THE TRYOUT – A SHORT STORY
I was no athlete. Never made any of the varsity teams in high school. Never played football or baseball in the neighborhood playgrounds in my part of Brooklyn, but I had a good excuse: blacktops, no grass, not even dirt. However, the basketball courts were always full, the courts divided into halves, even quarters.
I was thinking about the conditions under which we played ball back home during a heated discussion in the Freshman dormitory lounge at Illinois College. I told the group, “We played in rain, and wiped the ball dry when it went out-of-bounds. We played when it snowed, and shoveled drifts off to the side. Wore gloves when it was freezing.” I laughed. It sure made for sloppy dribbling.”
I was the only out-of-state student in the room A bunch of guys from downstate with southern accents were arguing about which teams were going to make it to the NCAA basketball championship tournament. I boasted that the favored teams will definitely be from New York city. “LIU, St. John’s, N. Y. U., Columbia, City College.”
The student looked at me skeptically.
Didn’t bother me, though. I kept bragging. “Playing basketball outdoors in bad weather on courts with weeds growing through cracks on the pavement made us tough. We were mean, too. Pushed off defenders with elbows and kicked legs out when coming down after a rebound. Gave us more room when we landed. No whistles–no ref’s–to worry about.
“That’s dirty,” a chubby freshman said, his lips curled in contempt.
“Hey, if there’s no one calls it, it’s not illegal,” I answered him smugly. “But in case there is a ref around, foul your man when he’s between you and the official. That way he can’t see you.”
No one was impressed by my argument. I felt I had to give ‘em some reasons to regard players from the City more highly.
“High school kids play basketball every day, all day, even on Shabbos, uh, I mean, your Sabbath, Sunday. Kids from the city play hard ball. We’re street-smart, uh, court-savvy.”
None of the crew-cut freshmen with their scuffed white bucks and cashmere looked convinced. But what did they know? They said New York when they meant the city, not the state (or vice versa), thought Manhattan was the name for all five boroughs, and didn’t know what an egg-cream was. None had ever heard of Nat Holman’s 1950 C.C.N.Y. squad that won both the NCAA and NIT tournaments in the same year. A grand slam like that had never happened before or since. Newspaper headlines were hardly ever about teams in the rest of the country, maybe just the usual juggernauts like Kentucky, Michigan, and Berkeley. Other schools and their scores were somewhere in the back pages.
Some guy from Carbondale (or was it Carbonville or Carbonsburg) asked, “I don’t get it. You’re a student in Illinois. How can you root for New York teams?” (“city,” I added mentally), “Illinois has the best players in the country. All the good teams are in the Midwest.”
Someone shouted, “Football players, too.” Cheers went up for the state’s wrestlers, gymnasts, and swimmers. “Don’t forget the fencing team” a voice from the back added. The room was filled with cries of, “Illinois! Illinois!”
A skinny fellow sitting nearby pointed a finger at me. “I’ve visited New York.” (“city,” I silently appended). “The hoops in rinky-dink basketball courts have no nets. That’s ‘cause gangs stole ‘em to package drugs.” Nods of agreement around the room
“They’d take the backboards, too,” someone said, “if they weren’t bolted to poles. In cement.” Everyone laughed except me.
A chubby guy said with a sneer, “Players on our teams work out in modern gyms with all kinds of body-building equipment and trainers.”
“You just made my point,” I countered. “You play basketball indoors, warm in the winter and air-conditioned in the summer. The floors are clean, dry, and polished, without cracks or holes. Tell me this, wise guy. Where do you play basketball on Christmas when the gyms are closed on account of the holidays? Where do you work out when there’s snow on the ground? Huh?”
One of the freshman stood up and waved for silence. “You guys from New York (“city,” I inserted silently) don’t know beans about Illinois basketball. It’s a big-time sport in this part of the country. Even high schools in small towns with only a couple of hundred students go gung-ho over their teams.” He sat down to more cheers.
I couldn’t take boasts seriously, not from guys named Horace, Orville, Medford, and Alvin living somewhere in the middle of fields of corn and alfalfa in southern Illinois. Not a Jewish face among them, not even Italian or Irish, no Blacks even. No one named Joey, Frankie, Tony, Moe, or Sal in this room.
Once the room was quiet one I tried again to make my case against their small-town mentality. “I bet your players’ best shots are from outside, two-handed, far from the basket, ‘cause they’re afraid to drive inside for a lay-up. Afraid of getting banged up. Or knocked down.”
An angry voice interrupted my teasing. “If you think New York (“city”) players are so damn good why don’t you try out for the freshman basketball team? The auditions are tomorrow at 3.”
“I might just do that,” I said, carried away by my own argument, the taunting of my dorm-mates, and the feeling that I had to back-up my words.
