Pomona College Magazine
Volume 41. No. 2.
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Editor: Mark Wood
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Stray Thoughts
For Love/Hate of the Game

I love sports, so long as nobody expects me to play.

Occasionally, someone comes along and asks me to join a softball team, adding that it’s all in fun, just a bunch of old duffers who don’t take it seriously. This is about as attractive to me as an invitation to pick up a rifle and join in a war (all in fun, of course, just a bunch of old duffers who don’t take it seriously).

You see, as a spectator, I am informed, enlightened and occasionally impassioned, but the mere thought of being a participant (except in my occasional Walter Mitty daydreams) fills me with dread. To explain, I have to go back to where it all started—where sports always start: childhood.

These memories aren’t easy to access. They’re kept these days in what businesspeople refer to as “off-site storage.” When I want to look at them, I have to put in a call and wait for somebody down in the basement of my subconscious to turn on the lights down there, riffle through the files and send up a few yellowed prints. To make matters worse, I’ve got a feeling that some of those files have been doctored. But here’s what I remember.

I remember the day my father attached a homemade backboard to the big oak in a corner of our front yard, and I remember my feckless attempts, at age five or six, to heave a basketball high enough to bump that distant rim.

I remember hating fly balls, which I could never judge. I remember one hitting me on the head—honest—and a few others dropping at my feet.

I remember, on my junior high school basketball team, excelling in dribbling, free throws and shooting drills. If basketball were judged the same way gymnastics and diving are, I would have gotten all 10s.

I remember my coach, who looked like a child’s drawing of a lumberjack, standing under the basket during layup drills, belt in hand. One miss, one lick. Second miss, two licks. He never touched me, though. I was all 10s.

Gametime, however, was different. I remember sitting on the bench during a game, hoping the coach couldn’t see me. I also remember being thrust into a game, getting the ball, and being afflicted with a strange paralysis that lasted until someone from the opposing team came over and took the ball away.

Mostly, what I recall from my short-lived sports career are the little humiliations. My childhood triumphs were elsewhere. Which is probably why the thought of joining in any kind of public sport today makes me hyperventilate.

There are many things sports are supposed to teach you. Some of them are things I learned in other contexts. Some of them, I suppose, are things I never really learned—like overcoming self-consciousness or taking a competitive approach to life or—as this essay so amply demonstrates—putting my failures behind me and moving on.

But the truth is that I did learn a lot from sports—just not the kind of things you’re supposed to learn. I learned that I truly am not very competitive at heart. I learned that I have to work at being a team-player. I learned that my greatest talents aren’t physical. And maybe most importantly, I learned that sometimes its OK just to sit back and applaud the accomplishments of others.
Mark Wood
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by Pomona College
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