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March Madness

By March 22, 2024 8 Comments

Just so happened to sit on a folding chair set up directly beneath the basket on the north end of the court last week at church (we’re worshipping in a gym), and I couldn’t help thinking that rim looked twenty feet off the floor—way, way up there.

I hadn’t looked at a basketball rim from the floor beneath for a long, long time, and it seemed, well, impossible that one night a thousand years ago at a gym in Orange City, Iowa, during layups before a game with our rivals, a game I knew we’d lose, I was still cranked enough to get up off the floor high enough to stuff the basketball. (Don’t smudge a dream please.)

Anyway, last Sunday I sat right beneath the basket. Thick black bands were up around my calf to keep a brace in place beneath my left foot, a mulish limb which simply no longer cooperates when my body expects it to, even when asked politely. I don’t walk well, not well at all, although the brace keeps my limp from being advertised. It doesn’t help that I could not imagine myself shooting a basketball or rebounding or moving downcourt on a fast break–no matter, that rim looked way beyond hope. Did they raise it somehow? How did I miss that?  

I spent years playing ball, best years of my kidhood, and even later, even in college, when the baseball coach told me I looked like a catcher. I did. Well, I do. I stopped playing ball–slo-pitch–when I was almost sixty, even though I rarely ran bases because I hit more big fat pitches out of the park than any of my kid teammates. It was just plain time. 

Two days ago, I walked into the indoor athletic field on my way to a workout designed for this new lameness, and I watched a softball coach hitting grounders to a couple of infielders. The odd, tinny sound of the bat on the ball was nothing at all like it was years ago; but I stopped, stood and watched, wishing, just wishing that the coach would see the hunger on the mug of the old bald guy with the brace, and offer me the bat. I’d have given anything for fifteen minutes of fungoes.

It would be impossible for me to tally the hours I spent on a basketball court—then add in a baseball diamond, football field, discus ring. We’re talking, ridiculously, about most of my young life. 

All of that and more, I’m feeling since Sunday worship beneath the hoop. Then a sweet ex-student of mine sends me an old newspaper photo from my teaching days in Wisconsin. That’s me in the sweaty Calvin College t-shirt–and no, I didn’t go there. That’s another story.

I was on that team, so I remember we won the Monroe (WI) City Basketball League Championship, winter of ‘71. We were a tough bunch; that square man in the middle knew how to muscle the ball into the basket. He wasn’t quick, wasn’t graceful, but get the ball into him in the paint and he bulled in to score.

For a long time, I had a little individual trophy–we must have each got one. I think it’s gone now, tossed out finally in one of our attempts to slim down, and, yes, I remember the picture too–and well. It was in the Monroe Times, a daily, and I loved it being there, not necessarily because I was so proud of our win, but because–I can hardly believe I’m admitting this–because even though I, honestly, was loved by my students and wasn’t without friends—look at the picture—on weekends I was often unbearably lonely. Listen to this: I remember the picture because I actually hoped that maybe, just maybe, some Calvin grad would see it there in the Times, someone of the tribe I would never have admitted to be mine just then, shot full of rebellion I was, early 70s. I’d have loved to hear from someone who had a notion of who this fella “Calvin” was. I was just dreaming that maybe someone like that might see the picture, recognize the t-shirt, and hazard a call. Didn’t necessarily have to be a female, but that’d be okay too.

I love remembering those two years I spent alone in Wisconsin, love it because I loved my students, one of whom sent me that picture on Facebook when she happened to see it in a display at a birthday party for the guy who’d get the ball in the paint and somehow muscle it in. That birthday party was at a bar in town, she told me—hey, it’s Wisconsin. Place was packed, she wrote.

The picture was great, sent to me by a woman (I still think of her as a kid—she’s 72!), who had to rank among the absolute worst writers in the junior class at Blackhawk High. She hasn’t learned much since—believe me. Back then, she could care less. I don’t think she’s changed.

But a couple of Christmases ago, she sent me an audio of her soloing—“O Holy Night,” I believe it was, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Gratiot, WI. Good Lord, I didn’t know she could sing. I didn’t even know she was Catholic. But that solo, her voice, put me on the road to Bethlehem. 

Beneath that basket last Sunday morning, I was only slightly wistful, not really nostalgic. I don’t care if we’re in the middle of March Madness, some eras of my life are so far behind me today they emerge in mist when I stumble on over-posed black-and-white photos. Believe me, last Sunday morning I wasn’t thinking of dribbling out to half court, turning around, taking off for the bucket, planting my left foot and slamming the ball home. Not really.

Well, maybe once.

I’d settle instead for a morning in the old English classroom, same kids—many of them now already passed away. No lecture, no assignment from me, no test—just me sitting up on the desk, no big black brace around my leg and maybe some more hair on my head, all of those kids—even those who are gone—right there in their same old chairs. Just a morning would be fine, just talking, talking and joking, and a little wisdom all around.

Then we might go down to the gym, where the rims aren’t so terribly high. Shoot some hoops.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Ed Starkenburg says:

    The classroom is a magical place! Thanks for helping me remember that!

  • Tom Huissen says:

    Thank you, Jim! This touched me in so many ways, as a former “athlete”, teacher, and one who is starting to feel the effects of age.

  • Brad Aupperlee says:

    You had me at “fungoes”…..

  • Tom Eggebeen says:

    A fine piece – thanks for sharing … the word “wistful” comes to mind … looking back on life mostly well-lived … I say “mostly” because there are those exceptions that bedevil us, too … but it’s the mostly that counts – the people to whom our wee little lives have added some value, projects undertaken and completed rather skillfully … I was never into athletics, but plenty of other interests, hobbies, and enjoyments. Looking back, it’s amazing what has been done … and now, in my upcoming 80th year, I give thanks. Sitting, I suppose, under my own basket ball hoop, wondering where all the time went.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    “Memory, all alone in the moonlight, I can think of the old days. I was beautiful then.” Couldn’t help but have this pop into my head as I read your memories. As I’m just beginning to flesh out my memoir, I know what you are seeing as I, too, revisit those scenes in my life that, with the passage of time, seem so sweet and full of possibilities. Thank you for giving us a glimpse into these two years of your sporting life.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Thanks for those engaging memories that invited us to be there with you – and that launch me back into some of my own; just the good ones, of course.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    My baseball arm begins twitching every unnaturally warm day prior to spring—we’ve had a few of them this year—and my football shoulder creaks every time I reach for something overhead, reminding me to warm up & stretch well before I throw the ball around with my sons in the yard at Thanksgiving. Or maybe stick to the run-game. Wow, Jim—wearing a Calvin shirt in Dordt country: reminds me of a Calvin dorm photo in which I modeled my Bob Jones U t-shirt (given by a h.s. friend), long hair and all.

  • Randal Lubbers says:

    After reading and doing the math with dates and old gyms, I began to remember the Caitlin-Clark-esque “logo-three” that I swished (well, swished off the back board, perhaps at that very same hoop where you had your pregame slam dunk) on a Saturday morning in fifth grade as the clock approached 0:00 at the end of a quarter back in the days before logos and three-point lines. And, for that matter, before girls like Caitlin played basketball or softball or volleyball, except at family picnics. And now I’ve taken my leather nokona ballglove and its baseball down from atop the bookshelf in my office. This was to be my last glove–bought it when my youngest son started playing. I’d wear it out, I thought. And, yes, it’s been used. But not enough to be even close to worn out. The glove is pristine. The leather smells new. Meanwhile, I’m getting older. And as I throw the ball into the glove over and over, I’m thinking, how nice it’d be to hear, “Hey, Dad, wanna have a catch?”

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