A chubby 5-footer (maybe shorter) that couldn’t shoot worth a damn, never played defense and ran out of breath playing half-court games is what I brought to the table.
Games of 3-on-3 found me waiting on the bleachers for my turn. I never could drain free throws so I never was a captain, and I never earned a spot on the team.
But that’s what drove me. I wanted to shove the ball down the kids’ throats for not picking me. I was a horrible ballhandler, was too short to post up and really didn’t grasp the concept of using “glass.”
What I brought to the court was a toughness that everyone loved or respected or hated.
I wasn’t going to out-jump anyone for a rebound, so when the guy I was guarding went up for a rebound he was met by an elbow that awaited his sternum on his way down. Man down, ball loose, ball goes to me, ball gets passed out to a shooter, score.
I wouldn’t say I was a dirty player; I just evened the playing field. I knew what I wasn’t capable of and I knew what I was capable of. I just utilized my skills.
As I got older my game improved and my “friends” learned quickly how much of an asset I was.
“Man, I want Eric on my team so he doesn’t foul me,” any given fifth- or sixth- or seventh- or eighth-grader would say.
Indeed, maybe it was a foul, but in street/playground ball, real men don’t call fouls. No blood, no foul. And in my instances I never went for the face so no bleeding was visible. I’m guessing after enough elbows to a sternum, though, some internal bleeding could be suffered, but who cares when you’re in junior high?
As the years wore on, the free-throw shooting improved slightly but still rarely got me on any teams. The only thing that worked for me was my reputation.
Once I was on a team I was a madman. I often called myself a natural point guard, figuring I was “good at creating situations.”
As a teammate once pointed out, I was “good at creating situations for the other team.”
So my ballhandling skills still needed honing, but my defense was nails. Former Arkansas Razorback head coach Nolan Richardson, with his “40 minutes of hell” motto, would be proud. No shot left uncontested and no shooter left without an elbow in the sternum, a knee in the hip or a tug on a T-shirt.
It wasn’t until I was in eighth grade that I received a reality check when playing at “The Cage” in Brawley, also known as Abe Gonzalez Park.
Playing a pick-up game against Brawley’s toughest, it was up to me, a 5-foot-3 eighth-grader, to guard “Flag” or “Tree” or whatever his name was. He earned the name because he was tall, I’m guessing about 6-foot-5, but I could be wrong. Now, giving up a good foot-plus seems like a tough challenge for anyone, but being a know-it-all eighth-grader I was up to the challenge.
However, “Flag/Tree” had other ideas. After “fighting” for a rebound with “Flag/Tree” about three minutes into the game, I was greeted by his elbow in my nose. Never known as a bleeder, the flood gates in my nose let out all those years of backed up blood that earned me a reputation for not bleeding. My hand, my shirt, my shorts and the puddle at the base of my feet collected said blood.
“Flag/Tree” was kind and almost sympathetic with his, “If you’re gonna bleed, get the (bleep) off the (bleepin’) court” apology.
Not wanting to go out like a chump, I immediately had someone sub in for me as I collected myself on the side, drained my nose of any extra blood and got right back in.
“Flag/Tree” was happy to see me as he greeted me with a kind, warm “You better not get any (bleepin’) blood on me.”
Over the following years my basketball game took me to the gym of Brawley Union High, mainly playing pick-up games after weightlifting, and back to the blacktops of Witter and Phil Swing elementary schools. While the courts were made for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders, they served perfectly us 16-and 17-year-olds. Hell, I even almost dunked, almost, kind of.
By that time I became more of a point guard, hardly ever shot the ball and was more of a ball distributor. Modeling my game after Jason Kidd and Kevin Johnson (and Dennis Rodman because of the toughness while rebounding), I didn’t need the glory. I didn’t need to score to be happy.
And my teammates were happy that I didn’t try to score because, well, after all those years I still couldn’t shoot.
No, I wasn’t gifted with great basketball-playing ability or mediocre basketball-playing ability for that matter, but man could I elbow.
Too bad the game doesn’t revolve around elbows. If so, who knows how good I could’ve been?