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By Staff | Mar 18, 2011

March Madness is upon us – that season wherein people begin to obsess over brackets and statistics and froth as they hold forth about hoped-for outcomes.

In short, they become about as nutty as a squirrel in an artificial acorn factory.

But enough about gardeners and their fanatical fixation with seed catalogues. It’s also high season for basketball.

As with many guys, there once was a time when I aspired to greatness on the hard courts. I would like to say that my motivations for joining our seventh-grade basketball team included a love for athletic excellence and the excitement of being part of a team effort.

I would like to say that, but it would be a fib. The main reason I subjected myself to the trial by basketball court was girls.

Yes, I had discovered girls. They had also discovered me and had swiftly rendered their verdict, which was: ick!

A keen observer of my surroundings, I perceived that our school’s athletes were objects of adoration. Some of this admiration came in an organized manner via the cheerleading squad – which, coincidentally, was made up entirely of girls!

My imagined scenario unfolded thus: I would join the basketball team and prove to be a “natural” despite no prior experience with the sport. I would be the hero in numerous games, winning my classmates’ – especially the girls’ – undying adulation.

Above all, during our games the cheerleaders would be required by Federal Law to cheer for me! The imagined sound of their voices chirping “Go, go!” seemed much preferable to the reality of “Go away!”

Basketball practice commenced and I joined the fun. Not so much fun for the boys on the team, but oodles of enjoyment for our coach, Mel, who was a sadist.

Mel made us run “wind sprints”, which consisted of dashing back and forth across the gym until we were thoroughly winded. He then introduced a diabolical twist to this activity, something he called a “three-man weave.”

By the end of practice we would be exhausted and sweating at a rate normally associated with monsoons. Mel would grin maniacally and say, “You guys need to get in shape!”

I felt I was in better shape than most due to the fact that I had to do chores after practice. Mel had worked on developing our endurance and strength, both of which were useful when it came to chores.

So while the town kids recovered from practice by watching TV, I carried buckets of silage and water and threw bales of hay. But I didn’t complain, because I knew this extra effort would assure me a starting spot on the team.

Mel soon introduced basketballs to basketball practice, which lent the situation a whole new dimension. As we learned the science of dribbling and shooting and rebounding, it soon became clear who our star would be.

It was a kid named Al, who was born approximately six feet tall and had been growing ever since. Al was given the center position, and Mel revealed his game strategy.

“Just get the ball to Al!” he said. We eventually played actual games with seventh-graders from other schools. There weren’t enough uniforms to go around, explained Mel, so not all of us would get to suit up. I would still be on the team, but held in reserve.

Which meant I might get to play if about a dozen teammates became sick or injured.

But, oh! Nothing matched game day, when the basketball team got to leave class early! All eyes would be upon us as we silently rose and filed out of the room, the magnificent gladiators off to gird themselves for battle!

As we prepared for the last game of the season, Mel turned to me and said those magical words: “Nelson! Suit up!”

He tossed me a uniform that had been handed down 50 years before and was large enough to fit a moose. It mattered not: I was going to be on the bench with the team!

And with the game in its final moments, Mel turned to me and uttered another set of magical words: “Nelson! You’re in!”

I had less than a minute to prove my athletic studliness to the world. Especially to the girls.

We were on the offense and I found myself wide open. I waved my arms frantically at the teammate who had the ball.

I recall clearly how he looked right at me, then heaved the ball toward the bucket. The ball pranged off the backboard and I grabbed the rebound just as the buzzer sounded.

And that was the end of my basketball career. But it was worth it, because as I landed with that rebound I saw the cheerleaders cheering.

For me!

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

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