Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Last Hurrah of Churchball Ostertag

I really love to play basketball. And I always have.

Unfortunately, I'm not very good at it. And I never have been.

Back when I was a kid, I used to think I had a chance to be a pretty good ballplayer. I thought this for two reasons: A) I was reasonably tall. (Never the tallest in my class, but usually in the top ten percent for height.) And 2) Genetics. My Dad was an excellent athlete in all sports, but the highlight to me was that he was the starting center on the state champion high school basketball team.

Unfortunately, those two factors for the positive were heavily outweighed by one major factor for the negative: lack of speed. (I'm not called "Slow Joe from Arimo" without reason.) This point was painfully driven home to me at the tryouts for the 7th grade basketball team. I was one of the two slowest boys at the tryouts. I didn't make the team. I didn't even come close.

But, I still loved playing basketball. So, that left me with the one safe haven for all the kids not good enough for the school team: church basketball. Church basketball is no respector of persons. Church basketball suffereth long, and is kind. Church basketball welcomes your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Church basketball welcomes the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Even slow kids can play church basketball.

I was good enough for our church basketball team. Good enough, in fact, that I was the starting center for our team for all four years of high school. I manned the middle of our 2-3 zone defense with my reasonably tall, 145 pound frame. (I used to be skinny.) Our team was dominated by the Arimo Mafia (me and the three other guys my age from my small hometown of Arimo.)

Having a team dominated by four freshmen, including a slow, skinny guy patroling the paint, did not bode well for our team that first year. We lost a lot (maybe even all) of our games. We lost one game by a score of 82-20. (I remember that game in particular because I scored a season high of six points.)

Despite all the losing, we had a lot of fun playing. And, by the time the Arimo Mafia were seniors, we were actually winning most of our games. (And, as much fun as we had when we were losing, we had even more fun when we were winning.) (It's funny how that works.) But, despite all of our fun and our experience, there was one team we just could never quite beat, and we fell short of the championship.

After high school, I played very little "organized" churchball. "Organized" churchball has scheduled games, keeps score, and, in theory, has referees. (The referees are usually volunteers from a team that isn't playing in that particular game. Having volunteered myself a couple of times, I have a new-found respect for what referees do.) (Now, instead of thinking they miss every call, I just think they miss most of them.)

Instead of "organized" churchball, I mostly played just-a-bunch-of-guys-getting-together churchball. This consisted of (you guessed it) just a bunch of guys getting together to play basketball, usually two or three times a week for an hour or so, early in the morning; or for a couple of hours late on a weeknight. We would play in church gyms, and between six and fifteen guys would be there for these pick-up games. I was usually not the worst player on the floor. (It is safe to say, however, that I was never the best player.)

It was during these years that the Utah Jazz drafted Greg Ostertag, a 7'2" center out of the University of Kansas. As Ostertag established himself in the NBA, the parallels between his game and my game became more and more apparent. Ostertag's biggest asset was his size. The same for me. (By this point I stood 6'2" and around 220 pounds.) Ostertag's biggest weakness was his lack of speed and coordination on the offensive end. The same for me. Ostertag would occasionally have a really good game, the kind that made people think, "If he played like that every night, he could be a really good player." The same for me. Ostertag didn't have those type of games very often. Neither did I.

Enhancing the Ostertag/Slow Joe similarities was the fact that in the late 1990s I decided I would try a flat top haircut style. I did this mostly because I thought my Dad looked good with a flat top back in the 1950s. I wanted to look like my Dad. Or possibly like football player/broadcaster Howie Long. Instead, I ended up looking like Greg Ostertag. (Sadly enough, neither Greg Ostertag nor I are as handsome as either my Dad or Howie Long.)

My Dad (Rocking the flat top.)

Howie Long (I didn't look like him, either.)

Ostertag (Yup, that's about right.)
Me (Definitely more Ostertag than Dad or Howie.)

