I grew up with three brothers, and we all played basketball. A large oak tree in our side yard by the garden served as a makeshift post for our basketball goal and backboard. Our court was most of the time a simple grass court, worn down to a dirt court. Countless hours were spent on that court. There was no streetlight for playing at night. We lived in the country. We played by moonlight.
I remember around the age of 10-12 going immediately to the basketball court after getting off the afternoon bus. I was on an imaginary team of the best players from Missouri. Each day our Missouri team would play a different state in a national tournament. I named the other guys on my team, like Booker T. Washington, Lefty Grove (he was a lefty so whenever he shot the ball I shot the best I could with my left hand), Sammy Smith and Willie Jones. Of course, I was our star player! As I remember correctly Missouri never lost a game.
Basketball became a centerpiece, along with baseball, in our lives growing up. I remember going to my eldest brother Perry's varsity games in 1975-76. It was Coach Al Waller's first year at Branson, and the team clicked from the start. I remember with my cousin Jeff doing play-by-play of the Blue and Gold Tournament game against Stockton, where Branson won in overtime. We used an old tape recorder, screaming into the mic when Tim Russell nailed the game-winning bucket! I was in the sixth grade. I'd love to find that tape if it's still intact!
Saturday morning basketball brought deep excitement and thrills during my 4th-6th grade years. Coach Dale Russell led those Saturday mornings, where high school players coached teams of us hoops dreamers. I remember Friday nights laying out my shorts and tee-shirt for the next morning's games. It was difficult to fall asleep. Anticipation ruled.
The smell of the old high school gym, now ready to collapse near downtown Branson, caused my heart to race as I stepped on the floor. Sneakers squeaking, whistles blowing from coaches and refs, cheers from the crowd of parents and siblings watching--all memories that to this day as a 57 year old still make me smile.
Sometimes I would spend the night with one of my friends like Roger Meadows or Curt Ladd, then go with them to Saturday morning basketball. I remember Saturday evenings after a game going out and replaying the game again, correcting any mistakes I made, always making the game-winning shot!
My brothers and I merely talk basketball today. Between us being in our 50's and 60's, knee surgeries, asthma and arthritis, the days of two-on-two games are but fond memories. I pray that today's 4th-6th grade boys and girls still find the joy of Saturday morning basketball--and not just the traveling competitive teams which seem to be cropping up more and more at younger and younger ages. In my day, ALL kids who wanted to play Saturday morning basketball were welcome. Some showed promise. Some got to compete anyway. Have we lost this? I hope and pray not.
Every time I walk out on a gym floor, I can still hear the sound of sneakers squeaking, the clock buzzer sounding, and crowds cheering. It's glorious and magical. It's helped shape me into who I am today.
Thanks Coach Russell and Coach Waller! You helped mold many dreams, including mine.