My Life as a Court Jester
And yet—somewhere in the boxes of personal belongings that I took from my late parents' home is an athletic letter—a large "FR" representing Fort Riley, ready to be sewn onto a sweater—that I earned in ninth grade, as a member of the Fort Riley Junior High School basketball team. And in light of everything I have just said, one might reasonably wonder: how did such an inept performer earn a place on a basketball game and persevere through the season to earn a letter?
It turns out, as one might suspect, that there were special circumstances involved. I was an Army brat, and as I began ninth grade my father had just been transferred to Fort Riley, Kansas, where we were going to live on base. For years, Fort Riley had been the home to the Army's First Division, but precisely at the moment we arrived, President Lyndon Johnson, as part of his 1965 escalation of the Vietnam War, had decided to send the entire First Division to fight in South Vietnam. To take its place, the plan was to reassemble a previously disbanded division, the Ninth Division, and its number would eventually grow to the size of the departed First Division. But this would take some time, and when we arrived, the entire base was basically deserted.
Quite naturally, this had a severe impact on the student population of Fort Riley Junior High School. All of my classes, instead of the usual 30 students, only had five or six students. Of course this had a good effect on education, since the teachers could get to know their students very well, and could spend a great deal of time working individually with every one of them. But the school's athletic teams inevitably suffered from insufficient personnel. The situation was such that coaches were obliged to accept every single student who volunteered to be on their teams; they had no choice, or else they literally might not have enough players to field their teams.
I recognized this as a unique opportunity to experience something that I might never again get to experience—being on a sports team—so I showed up for the basketball tryouts and, despite a typically miserable performance, was later told, like all the other students who had shown up, that I was on the team. Overall, we probably had no more than twelve players, barely enough to constitute the A team and the B team that Fort Riley needed to deploy in order to fulfill its league obligations. Inevitably, I ended up on the B team, though there were probably a few times when the coach, in the closing minutes of another guaranteed loss, inserted me into the A team lineup to give me a few minutes of playing time with the better players.
But I really don't remember if this ever occurred; indeed, I have extremely few specific memories of my season as a member of the Fort Riley basketball team—basically because there was absolutely nothing worth remembering.
A broad portrait of the team's season, and my contributions to the team's season, should explain why this was the case. The key facts:
1. We never won a single game, either the A team or the B team. As I recall, we never even came close to winning a game.
2. In the first game that I played, we became one of the few teams in the history of basketball that was shut out, as we never scored a single point during the entire game. (Actually, that isn't precisely true, because at the start of the second half, one of my teammates did get the tossup, dribbled the ball down the court, and tossed it into the basket. Unfortunately, he had forgotten that basketball teams switch baskets at halftime, so he had actually just scored 2 points for the other team.)
3. To my knowledge, I never attempted to make a basket while I was on the court.
4. I never scored a single point in any of the games I played in.
So what I am supposed to be remembering about this season?
I do recall the one time when I came the closest to actually scoring a point. A player on the opposing team had fouled me—by accident, surely, since anyone could tell that I was no threat to score—and so I stood on the line, ready to make the free throw that might be the first point I had ever scored in the basketball game. Because I had proven unable to make a free throw by using the now-standard method of standing up straight and thrusting the ball forward with my wrist, the coach had instructed me to use the old-fashioned method of holding the ball down below my knees and hurtling it up in the direction of the basket. (It seems that I was slightly more likely to make the basket if I did it this way.) The members of the other team giggled when they saw me trying to make the free throw that way, and inevitably the throw was unsuccessful—I think it came close, but bounced off the rim and fell to the ground.
Still, I persevered, showing up at every practice, suiting up for every game, and doing my darnedest to get the hang of things and actually help my team in some way. And perhaps I was not a total failure as a basketball player. I'm sure that at least a few times, trying to get rid of the ball so that I wouldn't be expected to try a basket, I threw it to a teammate who went on to make a basket, which by NBA rules would give me an "assist." And whenever I was on the court, running up and down and trying to do as little damage as possible, I was allowing another, slightly more talented team member to get some rest and perhaps perform a little bit better when he returned to active duty.
In any event, since there were so few players available, the coach never had the option of removing me from the team, and at the end of the season, the time when teams are typically rewarded for their hard work and accomplishments, I had to be included in all the festivities. Thus, after our last game (and our last loss), the coach generously took the entire team to a hamburger stand and we enjoyed a celebratory dinner, even though there was nothing at all to celebrate about our season. Later, at a more formal ceremony, each and every member of our team got to walk up to a podium and receive their letters. In some respects, out of all of the awards that I have received during my academic career, that letter may have meant the most to me at the time, because it represented such an unlikely achievement for someone with my terribly inadequate athletic skills.
So it was that I rushed home and told my mother that she had to buy me a white sweater and sew the red-and-white "FR" onto it, so I could proudly wear it wherever I went and show the world that, incredibly, I had once been a successful athlete. A few years later, we had moved back to Minnesota, and I found I had outgrown the sweater; I then instructed mother to take the letter off, and we had planned to find another sweater to put it on. At some point, however, the whole thing might have begun to seem silly to me, and perhaps I was not eager to engage in the sort of conversation about my basketball experiences that might be triggered by the sight of the letter. So the letter was placed in some safe place, and knowing my mother, I am absolutely sure that she never threw it away, despite many more years of moving around the country until my parents finally settled in Dallas, Texas. And I am equally sure that, somewhere in the boxes of stuff I retrieved from Dallas after my mother's death and took to California, that big "FR" is still lying there, still clean and ready to wear. Someday, perhaps, I will find it, and get my wife to sew it on another sweater, and I will once again walk around displaying the athletic letter that I had so implausibly and undeservedly earned.
And then again, maybe I won't.
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