Butt Splinters - My Season On The Bench
Entering the ninth grade at E.C. Glass High school, I was a shy, lanky kid learning my way around campus. My life revolved around basketball. I had no girlfriend and I was too young to drive. My weekends were spent at the open gym and my evenings at the nearby park. I’d had a growth spurt that summer and I for the first time I could hold my own with the better ball players in the neighborhood.
I’d played little organized ball, but I could put the ball in the hoop. Walking home in the dark each night, my hopes and thoughts were focused on the upcoming tryouts for the basketball team. My dad had encouraged me to go out for the team, and bolstered by his confidence and my play at the park, I swallowed my fear and decided to go out for the team.
I played well. I fought through the nerves and found my shot. Tryouts were like one big scrimmage so it was easy to forget about the coach on the sidelines and just play my game. It worked. At school the next morning, I waded through the bodies huddled around the sheet of paper tacked up on the gym doors. A smile spread across my face at the sight of my name. I’d made first cuts.
I tried not to cheese. The only thing worse than getting cut was smiling like a dufus about making the cut. The rest of the day was a blur, all I could think about was making that team. That second day came and I my hot streak continued. The next day I looked to the list to find that I’d made the freshman basketball team.
For most of the names on that list, making the team wasn’t the monumental accomplishment. After all, it wasn’t the J.V. team, which two freshmen had made. And it was two steps away from varsity, which one super freshman secured a spot on the roster. But for me, the kid who’d only run track in middle school, that meant three fewer freshmen going out for our team. And it was a dream come true.
At the dinner table, I gushed to my parents about making the team. In bed that night, I stared at the ceiling, dreaming of glory and greatness and wearing the school colors. I fell asleep wondering what number I’d get or what shoes we’d wear.
The very next day—our first official practice, the bubble that was my warm and fuzzy good feelings met the needle that was Coach Kozerow’s whistle. Short and stocky with wide calves and burly forearms, Coach Kozerow wasn’t what I expected when I thought of a basketball coach. And I don’t think I was what he expected.
That very first day he got down to business. He preached endurance. He talked about motion offense, ball side defense, footwork and boxing out. I was lost before we hit the floor. Coach was quirky and strange, with drills and teaching moments he worked into practice. Running, studying plays, he even told us how to wear our socks. Are we ever going to play basketball? I thought.
During pick-up games, I played without worry, free and loose. But in his gym, with scripted plays and that panic inducing whistle, I was tight and rigid, thinking about my every move. Coach singled me out, most likely due to my shooting form. My elbow jutted out like a chicken wing and he compared my jump shot to a curve ball. I can still hear him hounding me.
“Keep that elbow straight. Follow through with your index finger.”
I tried. At night I laid in bed, tossing the ball up and trying to get comfortable with the strange placement of my fingers on the seams. I worked for hours, dreaming of greatness.
Just before our first game. Coach walked in the locker room and plopped down an old soggy box full of rags. Not rags, our uniforms. The threadbare jerseys were once, maybe in the seventies, the school’s varsity uniforms. We scoffed at the tiny shorts and tank top jerseys that were straight out of the movie Hoosiers.
I was given number 20. This was a mere formality because I had no chance of playing. A few days before Coach had called me into his little office just to clear the air between us. I don’t remember that exact conversation, but he said what we both knew—that he’d made a mistake. Due to grades and discipline however, a few guys were off the roster. He was stuck with me.
Our first game arrived and I clung to my end of the bench, dry and cold. Barring multiple injuries or ejections (like seven of them), I had no chance of playing against other high schools. But lucky for me we were a freshman team, and as a freshman team we also played the middle schools. Those were the games I had circled on the schedule. Tip off came and I’d watch anxiously, biting my nails to the bone as we built a lead. Once we had the game in hand, Coach started subbing.
I’ll never forget those nods towards my end of the bench. Or my first time entering a real game. Tugging on my short shorts, I rubbed my hands together for warmth and wiped the soles of my shoes. I was so spooked I could hardly put one foot in front of the other. Then one day, in a dimly lit gym, a rebound fell into my lap and without thinking I laid it in. Somehow, some way, I’d scored. I think my record was three point in a game. It would have been four had not that stickler ref called me for having a foot on the line. Then it was back to the bench.
A Shot at Redemption...
Things may not have been working out on the court, but I loved being a part of that team. The bus rides to other schools, telling jokes and laughing with the guys, even those long practices. And then, towards the end of the season, divine circumstance gave me a shot at redemption. We were down by twenty against Albemarle County and with a only few ticks on the clock, Coach called a time out. The ref raised an eyebrow, but Coach had a plan. He waved the guys in, glancing down the row of knobby knees and solemn faces.
“Hey Pete, you’re in.”
Looking back, I still don’t know what to make of his decision—drawing up a play for the kid he didn’t want on the team. Checking into the game at the scorer’s table, my heart clanged around in my chest and my palms dripped. Most of the parents in the bleachers were gathering their stuff and heading for the exits, even the cheerleaders were packing it up. Except for my dad, he was cheering like a maniac.
The play developed perfectly. We executed to the letter and I rolled off the screen, catching the ball free and clear with only a second remaining. My defender was hung on the pick and only able to watch helplessly as I launched a three that would cut the lead to 17. It was my chance to show Coach that I belonged. I followed through just like he’d drilled all year and the seams of the ball rotated as it hurled through the air. I willed it forward, wanting and wishing. Heads went up, following the ball’s trajectory as it descended and….it didn’t reach the rim. It bounced harmlessly into the refs hands as the buzzer sounded. Game over.
We slapped hands and met in the locker room, the guys teasing and laughing about my shot. I shook my head and we road home trying to forget the walloping we’d taken. And that’s what I remember from that season. A few snippets of games, my buzzer beating air ball, and enduring those uncomfortable moments at practice. I don’t remember our record that year or even some of the names and faces of that team some 24 years ago. It was freshman basketball after all. But I’ll never forget Coach Kozerow.
The next summer I worked and worked and even to basketball camp. That fall I made the first cut of the J.V. team the next year, but that was as far as it went. My nerves and jitters got the best of me and my high school basketball career was over.
I continued to play ball in church and city leagues. Even today I still play once a week. Occasionally, somebody will ask me if I played high school ball and I’m flattered, though unsure what to say. But thanks to one coach’s relentless tutelage I do have a decent jump shot.