Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Commando Basketball

I was watching a basketball game on TV the other day, and I saw a scene during that game which took me back many, many years to junior high.
One of the players jumped up for the slam-dunk and on his way up he swung an arm out and hit a player on the opposing team in the face. It looked like he got him right across the bridge of his nose. The stricken player went down holding his nose, and in all the close up slow motion shots afterwards you could see his eyes clearly watering. The look on his face seemed to say, “I will NOT cry on national television! I WON’T!” Apparently he was successful, because he didn’t. His eyes just watered and he went on playing.
Now generally speaking basketball is not meant to be a game in which blows are intentionally struck, although that does occasionally occur in all sports, except for tennis or golf. At least, I’ve never seen it in tennis or golf. It really is hard to imagine violence in a golf game. I can hardly stay awake when golf comes on. If I try really hard I can imagine a flare up during a golf game. The announcer doing the play by play (or maybe it should be the “short play long walk by short play long walk”) is always speaking in a voice barely above a whisper. “Okay here he comes. He has his ball all teed up, and he’s selected his driver. This is a new caddy for him Bob, but they seem to be doing pretty well together out here.”
Bob: “Yes they do seem to work well together Jack.”
Jack: “He is addressing the ball now. Wow the concentration on his face right now is impressive.”
Bob. “Okay here comes the swing, it looks good.”
Jack: “Ooooh! Look at the slice on that one! (Announcers voice rises as he talks) It’s going completely off the fairway Bob! It bounced off that oak tree! It’s way over in the high grass! He’ll never find it out there!”
Bob: (voice rising as well) “And he knows it too! Oh man is he mad! He’s going after the caddy! Jack it appears he blames the caddy for selecting the wrong driver! He’s running after him! The crowd is parting to let them through. Wow, are his knickers in a bunch or what?! Look at that! He’s wrapping the driver around the caddy’s neck! Jack I have never seen anything like this before!”
Jack: “The security people are just standing around! They don’t know what to do! They’ve never seen anything like this either! Oh boy, I don’t even want to think about the penalties on this one! He's gonna get at least four strokes added for this!”
Of course this would never happen in golf. I think golf players secretly want violence in the game. That’s why they wear such outrageous pants; they want to assault the eyes of the spectators.

Anyway as I said, this incident brought to mind an experience from junior high. Specifically gym class. Coach Gray was our instructor, and he definitely had some unique ideas about physical education. He tended toward the pugilistic school of thought, which is not bad, as long as you are the pugilist rather than the pugilee. Coach Gray introduced us to a new form of basketball that took the game to a completely new level. He called it Commando Basketball. In Commando Basketball the rules were essentially the same as regular basketball with three notable exceptions. One: there were no fouls. Two: every player had one hand free to dribble the ball, and on the other hand he wore a boxing glove. Three: the players of the opposing team were allowed to punch the player who had possession of the ball with their gloved hand.
These conditions tended to create some interesting situations. Many times there were guys on opposing teams who did not harbor warm feelings toward each other. In these cases it was not uncommon to see a player on one team purposely pass the ball to the player he didn’t like on the other team just so he would have the opportunity to hit him.
There were other rules designed to save us from serious injury as well. Headshots were not allowed, nor could you hit anyone below the belt. For the most part these rules were followed. To this day I am still amazed that we were even allowed to play this game, but no one ever complained about it so we all happily pummeled each other in the spirit of good sportsmanship.
One of the nice things about this game was that it seemed to equalize everyone in the class. Anyone could swing his arm in a general melee without a great degree of skill required. I was no exception to this rule. I was always considered tall for my age, and as a consequence people naturally assumed that I played basketball. The truth of the matter was that I avoided it at every opportunity. Basketball requires coordination. I don’t have any. Therefore, I hate to play basketball. Watching it is fine, but playing is a no-no. There were some guys in our class who were more athletically inclined than the rest of us, and they were typically classified as “jocks”. They were the ones who actually played on the school basketball team, as opposed to the rest of us who sat in the bleachers and watched. While there were a few of the jocks that thought more highly of themselves than they should have most of them were pretty nice guys. On this particular day during our commando basketball game things had been pretty intense on the court. We had played the game several times now, and we were all increasing in our skill level so we were able to actually “play” the game instead of “play at” the game. I never bothered to get the ball because I knew I’d lose it to the other side pretty easily, but being one of the bigger kids and having a pretty strong right arm I learned that I could be pretty effective against the actual possessor of the ball. I went out of my way to stay within the rules though, because it was no fun when someone got seriously hurt. One of the jocks had the ball and he was on the opposing team. He was a friend of mine so I usually would try to hit his arm or something to make him lose his grip on the ball rather than someplace where he might get more seriously hurt. I found myself right in the middle of the mass of players that always concentrated around the ball handler which meant I was right next to my friend on the other team. I had to swing. He was getting ready to take his shot and his arms were already raised to shoot the ball so I swung at his stomach. I knew he could take a stomach shot so I felt pretty safe except that at the last minute as I was swinging my arm toward his midsection he decided to jump to improve his shot. What this meant was that the swing that was already on its way was no longer going to hit his stomach. The perspective had suddenly changed. I was about to break the rules. I was now going to hit him BELOW THE BELT. I saw where my swing was going too late to stop it, and as the punch landed I heard my friend say, “Oooooff!” After which he promptly curled up in a little ball and lay on the ground, moaning.
Many in the group had actually turned away from us toward the basket to see if the ball made it through the hoop. The ball, of course, was rolling on the ground not far from my friend. This, and the fact that everyone in the general vicinity had been throwing punches, I realized contributed to the fact that no one but myself was aware that I had struck the offending blow. As I thought this I said, “Oh man! He’s hurt! What happened?” He hadn’t been looking at who hit him either. By unspoken agreement we all respectfully turned our backs on him surrounding him and blocking him from the view of the girls PE class across the field. In junior high school when a guy got hit below the belt it was considered bad form to stand around and watch him writhe in pain. It was REALY bad if a girl was there to see it. There was a certain etiquette even at that age. At this point Coach Gray began to wonder why everyone was standing around on the court facing outward while the ball rolled aimlessly away from us.
“Hey what’s the problem gentlemen? I did not call a time out!” He yelled as he approached the group. As he got closer he saw my friend on the ground, moaning.
“Oh. I see the problem. Okay Jeff why don’t you get up and walk it off and sit on the bench for a while? You’ll be back on the court in no time.”
Jeff just looked up at him for a moment before he started to move. When you’ve been hit below the belt with any serious force the last thing you want to do is walk. Coach Gray followed the Drill Sergeants philosophy that if you made someone hate you enough they would do as they were told.
I reached down to help him up and walk him over to the bench. As we walked I whispered, “Man, I’m sorry. It was me that hit you. It was supposed to be a stomach shot, but you jumped.”
“Why did you have to hit so hard?”
“I didn’t think I was. I was trying to go easy.”
“Try harder next time okay?”
“Okay. Sorry.”
I went back to the game after that, and after a short while he got back in as well, but I definitely watched how hard I hit from that point on.
That was the last time we played Commando Basketball. We all missed it. We really missed it when it was raining and they made us do square dancing in the gym, although at least we got to dance with the girl’s PE class. Sadly Commando Basketball never came to be accepted as a regular sporting activity, and I have never heard of it being played anywhere else. That’s probably just as well, there would be too many guys standing around in outward facing circles if it did, and sooner or later I would have been the one on the ground moaning. I guess self-preservation still has its uses.
©Dan Bode 2000