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For the love of the game


Fri, Dec 10th, 2004
Posted in Commentary

This time of year, when the harvest is stored and winter begins to show its hand, there is a primordial call that beckons me, and a few other local men, to gather for just one more season.

“I’d like to play one, maybe two years more,” I tell Randy Hahn, who farms south of Preston.

Steve Tessum of Rochester, a star athlete at Preston in the 60’s, walks into the gym. The three of us gather like veterans of some long engagement and watch Dick Irish shoot baskets at center court.

Irish, a coach from Preston, who recently retired from teaching, grew up playing hoops in Plainview and later took his game to Mankato State.

I first ran into Dick in the early 70’s playing against him in adult basketball tournaments in Winona, Austin, and places in between. I renewed that relationship when I moved to Lanesboro in the early 80’s and started playing basketball once a week in Preston where Dick taught. Every once in awhile we will ask each other “what ever happened to so and so” and share a few laughs about old comrades in arms.

Every Wednesday night, ten to fifteen men gather at the Preston Middle School gym to play basketball. We are a motley collection ranging in age from about 20 to nearly 60. I am one of the few near the elder end of that bell curve. Long time Preston football coach, Frank Jaszewski, who at 73 is the elder statesman of our group, can be found every week perfecting his game of Horse at a side basket. Over the course of an evening we will play three or four games of five on five basketball, the first team to eleven by ones the winner. Teams are chosen at random by shooting free-throws.

We play as hard as our physical abilities allow. The younger men are more adept at three-point shots, a feature added to the game after us older guys’ competitive days were long gone. But us old timers compensate by clogging the lanes and boxing out for rebounds against the more athletic youngsters, most of whom played for Fillmore Central in the recent past.

It wouldn’t be true to say that we don’t play to win, because we do. Nor would it be right to say that we’re not competitive, because most of us scrap and battle on every play.

But when the game is done we come together giving fives and the next ten guys go at it.

I have been in search of a basketball game since I can remember. First in my neighborhood growing up in Austin, then more competitively in high school and junior college and then in the adult leagues most bigger towns had. I even managed to find a basketball game or two the ten years I spent overseas - in the Solomon Islands, the Philippines and then Hong Kong.

All of this of course is not about prowess on the basketball court, but the love of sport and the challenge of playing with four other guys against five other men. It’s about pick and rolls, and rebounding and fast breaks and fine tuning a jump shot that has had some 40 years to develop.

All of us run a few miles in an evening chasing a round ball and trying to throw it into a steel hoop hanging 10 feet off the floor. Probably none of us would run two miles for exercise.

I am not a great believer that sports builds character, nor that it produces great lessons in how lives should be led, but it does teach us a lot of about ourselves. In its simplest form it is about having fun while playing a game. At its most complex it is about X’s and O’s and a game of strategy and playing smart with the abilities the team has. Remember, the best team doesn’t always win, which is why they play the game in the first place.

Randy Hahn started the Wednesday night hoops regimen in Preston in 1971, which I guess makes him our Commissioner. I think he would have a thing or two to say about the nature of sports today to baseball’s Bud Selig, who must grapple with the steroid scandal, or basketball’s David Stern, who must figure out what to do with the Ron Artests of the NBA world.

Today, professional sports has dissolved into entertainment, where tremendously gifted athletes perform on a stage for their fans. And the root cause of its problems has more to do with what it has lost in this transformation - athletes playing merely for the love of the game.

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