I’m in my fifties, and as far as sports go, I am a runner, and that’s primarily it. I do go kayaking with my wife and we hit the gym regularly, just to engage the battle against atrophy. And there’s occasional croquet. Very occasional. Anyway, my main thing is to lace up the shoes and go. Yet it hasn’t always been this dull, so I would like to share a bit of my storied sports history.
I grew up in Hong Kong, then a British colony, living there until age nine. Brute Brits in Hong Kong played rugby, and skilled lads (or the not-so-tough ones, skilled or otherwise) played football. So, I played football, you know, the skill sport…by default. And by “football” I mean, of course, “soccer,” but we called it what the rest of the non-American world did. More accurately, three official male sport groupings existed at Beacon Hill school: rugby, football “A Team”, and football “B Team.” I made the team! Guess which one.
I enjoyed the sport and was always wired for playing hard and bringing one hundred percent. I didn’t say “playing smart.” My poor judgment and reaction deficiencies led once to a game-time execution of one of the most notorious plays in all of sport: the “own goal.” I didn’t need to kick the ball, or even block it, as it was bouncing gently toward my goalkeeper, with me in its path. I don’t remember our goalie’s name, but I’ll just call him Ira (short for “irate”). A spasm came over me, a mindless bodily event, and I thumped the patched synthetic-leather sphere firmly off the edge of my shin, sending it on a two-hop orbit toward the back corner of our own net while sadly, Ira did nothing to save it. Nor to save me.
Prior to this, we were ahead by one goal. I expected to hear a chorus of disappointment for sure, but instead took ridicule. A barrage of happy mockery. Other than Ira, my teammates seemed delighted for the implicit opportunity to let loose on me, seemingly oblivious to the actual issue of the tied game score. One should never be marked for life by an own goal, even on B Team. Technically an own goal could result from a slight deflection of a firm shot, yet even that less-egregious version is to be avoided. But I properly kicked this equalizer in. Of my heartfelt football career in Hong Kong, this is my only vivid memory.
I will note that during this time, I had begun taking recreational two-mile runs from my home in Hong Kong’s sweltering heat and humidity, with permission from Mom. This was totally reasonable, venturing out alone and unarmed as a diminutive pale seven-year-old into the densely populated and volatile streets of Kowloon Tong. As a big fan of Bruce Lee, who lived there at the time, I was good.
We eventually moved to the United States, ascending to Pocatello, Idaho (it sits at 4500 feet elevation). I moved happily to the U.S. because, well, who wouldn’t? [Picture “Go-USA” fist bump here.] When I joined “soccer,” my happiness turned quickly to outright elation. American school kids had developed little if any skill in the sport, as it was basically “amoeba-ball” at the elementary level, which I will define precisely:
A compacted horde of children kicking randomly until a ball squirts out, is discovered by a crowd-averse child, who manages to direct the rolling ball into the net beyond a nose-picking goalkeeper.
Thus, my B Team experience served me well, and I now dominated, my ball skills exquisite (by comparison). I only wish I would have been more of a ball hog and secured a hat-trick* every game, but for some altruistic reason I mostly passed to teammates that couldn’t shoot.
I launched into my second year of soccer, in the older league up, with more of a G.O.A.T. mentality, ready to rack up my stats. But as others benefitted from puberty and improved coaching, I quickly reverted to B Team material. Upper B Team though, still an upgrade from the Hong Kong days.
So, my emphasis shifted back to basketball, with which I had a history, despite what I said earlier about the rugby/football dichotomy. So let me explain how all that started. Yes, a plot twist.
During those Hong Kong years, our family took some summer furloughs to the U.S. and Dad presented to churches about his missionary work. I viewed America as a beautiful land, in my mind highlighted by two marvelous features: 1) Dairy Queen shacks and 2) suburban homes featuring a basketball hoop in the driveway. I “shot hoops” at many a stay, more so than actually playing ball, and became enlightened with the feel and sound of “sinking a bucket” (and using this phrase). Why do we not enjoy this fine game in my homeland?, I thought.
So, I took basketball—literally took a basketball—back to Hong Kong, where I brought it to school. During recess, I dribbled and took shots on the hoop mysteriously present in the shaded coolness of the institution’s concrete lower level. And ridicule came at me once again, not for being Own-Goal Kid, but because this was neither rugby nor football.
