It is one of my goals to realize Personal Dream #135. To do this, the way I figure it, I’ve got about 14 months to become incredibly good at a sport. #135 is the hope that someday, some way, I’ll make it into the Olympics.
The one big stumbling block to fulfilling this dream, as I see it, is that I don’t play any sports at all. I dabble in golf and tennis once in a while, but I am definitely no better than average at most things physique-based. It wasn’t always that way; I used to play sports like everyone else when I was younger.
Like most kids of my generation, I was dragged out at an early age to play recreational league sports at the local school. I started with soccer, and that didn’t seem all that bad, though the memories of it have mostly drifted away into the haze of the past at this point.
Soccer came to a dead halt, though, when I realized what my true youth sports passion was for: basketball. I’m pretty tall, and I’ve been that way since I was a kid. I towered over most people in my younger days, so basketball seemed like the natural choice. I played through most of my elementary school years, and it was a blast.
I was never a great player by any stretch of the imagination; I remember my coaches always telling me that I wasn’t aggressive enough. They figured that if I was tall, I should be dominating the court. They were probably right, but I didn’t have much of a competitive drive when I was younger. I figured that everyone was just out there to have fun, and winning was just sort of a bonus. (Yes, how very idealistic. I was 11, cut me some slack.)
I probably would have stuck with basketball if it weren’t for a great pre-teen calamity that came into my life: I moved. Moving is a big thing whether you’re a kid or an adult; it’s an upheaval. But when you’re on the verge of puberty and you’re suddenly taken from everything and everyone you know and just dropped somewhere else, it can be a little more upsetting.
The worst part was the new school I was going to didn’t really have a basketball program. My house is in Maryland, just south of the Pennsylvania border, and I was forced to head north to play for a league in a little town called Glen Rock.
I didn’t like Glen Rock; it always seemed very dingy, and it was far away. What made it even more unbearable was the fact that I didn’t know anyone else who was on the team. The people there all went to school together, and they were all friends. I was just the strange tall guy from Maryland who was impinging on their state.
I got along with my teammates, but I never really connected with them. As for the coach, he just seemed pretty intent on winning. As the weeks went on, I started to dread every Tuesday and Thursday night. I didn’t want to have to sit in the darkness in the car just to go play a game with people I barely knew. Basketball had officially become not fun, and I didn’t want to play it anymore. I didn’t even get to finish the season because of a broken thumb. With splint in hand, I hung up my jersey.
Back at my new school, I soon discovered that the sport of choice for my new home was lacrosse. My old neighbor had played lacrosse, and it always sounded interesting. I had even bought a stick a few years before just to play catch with my old friends. So when spring rolled around, I figured I might as well take the plunge and give it a try. This is the part of the story where young Joel learns that trying new things is a terrible idea.
It turns out that the children of Hereford (my new home) were pretty damn serious about their lacrosse. When I went for tryouts, I quickly discovered that everyone else there had been playing for years. Some of them had started in the womb, much to the dismay of their mothers and to the joy of their fathers.
For those of you familiar with child psychology, you can probably see that the ingredients to this story do not weigh strongly in favor of your young narrator. Allow me to complete the recipe: though I mentioned that I was very tall, I did not mention that I was also constructed out of toothpicks. I was always thin. Very thin. As a boy, I looked kind of like a loose jumble of pipe-cleaners that decided to give it a go in the public education system. I didn’t develop any kind of physique until I graduated high school, and I suppose even that is still debatable.
As a tall, thin guy who doesn’t really know anybody and who has absolutely no experience with the sport in question, the outcome was fairly inevitable. I was picked on constantly. Not a practice went by where I was not taunted, shoved, or abused in some fashion. In retrospect, I’m sure it could have been a lot worse. I was never beaten up or anything, and I’m sure it’s nothing like what the kids these days go through since discipline apparently was abolished in 1992.
But at that time, it was horrific. I still wasn’t an aggressive person, so I just stood there and took it. The worst part was the biggest bully of them all was the coach’s son, the one person I couldn’t possibly even consider lashing back at.
I did lash back at him one day, though, and it was the start of a bad trend of striking out over pent up aggression at inappropriate times. (See guys, now you know why I used to do that. So screw you.) We were in the middle of a game, and I was being subbed out. As I walked back to the bench, he came up beside me and punched me in the head and said something I can no longer remember. You really shouldn’t be hitting your teammates in the middle of the game, and I was getting angrier.
He sat down on the bench, and I went to get a drink to calm down. As I stood there, he and several other of the kids continued to taunt me in various clever 12-year-old ways.
It was the breaking point.
With all my strength, what little of it there was, I wheeled around and smashed him in the face with my stick. Fortunately, he was wearing his helmet so I didn’t actually hurt him, but I sent him toppling off of the bench and flat onto his back to the dusty ground below. It stun everyone involved into silence. The coach started screaming at me, and I just up and left. I told my mom to take me home, and as we drove, I cried and cried and swore I’d never play any sport again.
My dad had other thoughts about that, though, and there was no arguing with him. So I showed up at the last game of the season, much to everyone’s surprise. The coach, having settled down a bit after realizing I wasn’t entirely unprovoked, even let me play. He put me on offense for the last game, just as a change. I’d been playing midfield all season and doing a passable job of it.
In that last game, I scored two points. Turns out I was actually kind of good at offense. Unfortunately, the damage was done. Even though I should have been inspired and amazed by my own abilities, I was still too full of anger and sadness. I hung up my helmet, and that was it for many years.
I gave sports one more shot in high school, but it was an ill-fated and short-lived journey. I thought I’d give basketball another try, and decided to try out for the team. But I hadn’t played in years, and I just couldn’t compete with those who had dedicated most of their teenage existence to the locker room.
Running track quickly came to a halt as well as I pulled both of my quads at the first meet. Sports did not seem to be in the cards for me, and I accepted my fate as a tall, awkward, dorky guy. I developed a competitive edge, but it was for things like board games and video games, things I knew I could win at.
But there was always that dream.
Maybe I’m still just that idealistic youth basketball player, but when I see the Olympics, I feel deep down inside that’s what sports are all about. Sure, an awful lot of the competitors are there to win, but I think even more of them are just there for the joy of playing with the rest of the world. When the Mongolian bobsled team, ranked 75th in the world, is interviewed by the media, they smile and say they can’t wait to get out there and make their run. They know what it’s all about. There’s always that faint hope that maybe a miracle will happen and they’ll walk off with a medal, but they don’t seem to mind too much if they don’t.
I’m a big fan of world unity. I remember watching the Atlanta games years ago and wishing I was marching with the U.S. team in the opening ceremonies. I watched as some American athlete, I don’t even know who, looked in awe at the scene around him and started snapping pictures. That would be me, too. And then all the athletes from all over the world came together, and they were all dancing and singing.
Maybe they couldn’t even understand what each other were saying, but it didn’t matter. I remember seeing an American and a Russian chatting wildly in the crowd. The American was pointing off into the distance, waving her arms, trying to explain something. The Russian was trying to understand, and after a moment, the message was received. They both laughed and smiled, and the cameraman moved on to other things.