Let me bounce some names off you: Naismith, Plump, Milan, Hoosiers, King James, Smith, Smith and Smith. Caught the drift? You round-ball afficianados have. It’s March. Time for Madness! Time to pay homage to Dr. James Naismith, the phys ed teacher at (what would become) Springfield College way up in Massachusetts. It was the winter of 1891 and Naismith was searching his noggin for a new indoor activity for his restless, snow-bound charges. Next morning when his young ‘jocks’ arrived at the gym, a tall wooden peach basket was hanging ten feet up on the wall.
A soccer ball lay on the floor. The rest is history. All over America this month, young high school and college players, in a dazzling array of colorful synthetic knits, are vying to be ‘king of the hill,’ while “King” Lebron James and his fellow NBA players are busily knocking down threes and raking in hundreds of millions of dollars just for playing Naismith’s little game of “basket” ball.
It didn’t take long for the new sport to catch on, and it wasn’t too long thereafter, that there were two baskets, one at each end of gyms across America, and now they had 18-inch diameter steel rims (and woven nets) which players today like to hang on after a slam dunk. Try that with a peach basket. As the popularity of the sport has grown over the years, so have the men who play it.
When I was in high school, Dick Russell (our center) stood a proud and commanding 6 feet tall. Today that’s the standard heighth for the coach, who can generally be seen somewhere down there in the middle of the huddle yelling at his players waistbands. Today’s roundball warriors are not only tall, they are big, they are tattooed to high heaven, and festooned with gold jewelry. I’m waiting for the day one of them gets an earring hung up on the rim. The tall and short of it is that basketball has become increasingly aggressive and as rough as football. Maybe more so. Hitting the hardwoods without pads, especially when knocked silly by an opposing player built like an NFL line-backer, surely smarts.
Meantime, back to March Madness and our high school and college teams, where there is still a semblance of sportsmanship and pure competitive skill at play. These are the ‘madness’ days that players and fans alike live and hope for. The joy of winning, the agony of defeat. Where genuine tears are shed over the loss of game under a blizzard of confetti, while winners whoop and dance and shed their own tears of joy. Which brings us full-circle. Plump, Milan and the Hoosiers?
All about the little miracle team from tiny, rural Milan, Ind. which won the 1954 State high school championship by taking down mighty powerhouse Muncie Central’s Bearcats 32-30 on a buzzer-beating (nothing but net) shot by Bobby Plump on the hardwoods of Butler University’s Field House in Indianapolis. If you liked the story of David and Goliath, and who among us doesn’t root for the little guy, you love ‘Hoosiers,’ the movie. If you have never seen it, you can relive it at Netflix or wherever you rent your movies these days, or perchance on one of the cable movie channels which is guaranteed to run it during the month. Further, if you are ever in Indianapolis and have time to visit the Butler campus, do go see the Field House which is still in pristine condition and the home of one of America’s top college teams year-in-year-out, the Butler Bulldogs.
All great names aside, it is my contention that the game of basketball would have never come about were it not for three young ‘Smiths’ – the original three who can be given credit for today’s “Final Four.” Smith #1 who said to “Coach” Naismith: “This is peachy, but wouldn’t it be easier if we cut the bottom out of the basket?” And Smith #2 who found a pole to push the ball up out of the basket each time someone scored a point. And truly, Smith the 3rd who, wise beyond his years, said: “Let’s get a basket with a bigger hole in the bottom, so the ball drops through.” To those of you mad about March, I say: “Lift your glasses high! Here’s to Smith, Smith and Smith. Bottoms up!”
Mel Grossman is a local resident and guest columnist.
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