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I do feel sorry for today’s young athletes

Freelance

Corky Simpson

Young athletes are better today than ever, but they don’t have as much fun as we did when I was a kid.

They couldn’t. Today they’re one-sport wonders.

We played every game there was and even made up a few, some of them stretching the imagination to outrageous lengths.

I sat in the nosebleed section at McKale Center and watched this year’s Lute Olson Basketball Camp, which ended last week. I was amazed at the skills of these whippersnappers with skinny legs and oversized sneakers.

These young’uns are far better at basketball – light-years advanced – than I and my buddies were.

Kids today switch hands and dribble with an ambidextrous ease that just blows your mind. We couldn’t begin to do that when I was growing up. We were right-handed or left-handed, and that was pretty much that.

Oh, sure, today’s kids “carry” the ball, and in my day, that was an infraction. But the game has evolved in such a way (twice as fast, for one thing) that it’s best to give ballhandlers a greater degree of freedom.

It makes basketball a much better game to play and to watch, I think.

But here we are in the middle of summer and these boys were playing . . . basketball!

Geez, we’d have been about halfway through the league schedule in baseball when I was a boy about a hundred years ago.

Coaches, parents and fans tell me that competition is so fierce today that a kid has to concentrate on one sport.

That’s why there’s summer basketball and winter baseball. Football is pretty much year-round, too.

And that’s a shame.

Maybe we were “uncool” and backward, watched B-movie Westerns and black-and-white television, but whatever sport was in season, we played it. And we invented others.

We loved all the sports and wouldn’t have dreamed of choosing just one.

In my Midwest hometown, when there was ice on the ground we played hockey – even though we didn’t know the rules. We knew there were two goals to be defended, and you could jump on top of somebody and pound his face into the snow.

Then we’d drag our bloody little bods to somebody’s driveway, shovel off the snow and shoot baskets.

At the first sign of spring, sometimes before, we’d hit a few flies, play some pepper and get ready for baseball. When the leaves turned from green to brown and red and yellow, we played football.

We didn’t have basketball camps, or baseball or football camps.

“Camp” was something your church had way out in the boondocks somewhere. You went there for a couple of weeks, drank a lot of Kool-Aid and got munched on by mosquitoes big enough to throw a saddle on.

When the weather was so bad we couldn’t play outdoors, we went inside and used our imagination. My best friend, Jimmy Hooten, had this large basement at his house, and we made basketball hoops from the rims of coffee cans. We used a tennis ball – and boxing gloves.

Seriously. Jimmy had one set of boxing gloves. We’d play one-on-one basketball, and you wore a boxing glove on one of your hands.

According to our rules, while dribbling the ball or shooting with one hand, you could punch your opponent’s lights out with the other. Defenders defended with one bare hand and threw punches with the gloved fist.

But you couldn’t “carry” the ball.

We stooped so low we even made super-miniature baseball “stadiums,” got down on our hands and knees and swatted marbles, using wooden pencils as bats.

Once, on an early April stroll along Spring River, I found a bag of some kind of seed a farmer had left beside a fence. I didn’t know what it was – still don’t – but for the heck of it, I built a tiny baseball park and planted the seed where the outfield grass and infield grass would be. I formed a pitcher’s mound and took about a million little sticks and built a fence around the outfield.

I never did go back to check on my ballpark, but I would like to think that some weeks later, a startled Farmer Brown busted into his house and said something like, “Edna, Edna, come quick! You know them there little people – them Leprechauns – we used to read about? Well, by golly, they’re for real!!”

We’d play baseball on the town tennis courts if they were empty. We hit tennis balls with a broom handle.

And none of us made it to the big leagues, or even to Division I basketball, football or anything else.

But we had a great time.

And thank goodness, we weren’t forced to choose one sport.

Besides, no college in the history of the world has even given out scholarships in “boxing ball.”

Retired columnist Corky Simpson writes every Saturday for the Citizen.

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