A March Madness tribute to a hoopster who played in obscurity

March Madness caters to adult men who squander vast amounts of precious time carping about the performances of high-profile athletes and coaches. But playing, not watching, is the essence of sport.

Hey, can we pause a moment in our March Madness bracket obsessions (even you, President Obama!) to honor my friend Jerry, a streaky outside shooter whose career ended recently with knee replacement surgery at the age of 62?

Jerry never played for Duke or Syracuse. He never competed for the NCAA Division 1 basketball championship or won any trophies that I know of. What he did was more impressive. He managed to keep playing avidly, intensely, a full 45 years after getting cut from his high school team. Now that fact deserves a standing O! 

To grasp this concept requires some reorientation concerning the meaning of sports in America.

First, a snapshot of Jerry’s game. He had a decent array of skills for a shooting guard. Unfortunately for him, he was broad-shouldered and fully 6 ft. 3in., a height that may not stand out in competitive collegiate leagues but at the playground level creates intense peer pressure to hunker close to the hoop and not stray too far.

But Jerry liked to stray.

The happiest I ever saw him on the court was when he found himself with teammates who were as tall or taller. Then, like a cross-dresser suddenly freed to wear a skirt in public, his true identity as a perimeter-hugging three-point artist was liberated.

Is my assessment too harsh? If so, I do not apologize. Because any assessment amounts to a declaration that these inconsequential games played for no stakes whatsoever are every bit as worthy as those JumboTron clashes blaring throughout ESPN-land.

This might not be the occasion to catalog all the flaws of big-time commercial sports, but I do want to mention one: adult men who squander vast amounts of precious time carping about the performances of high-profile athletes and coaches. They would do themselves, their families, their communities, and their nation more good by applying those fiery passions to something useful.

Does it really matter if some freshmen phenom ignored the open man or if coach John Calipari should keep his mouth shut? Sports fans are the most helpless consumer group in America and you don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to see all the ranting for what it is: sublimation, transference, avoidance. The fact that the commercial sports industry, which sadly includes the NCAA, appeals so effectively to male psychological disorders is a credit to its shrewdness but nothing to cheer about.

There is a flourishing subculture devoted to mocking the tendency of guys (yes, mostly guys of the beer-drinking kind) to wallow in coulda-been-a-contender type of recollections. Yet even these recollections, so easily derided, are usually rooted in games and that somehow “mattered,” where victory was being noted somewhere outside the minds of the players.

Alas, Jerry’s career enjoyed no such verifiable blazes of glory. All those games, surely numbering in the thousands, all those deft passes and looping outside shots ... well, you’ll just have to take our word that marvelous things occurred in those musty YMCA gyms. You certainly won’t find the evidence on ESPN Classics.

I digress. Actually, I don’t. For it’s perversely interconnected, the unheralded joy of pick-up ball players, aging and otherwise, and the hyperbolic juggernaut of TV sports with its rapacious lust to service an ever-expanding population of couch-potato spectators.

As a small protest – against oblivion – I’m thinking of holding a retirement party for Jerry. Of course, there’ll be no numbered jersey to hang from the rafters, no hallowed rafters to hang it from, no newspaper clippings to read aloud nor video for viewing. A younger generation of pickup players savvy in the ways of Twitter and YouTube may eventually reverse this deficit but, for now, guys like Jerry and me and most of the players I’ve known will vanish without a trace.

That’s cool. We can take it. Because in our hearts we know the gritty truth: Out there on the playgrounds and courts, anonymous and unannounced, we left behind some of the very best parts of ourselves.

Call it March of Time Madness. Playing, not watching, is the essence of sport. Forget the Final Four. How about a round of applause for Jerry? 

Bob Katz is a writer and author of the novel, “Third and Long,” to be published later this spring.

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