January 30, 2009

Remembering The Good Old Days

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Super Bowl Sunday has arrived, and while I love watching this greatest of American traditions and am so excited about this year’s matchup, something else has been on my mind this week …
Youth league basketball.
I know it’s random. But no, I’m not kidding.
Last week, I got an invitation from my Ithaca-dwelling uncle to come to my 11-year-old cousin’s sixth grade basketball game.
And so, bright and early (at least for me) on Saturday, my uncle picked me up around noon and we went to the local elementary school where the game would be held. The games were running a little late, so we settled in and watched some of the fourth grade game too.
Now, I’ve spent much of my life watching my younger brother play sports, ranging from soccer to baseball to basketball, since a time when he still had baby teeth. And I went to a couple of his varsity basketball games over break, so I’m not one of those people who is completely brainwashed on the standard skill level of college ball and the NBA.
But until Saturday, I had forgotten just how chaotic youth basketball really is. In its way, the atmosphere is just as intense as the higher levels — what with the super-charged parents (yes, even in mellow Ithaca) and energetic pre-teens crammed into the much smaller space of a grammar school gym.
In this particular league, the teams could cover different ages, so the sixth grade team had sixth graders, fifth graders and even some fourth graders. Oddly enough … one of the best players on the court in my cousin’s sixth grader game (the kind of kid who clearly moves like a future college recruit) was a fourth grader whose father happens to run the athletic training program for all of Cornell Athletics, Bernie DePalma.
Finding a Red connection so far off campus was kind of surprising, but the thing that amazed me most about this spectacle was how familiar it felt — how it was easy to see the progression from bleachers seating dozens to bleachers seating thousands.
After my cousin’s game ended (Andrew, I hope the lump on your head went away!), I made my second basketball stop of the day — up the Hill to Bartels to see the Cornell men’s team beat Columbia in the Red’s Ivy home opener.
It’s easy to think, once you become an adult and graduate to prime time, that it’s a whole different ball game — the elite game has more worth or merit than the parent-officiated game in youth leagues everywhere. Maybe nobody actually thinks that, but it’s still worth mentioning so that you all can take a minute to think about what made you first love basketball.
I think it makes the game even more fun as an adult — watching the big kids play at Newman or wherever — if a spectator can remember what it felt like watching younger kids go at it, or being one of those younger kids. For one thing, you appreciate every little true box out so much more, since they never appeared before the players got to these elite levels.
Over the past month, I’ve seen some representation of every level of basketball. There was definitely a difference in skill and natural ability on the court between the schoolyard tikes and what I’m used to seeing on TV and at Newman Arena. But not much has changed about the way basketball makes you feel, at least for me.
For players: Hustle, knock people over, feed off the chaos, score if possible. For fans: Cheer, heckle refs mercilessly, feed off the chaos, wish you could be out there yourself/ feel the same rush you feel when you do get to return to your beloved Hoops.
Then again, maybe this whole column is just a way for me to sneak something into newsprint … Intramural basketball has begun! Woot Woot!