Sunday, March 7, 2010

The country game; the city game; roots of basketball are everywhere -- enjoy Kent Babbs' piece on Kansas hoops today and remember Lucius Allen

Don't miss the wonderful story by Kent Babb in the Star today about basketball in the state of Kansas. The writing is just as graceful as a rainbow three pointer from the corner and the subject a real surprise.

What makes basketball such an interesting sport is the way it comes from so many very different places. Its Kansas roots are well documented in this story. The way it fits the rhythm of farm life, the way barn walls seem right for basketball goals, the way kids who find freedom from drudgery in the game love the warm confines of the gym in winter, is important to the game's lineage.

But rural Kansas is not the only place basketball has been loved. I also remember a stirring sight from a window on The Southwest Chief somewhere in New Mexico. It was dusk and the scrub grass seemed to stretch forever. Right in the middle of nothing was a basketball goal and two American Indian kids shooting hoops nearly by moonlight.

And, of course, basketball is also a city game. In fact, if you love basketball you will also want to read "The City Game" by Pete Axthelm. It, too, is beautifully written. And its accounts of playground stars will make your head swim. The Helicopter who could take a quarter off the top of the backboard. Connie Hawkins doing play-by-play even as he played. The grit and the muscle of basketball on asphalt tells the same story from a different world.

When I was a kid, we didn't know anything about basketball until we met the gym in junior high. In grade school, when winter came and it snowed, we all showed up at the playground behind our school building with snow shovels, bats, gloves and baseballs covered with electrician's tape because the asphalt ate the hide off an unprotected baseball.

When we discovered basketball, we made the winter switch immediately. We played on driveways where you could be 15 feet from the bucket on either end but just five feet away in the middle and we perfected shots where you had to leap off the retaining wall as part of the move. One of our best players had this kamikaze move where he would drive the middle then just lay out flat between the big guys and flip the ball up and off the metal backboard with no concern for what would happen when he lost air speed and crashed. What happened was simple. He went home with these big raw places on his elbows and knees -- and sometimes his chin .

When the weather got too bad, we moved inside. We loved the gym. The heat and light when snow and ice covered the ground felt like heaven. The wood floor was actually soft compared to the places we usually played. If the clock was turned on for games we were even happier. It was refuge for us when winters like this one seemed to stretch on forever.

The first great player I ever saw was Lucius Allen. Lou -- that's what we chanted from the stands -- honed his skill on the elementary school playground across from the high school. They say he was there everyday, all summer, getting his game together. I'll never forget how he could rise up from the middle right handed, hang in the air and move the ball to his left hand, then loft a soft teardrop into the nets as if he were tipping his cap to a lady. He went on to UCLA, where I watched on television as he and Mike Warren brought the ball up court for the great Alcindor to sky hook home. And, from there, to the NBA.

I rarely watch a basketball game that I don't think about the magic he possessed right there in the place I grew up. Made our asphalt seem special, it did.


Lucius Allen vs. World B. Free, Kemper Arena circa 1978... /Lofflin

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