“Net ball! Richard wants to play net ball!” (Richard is my actual name). And I could not simply inform these colleagues that they had the sport’s name wrong, because “net ball” was real. Somehow it had never registered with me that my female colleagues also had their own competitive activity—an extremely lame but internationally popular game (beyond the schoolyard level, I do not know). Net ball involved no dribbling or movement with the ball whatsoever, only passing (like ultimate Frisbee, but slower, with lower intensity, shorter distances, and less fun). When the momentous time arose for an actual scoring attempt, the possessor of the ball would announce “shooooting!” and be given a wide-open uncontested shot, taking all of thirty seconds to flat-footedly push a diminutive version of a basketball toward the hoop with two hands. And my, oh my—such excitement after all this tension—when the little sphere on rare occasion would pass through the hoop and agitate the precious net for which the sport was named. I know this is how it went down, because I attended a game to see why I was being mocked. At “game half,” the score was something like 4-1. I had to leave, and left behind my dream of playing basketball, lest I be associated with this banality.
So now you see why, living in America, I pursued basketball, the version of hoops with movement and urgency, in a place where this is a legitimate male venture. I had first played a year in Pocatello’s city league during the sixth grade, and surviving that, decided to take on the legitimate school-level challenge of playing at Alameda Junior High.
I faced two major challenges in the winter of making this team (i.e. signing up). Firstly, practices were at 6:00 a.m. Early teen years and pre-sunrise activities go together like milk and orange juice (a combo I tried that year, sucking through two straws. Never again.) Yet, like I said, I went hard, and loved the sport, so I showed up every time. Secondly, however, my coach resigned me to the bench all game, all season. I always thought that this was for some religious reasons, which I won’t elaborate on, but I’m not deluded about the fact that I didn’t—and still don’t—have “hops.” I have a 36-inch vertical—when totaling one minute of jumping. I know for a fact that I didn’t dribble well or think like a kid who grew up playing the game. Yeah, so maybe I wasn’t a put-this-kid-in player, but all my faithful attendance and hard practice earned me a mere 23 seconds in our final game.
This part is not intended to be funny. Consider it an inspirational intermission, my takeaway, the pearl from the gritty clamshell of Alameda seventh grade hoops. In those twenty-three seconds of play, I got my hands on the ball and attempted an entirely ungraceful, distant shot. And I was fouled, because unlike in net ball, this attempt was contested. Sure, it was another last-string player like me taking the errant swat at me, but I was rewarded for my initiative with two free throws. And I sank both. So, putting aside the minor leagues of elementary city ball, my basketball career stats boast an unheard-of perfect shooting percentage. Rarer than a hat-trick. After that half-minute of basketball dominance, with my soccer supremacy window now closed, that was to be it for ball sports.
I kept on running throughout all this. I knew better than to try out for junior high football (not the soccer type), and besides, it overlapped with cross-country season, so that was off the table. Yet I absolutely loved watching American football, and as a foreign-born chap, I was drawn to the punting and kicking side of the game. The Denver Broncos were highly televised in my area, and I became enamored with Jim Turner, one of the last few straight-on placekickers. This type of kicking used to happen, and folks, that is hilarious (we’re past the inspirational paragraph). So, just like in my formative basketball years, shooting hoops all alone and never actually playing, I set up an orange tee and, retrieving my own single ball, attempted field goals, both soccer-style and Turner-style—neither of which any child had ever endeavored in a junior high game anyway. So that’s sad, but maybe funny because it’s pathetic and ironic; either way, a non-inspirational counterpoint to the free-throws highlight.
Finally, I could not leave well enough alone with my American-sport experimentation, so I reneged and decided that I should try baseball. It was, after all, the American pastime, and I had been watching the Atlanta Braves non-stop. They were highly televised in our area. Atlanta is almost 2,000 miles from Eastern Idaho, but the Turner Broadcasting System made it happen. Our school did not have this sport, so I signed up in the city league. In short, my season was marked by roughly ten games of not knowing how to hit a ball, and ten games where I started to figure it out. But my imprinted highlight comes not from hitting but from fielding. Fielding the ball into my face during practice. My glasses saved my eyeball but sliced open my cheek. My teammate, who didn’t attempt to catch the ball, should have moved out of the way so I could field it properly. I was Irate, so to speak. If you notice the remnant scar, you need not remind me.
Between the time of all this storied past and today, I have had competitive success in mountain biking, cyclocross (a winter bicycling sport) and triathlon, and learned to Telemark ski. I just wanted to mention that in closing…these other sports from which I’ve retired. But running is less expensive and I place higher. Let me know if you ever want to hear some titillating 10K highlights.
*A sports “hat-trick” is when a player scores three goals in a single soccer or ice hockey game. In soccer it is particularly impressive, because the most common professional game result is 1-0 or 1-1, depending on which source you trust. Yay for scoring!
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