My wife took me to dinner for my birthday (Feb 12), and asked me the highlights of my 35th year. (Among them, marrying her was a top!) But her question has stayed with me. And though 35 was a great year for many, many things, there was one experience in it all that was definitely traumatic. Though it was only 50 minutes in length, and over 6 months ago, it still haunts my dreams.
Sports are a big deal in our county. Most kids (especially young boys) want to be professional athletes. We can't think of a much cooler job than getting paid to play a sport. Minus my year of Crew at a D III school, I haven't been a college athlete; (technically, the Crew team didn't have a meet, so I doubt it counts against my eligibility). And though I do have a degree, I'll gladly chase another major if Tom Izzo wants me to play for the Spartans. But until that happens, my sports outlets now rest in viewing or pickup.
This is the case for a lot of us.
Although the chance of ever getting paid to play are nearly zero, that doesn't stop most of us from reverting, every time we stop on a court, to seconds of former glory*.
If you want to see a sport defiled, go to any YMCA open gym where there's a man in a headband, a group of kids that were obviously cut from high school teams, former bench warmers, or especially if anyone is wearing a knee brace, and you'll see that defilement in action.
The problem is that most of us forget, for the length of the game, that this is pickup, that we don't (didn't?) have the talent to make it big, and that the true objectives of pickup sport are exercise and fun. That doesn't stop us, though, from caring. That doesn't mean we're willing to admit we lack skill and talent. In our minds, we still deserve a shot; we can still make it big. That next call could be from Izzo.
Last spring, I was in one such league.
I was the captain of The Black Team, a team comprised of students and staff that met the following criteria: didn't play a high school sport, didn't have more than 2 E's, and had Thursday afternoons free.
Let that sink in, and then ask the question: does that criteria beg talent?
So The Black Team was made up of two faculty and six students, though there were never more than four of the original roster at any single game. The other faculty member never showed up, and only signed up in the first place because it 'sounds fun'. (He wrote that in an email, p.s.). So it was me, 'sounds fun', and 4-5 kids with less than 2 E's and 0 varsity letters.
Standing at 5'10 and 3/4's, toting the line (gracelessly) between overweight and obese, I was the only player on the team that could dribble without looking at the ball, and shoot one-handed behind the arc**. But this was enough: my skills were lauded in this league. If there was an All Star game, I would have been on it without question. Hell, I would have been in the running for MVP.
Our team won a couple of games, but it was hard to keep track of the score. There were times when 3-4 minutes would run off the clock and all that happened was a group of 8 people were sprinting from one end of the court to the other and a ball never so much as hit a backboard. A common theme amongst players was that we all love basketball: that's why we play. But for most of the league, that love and reality don't mix. So guys would mimmic the moves of KD, LeBron, Damian Lillard and Steph Curry, but their shot from 8 feet behind the arc may not reach the free throw line. But playing in the game pales in comparison, as I found out after one of our games, to being a ref.
Reffing these games may be the closest I'll ever come to to understanding the feeling of ruling something awful****. Ten has-beens, not-beens, couldda-beens, and wanna-be's are on the court at the same time, all competing for a trophy*****, reverting to the point - however far back - when they thought they could go pro.
I can't remember a time I've been yelled at worse.
Now, to make matter worse, I was the only ref. I had to stand at half court (nursing a calf-injury) and watch a game in which either every thing or no thing was a foul. How do you draw tht line? There's either traveling every play or you let it go every play. There's either contact on every drive or there's none. The game had to be free-form or played (due to running clock) entirely from the foul line. I chose free-form, not making a single call the entire first half.
Which I heard about a lot. I bet I got yelled at 40 times. While running up and down the court, players would glare at me and tell me all types of things I should have called but didn't; these included: carries, offensive fouls, and three second calls. I found myself standing there, in the midst of chaos, without a clue of how to proceed. I think I was more in awe of the fact they wanted this defamation reffed than I was of how bad the game was played.
By the second half, all the joy of playing and the day was gone. I felt only terror. It may have been the slowest 40-minutes of 2015. I'd look at the clock - which ran the whole game - and think: how could only 17 seconds have run off? How's that possible?****** At games end (thank you Lord), I felt the need to apologize to all 4 staff members. I was told 'it's hard to ref'. (True!) I was thanked(!), and told: 'yeah. These games are tough', 'I'd complain regardless of who the ref was', 'I always complain to refs', and even, 'thanks for doing this, we just needed someone'.
That fact that I happened to be that unlucky someone haunted me for weeks. (Still does a little, honestly).
Once that game was done, I walked out of that gym so fast and vowed: I will never do that again.
I'm scarred. I'm haunted. And, Im officially retired from reffing.
*however small. Like: I made a game-winning shot in 4th grade. That may have been my personal peak.
**There was a point where I had to tell a teammate to stop guarding 'his guy' when we had the ball.***
***(There was a time during a game where we were playing 4 on 5, because one of our players decided to sit at the scorers table and talk to a friend during a time out and didn't realize the game had started back up).
****I realize that sentence sucked, but I failed at coming up with a relevant term: 3rd world country? Being in charge of a riot? The 1% at an Occupy Wall Street march? Think of mass chaos and someone attempting to restore order, and that's what you get.
*****That turned into a championship game between the only two teams with eligible rosters.
******I think the only person that didn't complain was the kid that fell and cried, but I had no idea if he tripped or was hit.