I strutted out of the lounge, fantasizing about sinking the winning basket with a jump-shot from half-court with only a second left on the clock, teammates, fans, and cheerleaders crowding around me after the buzzer; and next day riding in a convertible past cheering crowds in a parade at the state fair. I saw myself promoted from the freshman squad and joining the varsity team in time to make it for the state championship finals.
I shook off the daydream and brought myself back to reality. I really wasn’t that good a player. My feet hardly left the ground when I tried a jump shot. I had only one reliable shot, a two-hander from 10 feet out, directly in front of the basket, and making maybe a third of them – if I wasn’t too closely guarded. I never rushed under the boards for rebounds, afraid my glasses would be knocked off by the shoving and pushing. And I was only five foot six.
Nonetheless, I thought I could compete successfully for the freshman squad against bush-league students from the hinterlands. My rough-house experience in the parks of Brooklyn, I believed, gave me an advantage over clean-playing, rule-following, and gentlemanly ball players. The worst thing that could happen, I concluded, was making the team as a substitute, the 10th and last man on the squad, getting into games only when the team was way ahead with only a minute or two to go. But even if I never played, I’d get a junior varsity letter and a guaranteed A in PE to boost my grade point average.
The derisive voices of 18-year old farm boys spurred me to take a what- the-hell attitude. Trying out for the team, even if I didn’t make the cut, would be a positive way to begin college. If I flunked out by Thanksgiving and transferred to a school back in New York (city), I’d have something to crow about when I played ball at the park.
Once in my room I looked through the drawers in my dresser and closet for suitable clothing to wear for the tryout. I hadn’t planned on playing ball so I had to do with what I had: a pair of worn canvas sneakers; a thick pair of black socks (I hadn’t packed white athletic ones); a cut-out underwear top (instead of a t – shirt); and a bathing suit (no shorts). I shoved everything into my briefcase (no sports bag).
At the desk in the lobby of the dorm I asked the clerk where the gym was.
“You can’t miss it,” he answered. “It’s the biggest building on the quad and has a domed rotunda that looks like an ancient Roman temple.”
I wasn’t sure what a Roman Temple looked like, what a rotunda was, and what “quad” meant, but I didn’t need to. The gym, the only large building with a round roof in the center of the campus, was easy to spot.
Once inside, I followed a series of hand-lettered signs pointing to the locker room in the basement where tryouts for the freshmen squad could change clothes. Following the arrows I passed multiple entrances to the gym that handled the large crowds that attended basketball games. Walking by each open door I was presented with successive views of freshmen warming up on the court.
In a series of quick glances inside I saw one player dribble behind his back, another one sink a shot from way outside the foul-shooting circle. At the second door a guy way over six feet made an almost impossible basket from the furthest edge of the out-of-bound line. I stopped walking by the time I got to the third door and just looked. Wow! One bounce of the ball, a spin around, and a slam through the hoop. Geez, look at that! A backhanded lay-up from under the basket.! Hey, that kid jumped almost as high as the rim, swept the ball off the backboard with one hand, and flipped a behind-the-back pass to a teammate – without looking. How did he do that? My eyes jerked quickly to a player taking a smoothly arched hook shot from over his shoulder, going away, and not even looking at the basket.
I lingered at the next to last doorway. Players were using either hand to make nearly every shot from every part of the court, near or far, no matter what the angle was. Basketballs swished cleanly through the net or spun off the backboard and dropped cleanly into the hoop without touching the rim. The athletes with ropes of muscles glistening with sweat never stopped moving.
The local yokels are really good, I reluctantly admitted. Actually they’re more than good, they’re terrific. They sure didn’t get to be that way playing on furrowed fields of corn and soybeans between haystacks, that’s for sure.
I remained at the last open door before the stairwell to the basement lockers and appreciated the show for another minute or two. Great passing! Smooth move! If these are the players trying out for the freshman team, I asked myself, what is the varsity squad like? The assortment of substitute sports accessories in my lumpy briefcase dragged my arm down.
I never made it to the locker-room. I mentally kicked myself for thinking about trying out for the freshman team – wearing a bathing suit over an undershirt in black dress socks and tired-looking sneakers. I was way out of my league if not my mind. I’m not good enough to carry the jocks of these guys.
I turned around. I had to leave as quickly as I could. I was glad to be carrying a briefcase rather than a sports bag. No one was going to think I’m here for the tryout. They’ll guess I’m taking a shortcut to the library.
I hurried out of the building, avoiding eye contact with the few students I passed. If anyone from the dorm asks me how the try out went, I’ll tell them I had second thoughts. “Practicing every day would take too much time away from my studies,”
I headed toward the nearby library to check out next term’s schedule. Maybe the English Department is offering a class on fairy tales. I got a good story to tell.