BOWEN COLUMN: No whining allowed down at the Y

Published 10:30 am Tuesday, January 11, 2022

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I’ve often said that I believe that the “orange sphere” is one of the best baby-sitters Mama ever used. I don’t know if Mama ever stopped to thank the Lord for basketball, but I know she must have been thankful. Having to work long hours down at the cotton mill, she had a built-in babysitter — especially when Coca-Cola Mike or my young cousin Allen were tied up and couldn’t come outside and ride bikes or play cowboys and Indians.

The thing about basketball is all you need is yourself, a ball, and an imagination. I’ve played a thousand one-on-none basketball games in my time, without a single defeat. You would think a 1000-0 record would be somewhere in the record books. But Roger Maris — my baseball hero growing up — and I just didn’t get our due respect. Maris hit 62 homeruns — 62! And a longstanding record — and all everybody wanted to do was make excuses: “Ah, they’d say, he hit in front of Mantle” (my brother Wayne’s hero). Or: “He played more games than the Babe …”

One thing I learned a long time ago: There were no excuses in basketball, or there’d better not be. Excuses didn’t fly back in the 1960s, at least not on my block, and, certainly, not down at the Y. And there was no whining — or, should I say — there was no whining that didn’t get slapped back in your face like a weak dipsy-doodle shot in the lane. The boys down at the Y didn’t take to whining. Crybabies might as well stay home, they’ll holler across the gym, without even looking at you.

But, again, things were different back before they put in the three-point line and before whining at every call was part of the game. Even the basketball itself was different. It wasn’t orange — at least, not for long. After a couple of weeks of sweat and blood on the court down at the Y, the ball was as black as the night sky. And the darker it got, the heavier it was. I think that’s why Bubba Hill, Ken Carter, Sonny Cosper and few other boys down at the Y could chunk it with ease from the cheap seats. Those boys thought range was where the deer and the antelope played. Inside the gym, there was no range. If you were unguarded, you were open, even if your heel was touching the half court line.

Some wonder why we shot it from the cheap seats when there was no three-point line. It was a simple matter. You pretty well knew that if you took it into the paint, you might get your head knocked off. I would try it occasionally – due to a momentary lapse in judgment – but usually one of the big fellas would throw it back at me with a “Don’t bring that weak stuff in here.” Oh, they invented trash talk down at the Y, too. But they could back it up.

If you dare called a foul on the play as the blocked-shot rolled to the other end of the court, the “rumble in the jungle” would erupt in that gym, until Sonny Cosper would have to holler — from the equipment room where he worked — for us to play ball or go home. We weren’t about to go home, because we had a score to settle. So, you’d just give up on calling that foul and sling the ball to the other team and tell ‘em to “Throw it in.”

Wayne taught me the same skill of getting beat and learning to deal with it. He beat me every day from the time I was 2 until I was almost 20. But one day in the mid-70s – around the time I was playing a little basketball over at Mountain View Junior College in Dallas — Wayne and I laced up the basketball gloves and went at it just as we had done a thousand other times. But that Dallas afternoon was different from any other afternoon in the history of the world. It was probably the day that started the end-zone dancing era.

When the dusk settled, the sweat dried, and the net cooled down, the little brother walked off the floor in victory.

It was his first.