Give me basketball on country roads over youth leagues

November 27, 2018

The other night I traveled a few miles to see my five-year-old granddaughter play her first game of organized basketball.

At times I didn’t know if I was watching basketball or rugby, as the kids who took the ball from one end to the other often ran with it and forgot to dribble. Scrums were common. But it was fun watching kids playing and learning with no thoughts of championships or league standings on their minds. It was more fun seeing joy on my girl’s face as she raced to the other end of the floor after making her first basket.

Watching those five-year-olds took me back to the 1960s and 1970s when my father allowed a neighbor to put a backboard and basketball hoop on our garage, which faced a little-used county road. That became a gathering place for boys in our rural community to play all sorts of pickup games.

Our parents weren’t all that interested in driving us a dozen miles into town just to play ball. We didn’t have leagues in gyms or anything like that. Rarely were any adults around, although a neighborhood character once showed us how to make a two-handed underhand shot.

The hoop wasn’t regulation height. What was in bounds could vary from game to game. We played O-U-T (similar to HORSE but a lot quicker) and around the world, but mostly we played games where you won if you got to 20, but you had to win by at least 4. We made up a lot of rules on the fly based on how many kids played and what ages they were. We called our own fouls – rarely. Most common offenses were double dribbles and traveling. Sometimes long-distance shots counted for 3 points; sometimes they didn’t.

Hot days in August? We played. Snowy days in January? We played. A car is coming? We got off the road until it passed.

No one submitted scores to the local paper. We had no uniforms. No one gave us trophies for excelling or winning or participating. We taught each other the rules. The most important thing about those games was that we had fun. Most games were forgotten immediately after they were played, except for one. Monte Sheets and I went one-on-one in 20-win-by-4, and he beat me 58-54.

I also don’t remember the last game we played there before we grew up and did our college-years thing. Funny how that happens. Something that was so enjoyable ends and you don’t notice it. Now that I think about it, I don’t remember the last time my high school friends and I went to see a movie together or went bowling, either. We just drifted apart.

Now kids have all sorts of leagues they can join. They play at certain times of the year. Adults teach them rules and officials enforce those rules. Kids don’t discuss rules or settle disputes themselves. There appears to be little self-organized behavior.

Sometimes when I’m driving in the country I see rims and backboards in driveways or along streets, but I rarely see kids shooting ball. In fact, I rarely see kids playing outside or riding bikes anymore. Maybe they’re all inside staring at a TV screen or something. Too bad. They’re missing out on a lot of unsupervised fun.

In my high school years, I played in one game in an informal league that had coaches and officiating and all that stuff. I hated it and never went back.

Some things are too important to be run by adults.

Jim Ross is opinion page editor of The Herald-Dispatch. He can be contacted at jross@herald-dispatch.com.

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