By Mike O’Brien
Playing basketball is as close as humankind gets to flying. The game has a magical quality to me. Although I haven’t played in a long time, I still love it. With March Madness (the annual college basketball playoffs) peaking in early April, school teams everywhere competing furiously as their seasons end, the Kings playing better and the NBA finals approaching, I am reminded of how special it was to play the game.
I was short as a kid, a 5-foot 2-inch late bloomer when I played second team at my KÃ8 grammar school, St. Leo the Great in San Jose (our team was the Lions), for three years. I later played intramural basketball in high school, college and beyond. Although my athletic skills never were great, I took the game seriously. Too seriously, perhaps, as I got “the nervals” (slang for being very nervous, coined by my late Uncle Bobby) when I got playing time in our league games.
In the seventh grade, we played a big game against St. Martin’s, a formidable team. An older, college-age friend named Brad, who sometimes ferried us kids back and forth to school in between his studies, came to watch. Even though Brad stayed because he had to give me a ride home, he was an inspiring guy for me, someone I looked up to.
In my mind, I can clearly see (and, in some cases, smell) my Converse high-top shoes, the big leathery ball, the cold gym’s varnished floor and stark lighting. We felt as sleek as cats in our silky gold-and-blue shorts and tops, worn in places from the generations of larger fellows who had donned them before us.
Being a second-stringer, I didn’t play much, so I was in a near-panic state when the coach told me to go in late in the game-moreso because the game was very close, with our team down by only a few points. With my buddy Brad urging me on from the bleachers, lo and behold, I scored a layup on the left side in the final seconds. In so doing, I was fouled and my subsequent free throw went into the basket, tying the game and forcing it into overtime. Never in my life had I been in such thin air, feeling the pressure. (Please understand: When God handed out life skills, I got basketball-playing talent in a far smaller dose than basketball-playing desire and had warmed many a bench.) So, the shock continued when the coach put me in the starting lineup for the overtime period. I had fully expected the first team to resume its role, and that I would get comfortably back to the warm bench. With my heart in my throat and a racing pulse, I played on, sinking two more baskets that helped seal our victory.
The planets were truly aligned that day, or perhaps the St. Christopher medal around my neck helped me out. And it made a big difference that my college friend was there telling me I could do it. Pandemonium ensued after our upset and, before I knew it, Brad had me on his shoulders and carried me to the car, celebrating our victory and my performance. I felt enormously proud (I still do), satisfied that I’d helped out my team. First-teamers might not always realize the gift they have nor value the regular opportunity to play. I hope some second-string players come through in the upcoming playoffs-sometimes they do!