Sunday, September 20, 2009

Most Memorable Moments In Sports

Yes, it's a long reminiscence. But hey, it's Sunday, and you've got nothing better to do, right?

I was sitting at my wheel reminiscing, not for the first time, on the most memorable moments I’ve witnessed in sports. What got me thinking again about these moments was a recent youtube jag – a few hours going through video I’d not seen, sometimes in more than twenty years. There are youtubes of Maravich, Dr J, The Iceman (Gervin, not Butler – though there’s youtube of Butler too. His was the definitive “Make It Easy On Yourself”). There are snapshots of “The Catch” by Mayes. Some of the greatest collective memories we share of sports are on youtube now.

But those aren’t actually my most memorable sports moments. And I’m guessing that if you’re a sports fan – and even more likely if you were/are an athlete, those big-time events aren’t your most memorable sports moments either.

My most memorable sports moments will never appear as a youtube video. They include:

As a sophomore in college I watched our freshman team playing against Goshen College in what turned out to be the most lopsided officiating I had ever seen, or most probably will ever again see in a game of basketball. With more than two minutes left in the game, five of our nine players were fouled out of the game (while none of the Goshen players ended up with even three personal fouls).

But the cool thing – what made the moment memorable – was watching the four players left on the floor still pull off the win as Kurt Heingartner (Kurt, Kurt, we treat him like dirt) caught fire and couldn’t be stopped – even with a double-team. One time down he’d drain an 18-footer. And the next time down, his already convincing head fake would leave two opposing players shorts on the floor as he’d feign the 18 and drive to the rim.

The four-against-five finish was the ultimate for a sports underdog lover.

Another of my most memorable sports moments came when I was playing high school soccer.Our team wasn’t very good. Oh, we actually went undefeated in our league, but back then nobody was playing soccer except for the private schools. Private schools (like the one I attended) picked up the fall sport because, being small and under funded, football was out of the financial picture. Again, we weren’t good, we were merely the best of a very lousy league.

The team was mostly pieced together out of mismatched athletes from the other sports. Most of us didn’t even know how to properly kick a soccer ball. And we certainly didn’t play any kind of a control game. Our offense consisted of blasting the ball down the field (that “blasting” almost always being a toe-kick that floated upward with backspin) and then trying to outrun the opposing players to get a shot at the goal.

But that mediocrity didn’t mean that our brand of soccer couldn’t make for some memorable moments. And the one I’m recalling started with a hand ball called near midfield.

With the penalty kick set about 60 yards from the goal, our midfield man, Keith Volstad, toed a floater toward that goal. The ball had more backspin than a Tiger Woods wedge shot. Time seemed suspended as the ball hovered over the backs of our own front line…then over the “wall” of defenders standing about 20-25 yards out from the goal and covering the line between Keith and the goal. Finally, gravity had its way, and the ball came easing downward directly toward the backpedaling goalie.

The perception of a suspension of time through the whole slowly floating kick continued through the delayed response as it took a l-o-n-g moment before both teams, the crowd, the goalie, Keith, and finally the referee realized that that backpedaling goalie had been so mesmerized by the lazy floater that he’d backpedaled himself all the way into the goal to catch the ball.

When the ref finally raised his arms and shouted “GOAL”, the delayed crowd response was as much laughter as cheering.

But perhaps my most memorable sports moment was watching Billy Baker.

Billy was the embodiment of a perfect marriage between art and athletics. To watch Billy play basketball was a thing of beauty. Billy played for our Indianapolis city rival Park Tudor. Small school notwithstanding, Billy was probably one of the best basketball players in the State. He was certainly the most fun to watch.

Billy stood only 5’7” but he could dunk a basketball. And his movements were mercurial – not just mercurial in his quickness, but also mercurial in his incredible fluidity. He honest to god looked like a dancer out on the court. There’s just no other way to describe it. I loved to play Park Tudor because I loved watching Billy Baker.

And though I loved watching Billy play basketball generally, the specific most memorable moment I’m talking about came one summer when I was a “junior counselor” with Billy at Taylor Basketball Camp in Upland, IN.

When a camper reached 13 or 14 (I can’t remember the cut-off) they no longer had summer camp for us back then. As I remember, it had to do with high school eligibility. Back then eligibility didn’t allow for organized camp for potential high school players. But the camp allowed a dozen or so “junior counselors” to come for those weeks. We’d work in the concession stand pouring sodas for the campers. In return we got to sit in on the clinics with visiting sports stars.

And it was at one of those clinics that the moment occurred.

The visiting stars were Dave and Billy Shepherd. They were brothers who starred at Carmel High School, each in their respective year being named Indiana’s “Mr Basketball”. Dave went on to play at Butler U and Billy played at IU and later with the Indiana Pacers.

Dave and Billy were both guards and they were doing a clinic on “the half-court trap”. They were going to show the campers how two guards working together could force an opposing guard who might be trying to bring the ball up past the 10 second line, into a corner with no exit. When Dave and Billy asked for a volunteer/victim to try to bring the ball upcourt against them – to try to break their press – a collective shout from all the campers arose. “Billy Baker! ….let Billy Baker try!”

Diminutive 14-15 year old Billy Baker stepped somewhat shyly onto the court and shook the graciously offered hands of the two future Hoosier Basketball Hall of Famers. Then, for the next five minutes he proceeded to take the Shepherd brothers apart.

The Shepherd brothers couldn’t herd Baker for love or money. He’d go around them before they could even plant. He’d split them. He’d stutter-step and leave them flat-footed.In the end, the Shepherds ended up laughing themselves silly…and everyone in the gym did the same.

Upon this reminiscing, I decided to get up from the wheel, walk over to the computer and see if I couldn’t figure out whatever happened to Billy Baker. I had heard that he went from high school to Brown University. Armed with that info, I began my googling.

Turns out that Billy did go to Brown University – on an academic scholarship. There he “walked on” to the basketball team where, by his senior year he became the captain. All the while Baker remained an honor student (biology) and upon graduation, returned to the Midwest where he studied medicine at Louisville. In my googling, I found this brief synopsis of a career highlight:

Billy was one of the nation’s foremost physicians addressing the high incidence of prostate cancer and mortality in African-American men. He founded the African-American Prostate Cancer Initiative and did extensive research in prostate cancer, being especially interested in discovering why this form of cancer affects more African-American males. He took the front line in fighting the deadly disease through academic research, community education, outreach and support.

Obviously, Billy was exceptional in more ways than athletically. I never knew Billy beyond playing opposite him in basketball and baseball, but I sure felt my mortality, and a terrible sense of loss when I read further that Billy died in a boating accident three years ago.

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