Friday, February 10, 2012

Be Like Mike? No Thanks

Basketball in ye olden tymes of yore, when the girls didn't even get uniforms.

Soaring through the air has always seemed like it would be really cool.

Having millions of dollars would be nice, too.

And to be the best in the world at something, that would be unimaginably amazing.

But you know, these days, I’m pretty happy to not Be Like Mike.

Last month, Sports Illustrated ran a heart-wrenching story of the man who was Michael Jordan’s high school basketball coach. Legend has it, this man cut Jordan from the team his sophomore year and provided the motivational spark that helped create a legendary player.

Turns out the legend was wrong.

Jordan never got cut; he simply didn’t get promoted to varsity that year. Seems ridiculous in retrospect, but the coach needed a tall player on varsity and MJ wasn’t there yet. In the years since, including during a painful Hall of Fame acceptance speech, Jordan has taken every chance to throw in a few digs at the coach who “cut” him and the player who did make the varsity.

How’s that for thanks to a man who, like so many coaches, gave of his time and talent to help young people? The sad part of the story is the troubled life that coach has led ever since, a fact that still didn’t keep Jordan from getting his digs in every once in a while.

That story didn’t just capture my attention for its content, it grabbed my attention because at the very same time it came out, my former teammates and I were planning an event to say thanks to our high school coach. We didn’t go on to be millionaires, we didn’t even go on to be very athletic but clearly we grew up to be people who can appreciate a good deed when one is turned.

And what a good deed coaching girls in the 1970s was.

Forty years ago this summer, Title IX passed, mandating that institutions that received federal funds must provide equal opportunities for males and females. Girls' sports went from intramural to varsity status in the states that weren't offering that already, which was most of them. Everything the boys had, the girls were supposed to have, too.

Well, sort of.

It was such a thrill to be able to play, I actually forgot a few key details of the era. For starters, in my freshman year we didn’t even have uniforms. We played in our old gymsuits, with pinnies on them with numbers. What I did remember was I was No. 11 because I have no artistic skills whatsoever and that was the easiest number to make with athletic tape.

We played in grade-school gyms that sometimes weren’t even regulation size. We had to share locker rooms with the teams who just killed us, which, sadly, happened a lot.

Our coach was a typing and business teacher at the school who had no athletic background beyond the old intramural system, because it simply wasn’t offered to her. But she was instrumental in making sure we had the chance she didn’t have.

To this day, our coach apologizes for what she didn’t know about basketball.  To this day, we still don’t care. We got to play, and that’s what we cared about most of all.

So much of life is about celebrating the winners. Sometimes it’s necessary to celebrate those who were there. My teammates and I got that chance and it was amazing to revisit all this with the perspective of an adult. I had no idea one of my teammates had a stalker and I loved how my coach asked the question, “OK, how many of you drank during the season?” (The answer, from one teammate: “What did you think? I lived above a bar.”)

MJ can have his Hall of Fame career and the Hall of Fame chip on his shoulder. I’ll take those long bus rides and half-size gyms and wouldn’t change a thing.

Well, maybe I’d lose the gymsuit.

Eventually the uniforms arrived. Matching socks, not so much.