Higher Living Reflections

GO…Yukon!

This might be heresy for Americans writ large, but basketball does nothing for me. Nada. Zilch. I never cared for the game. For me it is like watching a humanized, squeaky rendition of pong. I trace my dislike of the sport back to my youth. When it came to competitive sports, I was not very athletic. In fact, I was quite klutzy. The one athletic asset I had was that I could run fast, which made playing softball, if I could get on base, and scrum football, if the ball got into my hands, doable. On an open field, I could juke and deke with adept skill. On a basketball court or in a gym, not so much.

It didn’t help having a PE teacher obsessed with basketball. I dreaded high school PE classes when the period was dedicated to bouncing and tossing that super-sized, over-inflated, rough-skin, orange sphere. During those times, I utilized the only tool I had in my toolbox: passive aggressive behavior. I’d pretend to play. In one class, Mr. Wargo, our PE teacher, lined us up and made us shoot baskets from the foul line, I think it was called. He told us making a basket was our ticket out of class and to the locker room to shower. All the other boys did it. Most with ease and some with panache. But I was an anomaly, a dud. When I heaved that leaden balloon up to the rim and backboard, it went in all kinds of directions.

After multiple failures, I could see Mr. Wargo becoming visibly agitated. His sterner voice made it clear his frustration was heating up. Soon it became a test of wills. He seemed to have a point to make, which to this day I have no idea what it was. I, on the other hand, only had one point to prove: I was inept at shooting baskets. And I was making that demonstrably clear. My failed attempts didn’t bother me, but it sure did Mr. Wargo.

After dismissing the other boys, he told me in no uncertain terms that I was not leaving until I made a basket. At that point, my efforts became even more erratic. Intentionally, of course. I was relishing the role of innocent saboteur. The farce went for several minutes with me making half-hearted attempts. Until he got really pissed. I could see he had caught on to my game and reached his boiling point. I realized then I had to make a genuine effort, or I was going to be visiting with Father Henry, the school’s headmaster, with whom I wasn’t on the best of terms. So I took a deep breath and clutched the ball in both hands. I crouched as I watched my classmates do, bent my knee, and focused my attention solely on the backboard, rim, and net. I counted three to myself, lifted from my knee, and heaved the ball. Up it went in a wondrous arc and plopped right through the basket with what they call, “nothing but net.” I was stunned, but I kept a straight face. He said nothing, nor did I. After a moment, I turned and headed to the locker room. For the remainder of the year, neither of us spoke about that. Nor did he ever again force me to flounder around like an uncoordinated clown trying to dribble while running. But I never forgot that incident. I’ve forgiven him, but it sealed my disdain for the game.

But I get it. Millions love the game and get their thrills out of playing and watching it. Especially high school boys. When I began teaching at Summit High School, it wasn’t long before my complete disinterest in the sport and my students’ passion for it met at a crossroad. They insisted I come and watch their home games. I preferred torturing myself less so by reading and assessing their poorly written essays. But I self-sacrificed and went to some of their games and was glad I did. My students loved it, and it helped me develop solid relationships with them. But they misread my attendance and cheering for them. They assumed I liked and understood the game. It wasn’t long before the moment of reckoning arrived, the time of year I dread most when it comes to the cycle of team sports: March Madness.

I’ll be blunt: March Madness is maddening for those like me who would rather watch paint dry or score poorly written essays than to sit through a basketball game. So I was taken aback when several of my freshmen boys asked at lunch one day if I would be getting in the faculty’s March Madness pool. I decided it was time for me to be completely honest with them. I told them that I not only did not know anything about college basketball and their rankings but also I had absolutely no interest in learning about them. They were understanding but offered a fun solution: I would ante up the entry fee, and they would pick my teams. And we’d split the winnings if we were fortunate enough to win. Of course, we had to do that on the downlow, but what the heck: It was harmless. And fun for me in a sinister way.

I turned in my sheet to Mr. Dickey, the PE teacher who organized the pool, after the lunch period. He looked at me with askance since I had made my feelings about basketball abundantly clear to him. Still, he was happy that I was participating. But he was taken aback when the Final Four ended. I had won. Well actually, my boys had won! I was blown away and my boys were ecstatic. Mr. Dickey was chagrined, but he paid up. He asked if I had outside help when he plopped the cash into my hand, but I demurred. I was hesitant to tell him of my secret weapon, but my freshmen boys couldn’t resist boasting that they beat their teachers. Word quickly got around the school, which made my appearance in the faculty lounge a bit uncomfortable for a few days. But in short time, it all became good and the legend took root.

