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In the Spirit

A Hardwood Homily

A gym is no place for badminton

By Bill Fields

I don’t look back on my days in the Southern Pines school gymnasium without angst. There were some miserable moments in physical education class. Activities like boxing, climbing rope, mounting a pommel horse and jumping on a trampoline weren’t my thing, regardless of how they were supposed to help me grow up and become a strong, upstanding citizen. I am not ashamed to have probably performed the lamest seat drops in Moore County history. Daydreaming classmates on the perimeter of the bounce mat didn’t inspire confidence that they would save the day if something went wrong. Nor did the limp of our wonderful teacher, Mr. Wynn, whose disability had been caused by a tumbling accident years earlier.

The pursuits of P.E. period would have been dreaded regardless of where they occurred — the only thing worse was tetherball during a cold recess. That they were forced upon me within those walls, on that shiny maple floor, made them more regrettable. Even badminton and volleyball, which could be fun, seemed miscast there. A gym was for basketball.

This was so because in the winter, in the land of the Atlantic Coast Conference, basketball was my reason for being during a good portion of childhood. Watching it on television. Listening to it on the radio. Playing it, as often as possible.

Most hoops time happened in our backyard on a dirt “court” whose dimensions were decidedly cramped on the left side due to trees and the property line. My first goal was attached to an old swing set. The backboard was just a grade above cardboard, and the rim wobbled after the first week. Then, one day after I got home from school, the old set-up was gone, replaced by a new goal with a backboard of thicker wood mounted on an honest-to-goodness utility pole. Dad didn’t volunteer any details about how such a sturdy support came our way, but I privately theorized that it was paid for with a case of beer or the largest bottle of Canadian Club sold at the ABC store on Connecticut Avenue. Whatever the payment, it was worth it, because the pole survived well beyond the afternoons when I dribbled a ball in its shadow.

But despite the upgrade, it was still outdoors, a far cry from the indoor surfaces played upon by my heroes in college and the pros. Once I got a little older, the hard surface courts at the downtown park were a better substitute, but the chain nets were a long way from the real thing.

Thanks to pictures in yearbooks belonging to my older sisters, I knew what the gym at East Southern Pines High School looked like before I started first grade in 1965. I dreamed of dressing for the Blue Knights in one of those uniforms with the short shorts and satiny material, the kind the players wore in the team pictures and the posed action shots.

I signed up for midget league basketball as soon as I was eligible. We had only colored T-shirts, but those Saturday mornings in the gym weren’t diminished by lack of a complete basketball outfit. With multiple games being played on the three-quarter courts, there was a cacophony of sounds: the thud of basketballs bouncing; referees’ whistles; sneakers squeaking on the hardwood; coaches yelling for a player to pass; a player who wanted to shoot hollering for the ball. When the games were over, stepping outside to walk home was as close to cryotherapy as I’ve experienced, so jolting was the temperature after hours spent in the cozy confines.

A few years later, I made a desultory exit from that building one weekday afternoon after being cut from the junior high team. The only times I would get to shoot at the competition goals on the fiberglass backboards was during half-court games in Mr. Fitch’s ninth-grade P.E. class and later when the gym would be open during Christmas break.

Not having a gymnasium when it opened in 1969, Pinecrest played in the Blue Knights’ former space for half a dozen seasons. The Patriots of Charles Waddell, Ricky Goldston and Dexter Pride rocked the place on their way to the state 3-A title in 1971 and a runner-up finish the following year. Those were great teams and good times. If there had been a home game the evening before us squirts showed for youth play, you could still smell the popcorn. If there was a better building in town, I didn’t know about it.  PS

Southern Pines native Bill Fields, who writes about golf and other things, moved north in 1986 but hasn’t lost his accent.