There are always three weekends in March when basketball engulfs my mind by fragmenting itself into tiny sub particles that influence all original thought. I drift between fairytale dreams of passion and hope that once fueled my desire to be a champion on the court.
The girls of the Lutheran School Association are introduced to hoops as fifth-graders. At that time, I was coming to terms with the fact that I might be a wee bit too tall to be the next Mary Lou Retton, and basketball seemed like a worthwhile solution… And I would have the opportunity to spend additional time a week hanging with my schoolyard posse. We had all been together since kindergarten and, in the classroom, were taught to be good little Christian girls. The basketball court was the perfect canvas for us to unleash our inner lions. Oblivious to the necessity for on-court structure or skill, we simply banded together and busted our Lutheran asses from buzzer to buzzer.
When our first season was over, we had a huddle full of energetic hotheads with killer instincts to win. The only thing missing was guidance.
In the off-season, I accompanied Dad to racquetball practice where he gave me dribbling lessons. It was just Dad and me on the open court. All I could hear was the rhythm of my bounce and his repetitious, “Eyes on me, eyes on me.”
… Racquetball courts have the most glorious echo…
Once I had the fundamentals down, Dad took me to the Decatur Athletic Club where the real fun began — shooting lessons. For the next four years, I would follow the pattern of his warm-up drill:
Five right-handed layups followed by five left-handed layups. Five shots from each elbow. Five shots from each wing. Five shots from both corners.
“It’s all in the wrist. Only use the left hand to guide.” “Just catch and shoot… catch and shoot.”
Dad’s instructions became my Bible verses. My outside shot would rain through the net into his waiting hands where he would snap the ball back to me.
The rhythm of the release and the smooth, backwards rotation of the ball was my first introduction to poetry. It was the summer of 1991. Lou Henson was the head coach of the Fighting Illini. Christian Laettner was a Blue Devil. The Chicago Bulls were everything.
When I returned to school my sixth grade year, some big-time changes triggered a new vibrancy. My point guard, Amy, spent ample time practicing over the summer as well, and her dad signed on as the new head coach. Jenny’s dad would be the new assistant coach, and a fireball from Schaumburg became the team’s X factor.
It was as though the stars had aligned and dropped a box of dreams at my front door.
By the winter of ‘92, basketball took precedence over everything. I was 11 years old, putting copies of The Babysitters Club and Bop magazine aside to memorize Coach Snyder’s playbook. Our out-of-bounds and offensive plays were inspired by the Illini, and our full-court press was becoming lethal. For the first time in my life, I felt a sense of purpose.
Coach Snyder understood the importance of grooming an entire pack of hungry players who could feed off one another’s skills. He manufactured a dynamic gang of seven: A solid starting line up of Nikki, Jenny, Rachel, Amy and myself, with Whitney and Julia serving as our sixth and seventh girls. We learned the importance of our individual roles, while respect and communication were integrated into our game plans. Coach also engrained in us the most important lesson in sports: Offense scores points, but defense wins games. By the end of our second season, we had proven ourselves as the best team in the Decatur parochial league.
The following October, we were middle-schoolers with attitude and swagger. We had an unparalleled intensity and a firm grasp on team dynamics. And when Miss Runnells came aboard as team manager, our cool-factor increased significantly.
By midseason, I was spending most of my off-court time hanging with Amy. She and I never found our place within the cliques (private school tweens can be venomous) and we naturally gravitated to one another’s athletic prowess. I looked at her as the Michael Jordan to my Scottie Pippen. Sleepovers were spent reviewing game tapes and team statistics… and peering in her dad’s bedroom at the trophies we had amassed. We passed the time by daydreaming of boys and planning our futures in basketball.
Our ‘92-’93 season was whimsical. We kicked some Catholic butt all over Decatur, and took down some Lutheran powerhouses in Springfield. On game nights, I laid awake stirring over the fury to be unleashed the following evening. We were admitted into the 8th Grade Girls TLS Invitational Tournament, as seventh graders, and took home a third-place trophy. I was over the moon upon news of making the All-Tournament Team. In a home game against Holy Family, the team scored 40 points; I scored 22, and was inching my way towards a 100+ point season.