Outside of school however, I couldn’t contain my excitement that I, the epitome of basketball know-nothingism, had won the March Madness pool. It was with glee that I shared my tale with my old friend, Tony, who eats, sleeps, and dies countless deaths during March Madness.

“Okay,” he asked, “who picked your teams?”

“My frosh boys,” I laughed. “But seriously, who would have thought a team from Alaska would have won it?”

“Alaska?” he stammered. “Who?”

“Why, Yukon!”

“Yukon?” he howled. “You dumbass! That was UConn, the University of Connecticut!”

😊 😊 😊

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  • Bonnie McCune
    March 22, 2023 at 1:14 pm

    I was shorter, younger, weaker and less coordinated than any other girl in my class. I was always picked last for any team. I would have given anything to be proficient. Still I knew in my heart that team selection was based on popularity more than skill. The captains, who created the teams, were selected by popular vote.

    By fifth grade, I’d had enough. Somehow, probably through reading about the American Revolution, I knew we could change the system if we worked together. I and some of the other bumblers agreed to vote for one of us, and that person would select us for her team. I remember lecturing the other losers in my group, “We’ve got to fight fire with fire.”

    So that’s what we did. We voted for one of our own. She, in turn, picked us to be on her team. Oh, not the sole members because she, after all, wanted to win, too. But at least we weren’t the very last girls selected. My sense of social justice and populist power began that day.

  • Sunny Weber, Author
    March 22, 2023 at 2:19 pm

    Only you! You are so funny. I can see why you were a favorite teacher. Your honesty and humor taught your students and your fellow teachers more than the straight-laced, stone-faced teachers I had (you remember our generation of stolid statues at the blackboard?). Loved reading this~

  • Laurie Beckel
    March 22, 2023 at 6:53 pm

    Wonderful tale Jerry!

  • Glenn Blanco
    March 22, 2023 at 7:29 pm

    Jerry, I understand your confusion. The mascot of UConn is the husky. Looking at the UConn mascot, it does look like a Yukon mascot ala Sgt Preston. Great story, a real “bracket buster”.

  • Steven Craig
    March 22, 2023 at 9:21 pm

    Growing up in CT, and then attending Colgate which barely has D1 athletics, UCONN has always been my team, no matter how you spell it…

  • Dawn
    March 22, 2023 at 10:07 pm

    Love it! <3 Was never a basketball fan, either. Guess my height was my reason, but I could barrel well. 🙂

  • Donna Taylor
    March 22, 2023 at 10:45 pm

    Since we went to the same high school I remember well Mr Wargo. I also had a dread of being forced to play girls’ basketball and I’m sure I was not wanted on either team. The girls were brutal in pushing and shoving and I did not have the desire or ability to partake in the fun. My participation in competitive sports is nil. But I did cheer on my brother who was a basketball star at a competing high school and very much enjoyed the excitement at his games. Thanks for remembering!

  • COmtnLady
    March 22, 2023 at 11:31 pm

    What a great essay!

    It always seemed like there had to be some “secret” I had never been made privy to. The other kids could jump, but I just couldn’t ever get even a few inches off the ground. When all the 4-H kids were swinging up onto their horses like the Indians in the movies, I was splatting against my horse’s ribcage like a cartoon fly on a windshield . “Intellectual” I had in spades, “physical” was hopeless. It was nice to be the second outfielder though – no one could hit a ball that far so I could study the flowers and insects and enjoy the sunshine without having to worry about rules to an irrelevant game. (There were times they put me so far out that I couldn’t hear them calling that gym period was over.)

    The coordinated just don’t understand that it isn’t being obtuse, I was trying my best, its just that there are genuinely things that my body just doesn’t do. Non-physical Nerds of the World Unite!

    Yukon is something I can get behind much easier than U Conn. (Can we get non-squeaky shoes, please? That’s what I dislike most about basketball.) And Huskies would be a fine mascot for us Mountain People!

    Thanks for writing this! Gold Star to you!

  • Angela Skiffen
    March 26, 2023 at 2:22 am

    Yukon!!! 🤣😂. Even I know UConn and I’m not a basketball fan by any stretch of the imagination. Seriously though, I remember Mr. Wargo and constantly hearing “foul, Fabyanic!” Like Donna Taylor, I remember the girls shoving, pushing and scratching. Unlike Donna, I fought back. I punched them!!! Never did think it was fair that the calls weren’t on them.

  • Joe Holub
    April 2, 2023 at 1:08 am

    Bravo! You wily fox!!