(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2013)
“If you’re a basketball player, you’ve got to shoot.” Oscar Robertson
I recently took up shooting hoops again at nearby Mendocino K-8 School after nearly two years away from the courts. Sadly, I found four of the six hoops adorned with the tattered remnants of their nets and the other two nets verging on dissolution. Shooting hoops on a rim without a viable net is deeply unsatisfying and actually punishes the shooter for success since a ball tossed through a hoop without a net will frequently bounce faraway rather than drop down conveniently in front of the successful shooter.
And so for selfish reasons, but also for the good of our local youth, I went to the school office the next morning with four new nets and presented them to a friendly volunteer who said she would give them to the principal, which she did. The next day I received a phone call from the school principal and she thanked me profusely for the nets. I told her the nets only cost three dollars each, that I would be happy to buy more as necessary, and that I would have put the nets up myself but had no easy way to get a ladder to the courts. She assured me that she would have her maintenance people take care of the situation, and they did.
“The intrigue grows tangled.” Alexandre Dumas
One hears varying accounts of the financial state of our public school system, state and local, with the latest rumors suggesting that things are somewhat better this year than they were the previous four years following the economic meltdown of 2008 and the subsequent takeover of the federal government by the supranational Ponzi scheme operators who are now permanently in charge. However, there is still apparently nothing in the budget to cover the purchase of new nets for the school’s basketball hoops.
What makes this especially poignant and silly to me is that every time I go to shoot hoops at the pragmatically named Mendocino K-8 School, which I think we should rename Little Lake Lyceum, the playground is heaped (no exaggeration) with expensive clothing discarded daily by students in the heat of play and left for scavengers and pissed off parents to deal with when the pampered children return home sans jackets, sweaters, sweatshirts, hats, and backpacks.
Indeed, on a recent weekend visit to the courts to shoot hoops and admire the new nets adorning the rims, I watched a mother and her two children shopping for clothes by carefully assessing each of the thirty-some items of clothing strewn about the playground. In the end, they chose two sweaters and a brand new rain jacket for the youngest child, a 49ers sweatshirt, a down vest, and a brand new backpack for the oldest child, and those kids were thrilled with their new gear. Are these people thieves? Nay. Many of those items of clothing had been on the playground for several days and were destined for the garbage or the Salvation Army. The least expensive of the many discarded items cost more than six brand new nets for the basketball hoops, hence the poignancy of the situation.
“You look at today, it’s a different situation. You have a game that has been transformed into a game where almost every shot is either a three-point shot or a dunk.” Oscar Robertson
I published my first novel Inside Moves in 1978, the year before the NBA (National Basketball Association) introduced the three-point basket in imitation of the upstart ABA (American Basketball Association). Not much would have changed in my novel had my hero’s long range shots been three-pointers, since basketball is merely background to the drama, but the meteoric rise of an unknown little man might have seemed more plausible in the three-point era than in the previous age of two points per basket.
So last week I was shooting hoops at Little Lake Lyceum shortly after 3:30, before which interlopers are not allowed to use the courts, and I was joined by four Eighth Grade boys who asked if they might shoot around with me since they did not have access to school basketballs after school hours, which at first struck me as more poignant silliness, but then made perfect sense when I considered the aforementioned discarded clothing all over the playground. Having completed my very slow routine of shooting baskets to help me get back in minimal aerobic shape, I told the boys they were welcome to join me, and we proceeded to take turns shooting baskets.
To my bemusement, none of these lads ever took a shot unless he was behind the three-point line painted on the asphalt, twenty-some feet from the hoop. When it was my turn to shoot, I shot from close and not so close and occasionally from afar, but these fourteen-year-olds (they told me their ages) never took a single shot that wasn’t a three-pointer. And they almost never made a basket. We played together for thirty minutes. Each of the four well-coordinated boys, all of them on the Little Lake Lyceum basketball team, took upwards of twenty-five shots, and cumulatively they made a grand total of three baskets.
As an experiment, I asked them to shoot from closer range and they proved to be entirely incapable of making anything other than a layup, and even those very close-in shots were difficult for them. I then asked why they only shot three-pointers and they looked at me as if I had asked why they wore clothing or if they played video games. Why, they suggested (and I paraphrase and delete dozens of likes and y’knows) would a reasonable person bother to shoot and probably miss a two-point shot when he might just as well shoot and probably miss a three-point shot?
“You can’t get spoiled if you do your own ironing.” Meryl Streep
Try as I might, I can’t seem to separate the goofy incompetence of those Little Lake Lyceum hoopsters and the piles of discarded clothing on the playground of that esteemed institute of lower learning. Extrapolating further, I can’t separate those incompetent hoopsters and the discarded clothing from my brother telling me that there are now thousands of job openings in the IT (Internet Technology) field in San Francisco for which there are almost no qualified Americans, making it necessary for American companies to continue flying in thousands of well-qualified people from India, Russia, China, and other places where the children most definitely do not discard their brand new clothes on playgrounds.
“Gather in your resources, rally all your faculties, marshal all your energies, focus all your capacities upon mastery of at least one field of endeavor.” John Hagee
We recently attended a play hereabouts, and because the play was so badly written and I couldn’t convince Marcia to flee with me at intermission, once I got over my dismay at having to sit through yet another award-winning piece of junk, I decided to use the time to study how the various actors dealt with having to recite such garbage. And it was fascinating to see how the one really masterful actor in the show chose to speak her lines sotto voce (because the words themselves were so ill-conceived) and how she almost-but-not-quite transcended the putrid script with her subtle physical movements and telling facial expressions, while the other actors lacked the skill (and direction) to do anything other than stand around in stiff discomfort and raise their voices, as if they thought shitty writing might be improved by shouting.
And I couldn’t help but relate the crappiness of the play and the shortage of masterful acting to those goofy incompetent hoopsters and those piles of perfectly good discarded clothing on the playground at Little Lake Lyceum and the tragic incompetence of the people hired to build the website for the new Big Pharma National Healthcare Debacle and the ongoing and worsening disaster at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant and our collective inability to do anything about the vast overriding and killing mediocrity that seems more and more a sure bet to render our beautiful planet uninhabitable.
Then yesterday Marcia and I attended a fantastic concert at Preston Hall, a pianist and cellist playing Brahms, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev—brilliant players playing the works of genius composers. And as a result of listening to that magnificent music, I felt a little more hopeful than entirely hopeless, an illusion, perhaps, but also a relief to be reminded that humans are not inherently mediocre and incompetent. For though I don’t know this to be true, I would bet good money that neither of those brilliant musicians we heard, had they chosen to pursue careers in basketball rather than music, would have only shot threes on their long roads to mastery.