By the start of our eighth-grade year, all parents, coaches, players…and Granny…had morphed into one big, happy family; the State Tournament had become our Holy Grail. Pending a stellar resume, 16 teams throughout the state would qualify for the big dance in Arlington Heights in March 1994. There were no qualms about it — we were going to state and we were going to win.
When our final season commenced in October, the vibe was electric. A handful of us spent a week at the University of Illinois summer basketball camp; and Amy, Nikki, Rachel and I caused a ruckus at Decatur’s annual Gus Macker street ball tournament. We had three key targets on the schedule: A home game against Trinity Lutheran Springfield, the TLS Invitational and State.
I rolled my ankle in the game against Trinity and had a moment of divine self-reflection. My aura of invisibility shattered onto the locker room floor as I sat motionless in that giant, concrete cave watching my ankle morph into a misshapen pear. Miss Runnells sat with me, but few words were exchanged. I was stationed below the gymnasium and could hear the game raging above me…relinquishing control is painfully more difficult than gaining it. Amy burst through the door at halftime collapsing into my arms. She then picked up all my broken pieces and wove them into her personal suit of armor.
After cheering my team to victory, I fell asleep on a cloud of rejuvenated vigor — maybe I wasn’t invincible, but my team certainly was.
About a month later, we rode into the state’s capital for the TLS Invite salivating. We beat one of our biggest rivals for the championship, Nikki won the Free-Throw Shooting Contest, and Amy and I made the All-Tournament Team. We wrapped up the regular season with a record of 21-2, and qualified for the state tournament.
On Thursday, March 3, 1994, we had a sendoff from the entire school, assembled a caravan of roaring coaches, players, parents, siblings and grandparents and headed north to heights unknown. Our seventh place finish at the state volleyball tournament in October served as a mere warm up to the big kahuna.
After comfortable wins in the first two rounds, we were primed for a vicious semi final against a well-oiled, machine from Palatine. Coach Snyder prepared us for battle, but the game slipped through our hands in the final minutes. My tiny world went black as my fairytale dissolved into a puddle of tears.
The most vital weapon in an athlete’s arsenal? Short-term memory loss.
By the next afternoon, I was back on top of the world. We steamrolled our opponent en route to a third place victory, and Amy was named to the five-girl, All-State Tournament Team.
By the time 8th Grade graduation rolled around I was ready to take high school basketball by the horns, and find my way onto the U of I or University of Kentucky basketball team. But the following year, everything fell apart.
Without an LSA high school, our team was ripped apart at the seams. Amy, Nikki and Jenny were separated and dispensed into the Decatur public schools, while Whitney, Rachel and I were placed in our corresponding County schools. Julia headed to St. Teresa.
I was lost at sea with my life preservers scattered throughout the city, and was unresponsive to my new on-court surroundings.
Coach Snyder looked upon us as equal parts of a moving ship, but my new coaches were seemingly oblivious to molding individuals for the betterment of team camaraderie. We had no cohesion and zero direction — just misguided chaos charging up and down the court.
I was expecting challenging offensive plays and powerful defensive strategies. Instead, all guidance was lost. Worst yet, I was being groomed to be a post player, when I’d always been a guard. Those chicks under the basket are big, aggressive and terrifying — in eighth grade, I watched our power forward, Nikki, stomp on a girl after she was down just because she was there — I had no confidence in handling myself down low. Beyond that, my new coach appeared disinterested in the fact that I was a stellar outside shooter. The basketball court used to be my happy place; now it was a dungeon of fear and insecurity. The skills instilled in me by dad, and nurtured by Coach Snyder, crumbled into the quicksand swallowing my confidence.
I didn’t have any fight left in me to combat this foreign opposition. Sophomore year was the final chapter in my basketball career; I quit the team mid-season.
I used to regard my failed relationship with basketball as the worst break-up of my life. I opened my heart to something I thought would last a lifetime only to watch it crash and burn. However, after years of silent reflection, I am now able to appreciate those days for what they were — a moment in time when the world was beautiful, and dream catching was a way of life.