The recess basketball league for 6th graders at the Greenwood Elementary School in 1969 was a 4 team scrum for schoolyard glory. We wouldn’t start Mr. Boyages’ Saturday Youth League for another year, so fundamentally, we were clueless. Aside from one hand (usually right) only dribbling, shooting, and mid-air pig piles for rebounding, we knew little of the game. League action consisted of 15-minute sprints up and down the asphalt court on Greenwood Ave., following a script of run, shoot, miss, foul, run, etc… Game scores were usually in the 4-2, 6-4 range, with double-digit or odd scores a rarity. Not many of us were very good at free throws back then.
Mike Gonnella was the captain of one team and I another. I can’t recall the other captains, but the big news of the Fall ’69 season was the first trade in league history, and me channeling the antithesis of Red Auerbach by making the horrible swap. Leo Murphy was a wizard with the ball. He was a white, 6th-grade version of Marques Haynes, able to dribble circles around hapless defenders. Paul Czarnonka was a big, quiet kid who couldn’t score, but was a rebounding machine. Blinded by flashy ball skills, I traded Czarnonka for Murphy, not realizing that I’d hardly see the ball once the other Leo got his hands on it. And that was only after my now undersized team somehow got possession of it.
After the trade, my team began a tailspin, fueled by bickering over who should have the ball and do the shooting. As captain, I thought it only fair that someone else should work to get a rebound and pass to me at mid-court for an unchallenged dash to the basket and a score at the other end. It all made perfect sense. The x’s and o’s rarely executed according to my script and we were a disorganized, selfish mess. And defense? We didn’t really get that part of the game. And it was hard for me to actually play defense from my spot at mid-court waving my arms while waiting for someone to get me the ball. If it had occurred to me that rebounding and defense wins ballgames, we would have been a better team and I would have avoided a therapy-worthy experience.
The highlight of the hoop year was Parents Night. The 4 teams would get to play on the real court in the gymnasium in front of parents and friends. Even some of the cute girls from class would be there. It was going to be awesome.
The Greenwood Elementary School is a two-story brick structure built in 1897. It is located on Main Street, just a few hundred yards north of the Melrose line. In the center of the building sits the two-story auditorium, with a stage, balcony, and a basketball court. When I attended, the old “fallout shelter” signs still glared inside and outside the building. The place was immaculate, including hardwood hallways and linoleum tiled classrooms. The windows were towering and the grey radiators were accented Pollock-like with the bright hues of melted crayons. Even in the basement when weather forced us indoors for gym, the shiny, grey lead-painted floor was a pristine surface for crawl-on-your-back “crab” soccer or my favorite, dodgeball.
I’m sure there were other occasions, but I recall only 3 times being in the auditorium. We saw a movie once. I’m not sure if it was “Reefer Madness,” but I think it was some sort of propaganda for young minds. The second time was for 6th grade “graduation.” Parents Night is the one I’ll never forget. The place was packed. My mom was there. Of course, Mr. and Mrs. G were in the house, along with many other parents I knew then, but forget today. And girls. Girls were there. I was on a mission.
Maybe it was nerves, but the game started with more frenzy than our usual recess tilt. We were zipping all around the hardwood floor, the ball bouncing off feet, knees, and anything else available to render our exhibition anything but resembling basketball. Once we settled down, our opponents began to score at a furious pace. It was 2-0, then 4-zip. I had to do something. After another bucket made it 6-0, someone from my team finally had the sense to “run the offense” and fling the round ball to mid-court into my flailing arms. I caught the ball flat-footed but quickly accelerated to a full gazelle-like stride ready to emphatically get my team back in the game. The massive crowd began to rise in anticipation. The noise grew. Would I do a reverse jam and hang on the rim for style points? The din got louder, but it didn’t feel right. As I crossed the foul line stripe ready to go airborne for the hoop paparazzi, I was struck with dread. The crowd was howling with laughter.
I wasn’t dribbling.