve was the hero and I wish I had a video of his face as he was so shocked and elated. I was really happy for him, very cool moment.
For the seniors, we had picked up my buddy Rob who was a fair all-around player. Steve Lakes should have played varsity as he was much better than many of our varsity players. He was one of the best players under the rim that I ever personally played with. He didn’t miss many underneath and if he did, he was excellent at getting back his own rebounds. He also had an excellent turn-around jump shot from the short corner. Then there was me – I was the quickest on the team, I had the best outside shot and I didn’t miss foul shots.
There were maybe 12-16 teams and for a few weeks, we played against each other. After ‘the regular season’ was over, (those 3 weeks), we moved into the tournament to decide the intramural championship. It was a simple ‘lose one and out’ tournament. There were so few games played in the ‘season’ that each team didn’t get to play each other. So when the tournament started, there were 2 teams who had not yet lost a game – us and another all-senior team. Since we were undefeated, the gym teacher put our teams at opposite ends of the tournament bracket.
The tournament brackets ended up playing out as expected. We blew away a couple of teams and we faced another couple of tough teams who gave us a harder time. Likely most of the other teams didn’t have the benefit of knowing each others’ play so well like we did. We knew how to prey on the weak spots of the other team, and we did. If they didn’t have anyone who could run with me, we’d throw in a few full court long passes down to me where I’d be waiting, all alone. I could run like that the whole game so I usually tried to wear my defenders down. If we saw a weak defender, we’d find a way to get the ball to our player who this person was guarding. If the other team built their play around one standout on their team, we had enough speed on our team to keep the ball out of his hands. We never had any plays that were pre-planned or called out – we played them out as we saw them unfolding.
We won every game and then the big day arrived where we squared off against the all-senior undefeated team for the tournament championship. I remember the game starting with my executing a quick steal from their two guards who were passing to one another. They weren’t ready for my quickness and I had been intentionally playing away so they would pass the ball to each other slower. This was a play I did often, but you can pull it off only once, sometimes twice in the same game.
That was not to be the tone of the game however. It ended up being a tight, back and forth game. We would go up on top by a few points and then they would come back and get on top. Steve was getting a good workout because they had more overall height than we did – we had speed and better team coordination and they had more height and strength. Given the extra height, Steve had been working the ball inside and then firing the ball outside to me, (most of the time). Towards the end of the game, I jumped high to try to block a shot, missed my mark and ended up hitting the ground left-hand first, bending it backwards quite a bit. (It hurt so badly the next day that I swore something was broken and saw a specialist who said I had stretched all of the tendons). The game went down to the wire and we lost by 2 points. We played our best and made no mistakes, but they were better than we were that day – simple as that.
I didn’t call it “diversity” then; I hadn’t even heard the word yet. I associated our strong play with good teamwork and our ability to recognize each other’s abilities and strengths…..This is what the value of diversity truly is. Experiencing this at such a young age proved to be a good lesson which I got to apply just 2 years later when I was managing my own restaurant, and then later at the foundry. My team at Taco Bell was the best in the area and they used our store to train the staffs for all other restaurants that were being opened in the region, (despite our affinity for applying our special burn sauce – read me). A lot of leaders like to create clones. I preferred to make an assessment of each person’s individuality, then help them understand what their full potential was and then do what I could to help them reach that potential. Naturally, I haven’t been perfect in my working career, but I have received my share of thank-you’s and the lesson I first learned on the basketball court as a teenager has helped me be a better manager and person.
After the game, one of the varsity players came up to me and told me I played a good game and asked why I never tried out – chalk it up to just another regret (read me).
Hopefully we were better than this (I love this scene with Phillip Seymour Hoffman):