Eventually as I got older I got even slower. And it was getting harder to find pick-up games where I wasn't clearly the worst guy out on the floor. One night, while in my late-30's, I found myself at a pick-up game with 22 other guys, mostly in their 20's, and all of whom much quicker than me. Suddenly, the pressure to win was much higher than usual. (We played five-on-five, with the winning five staying on the court. With 23 guys there it meant if your team lost you would have to sit out two or three games before getting back on the court.) My age, speed, and general Ostertag-ishness made me a liability. That night I knew it was time for Churchball Ostertag to hang up his cleats high-tops.

I didn't play basketball for several years. Then, about four years ago, they announced at church that they were trying to get some just-a-bunch-of-guys-getting-together churchball going a couple of mornings a week, but they were having trouble getting enough guys to show up. I still liked the idea of playing basketball, and I figured that playing with a bunch of older-ish dads would be a bit less stressful than the last time I had played.

So, I found some shorts and some shoes and went to the church house at 5:30 on the morning to play some basketball. The game started, and after the very first shot I dove for the rebound. The only problems with diving for the rebound were: 1) I was about twenty feet away from the ball when I dove for it; and B) I didn't actually intend to dive. (My body was telling me that it had gotten used to the seven years of my sedentary, non-basketball-playing lifestyle.) (It also probably didn't help that by this time I was up to about 265 pounds.)

It didn't take me long, though, to get to the point where I didn't fall down every time I tried for a rebound. I've really been enjoying playing basketball again these last few years. Of the regulars (and irregulars) who show up twice a week at 5:30 in the morning, there is one guy who is older than me, and a couple of guys who are bigger than me. (Not fatter than me, just bigger than me.) But don't worry, there is no one slower than me. I've come to grips with the fact that quite often I am the worst player there. But, occasionally I'm not.

In fact, I enjoyed playing so much that I actually started playing "organized" churchball again. I played a few games the last two or three years. Mostly I show up just to make sure the team has enough guys to field a team.

This year, our team was very, very good, not losing a single game. We had a lot of good, young players. By the time the last game of the season came around, I knew they didn't need me, and would probably be better without me. But, selfishly, I showed up anyway. I wanted one last hurrah for Churchball Ostertag.

It was the third game I had played this year, and I hadn't scored a single point. I wanted to make one last basket before retiring. I played a little in the first half, but no opportunities to take a shot presented themselves. I quickly got winded and went back to the bench. By halftime we ("we" meaning the other guys on my team) were ahead by close to twenty points.

Like most old, fat, lazy, out of shape players, I spent most of my time on the offensive end hanging out at the three-point line, looking for a chance at an open shot. They had me start the second half, and in a few minutes my opportunity arrived. I can't even remember how the play set itself up, only that I ended up with the ball, wide open at the three-point line. I didn't even think, I just shot it. Usually, those are the best kind of shots, the ones you take in the rhythm of the game without thinking. It felt good as I let it go, and it was. It was a beautiful, perfect shot, hitting nothing but the bottom of the net!

I tried to act like this was something that happened often, but as I ran back down the court to play defense, I believe I actually said out loud, "Now I can retire in peace." It was the perfect way to end my playing career. I figured to go to the bench and sit the rest of the game.

But, before there was a stoppage of play that would allow for a substitution to come in for me, my laziness at spotting up at the three-point line paid off again. I got the ball and was wide open. Again. I thought about it, got a little greedy, and decided I'd like to go out making two in a row. Of course, that's not what happened. I missed badly. (I did, thankfully, manage to at least graze the rim.)

I made sure I didn't attempt another shot before I could get out of the game. I went to the bench, satisfied with shooting 50% from three-point range for the game. With the help of my "crucial" three-point shot, our team managed to eke out a win. (I'm not sure what the final score was, but the last time I noticed we were ahead 81-47.)

And so ends the career of Churchball Ostertag. Oh, I'll still go play in the mornings with the guys when my work (and sleep) schedule permits. (And as long as my legs don't go out on me.) But I am officially done playing "organized" churchball. I'm 46 years old. It's time to leave the "real" games to the younger guys. Churchball Ostertag has shot his last shot, grabbed his last rebound, and clogged his last lane. (Unless, of course, Churchball Ostertag has a bit of Churchball Brett Favre in him and he decides to come out of retirement.)

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