Having grown up in Illinois in the late 1950s and 1960s, basketball became my passion. It remains so today.
Sure I loved baseball, football, golf, track and just about any sport you can name, but it was round ball that really tripped my trigger. My parents made it a point to take me to as many Decatur High basketball games as possible, and I became a devoted fan of the Runnin' Reds.
I was even in the DHS gym that fateful February night in 1960 when the Reds and my hero at the time, Kenny Barnes, were putting a whupping on their cross-town rivals, the MacArthur Generals. Decatur High coach and legend Gay Kintner was gunning for his fourth state title and his first in 15 years, but he knew he had to get past the tough-minded Generals first.
As the second half got under way, suddenly the entire gymnasium went quiet as the 64-year-old Kintner slumped over and fell in a heap onto the hardwood floor. Attempts to revive him failed. I can still hear the guttural scream of his wife as she rushed from the bleachers to her husband's side. Everyone was in shock. Obviously, the remainder of the game was postponed.
To say that basketball was a religion in Illinois at that time is actually an understatement. It was a way of life. Although just a pre-pubescent boy, I vowed that basketball would be my chosen profession, and I modeled my game after the incomparable Jazzie Cazzie Russell who played for Carver High School in Chicago and went on to greatness at the University of Michigan and the NBA.
Cazzie (what a great name) had the sweetest touch you'd ever want to see and I copied every detail of his shooting form. When Cazzie let the spheroid fly it was money, and I wanted to be just like him. A TV reporter once asked Cazzie how he developed such a soft shot, he replied, "I practice and I don't lift weights. Lifting weights tightens up your arm muscles and ruins your shot. You lose your feel."
I took his words as gospel and never, ever picked up a dumbbell. My skinny arms are living proof to this day, but I'm still hell to deal with in a game of horse.
But I digress. Actually, this column isn't about basketball, it's about wrestling. Don't worry; I'll get there eventually.
At Glenbrook South High School (we moved to the Chicago suburb of Glenview in 1962), from which I graduated in 1968, we had a wrestling team, but no one seemed to notice. It was considered the sport of choice for those poor, unfortunate souls who weren't coordinated enough to play some hoops.
I didn't realize how wrong that assumption was until I was forced to actually wrestle as part of a physical education class. I had to square off against a kid of similar size for three, two-minute periods. No biggie, I thought, then the teacher blew the whistle.
It was unquestionably the longest six minutes of my life. My opponent turned me every way but loose, and when it finally, mercifully, ended, I was so exhausted from using every muscle in my body -- without any timeouts -- I had to hurl. My opinion about wrestling changed instantly from disdain to respect. Big time respect.
As a result, I followed Iowa icon Dan Gable's college wrestling career closely, and was as proud as any American when he won the gold medal in the 1972 Olympics - without giving up a single point.
When I began my journalism career in Iowa back in the day, I had the opportunity to travel to Des Moines to cover the state wrestling championships. I'll never forget the first time I walked into Veterans Auditorium. It was stunning.
With six mats in use at the same time, I can only describe the scene as organized chaos. As fans and parents scurried around to get as close as possible to the mat their wrestler was competing on, I tried to take it all in.
There was a father yelling so hard I thought a vein sticking out of his neck would burst. A distraught mother was sobbing uncontrollably after her son was pinned ... a coach was hugging his charge after a particularly dramatic victory ... cheerleaders were pounding the mat as they screamed encouragement to their respective combatants ... and the thing I'll remember most was a 10-year-old kid walking around with a T-shirt that had "Jeff Kerber" on the front and "My brother is 117-0" on the back." (Kerber would go on to win four state titles.)
I was totally immersed in the world of big-time high school wrestling, and I loved it. By the time Saturday night came and the championship matches started, the atmosphere was electric. It was a unique moment in time I'll never forget. I get goose bumps just thinking about it.
Say what you want about wrestling, but make no mistake, the determination, dedication and fervor required to be a successful grappler ranks among the most demanding of any sport. That's any sport ... period.
In other words, you've got to love it in order to live it, and here's a poignant example of that passion from South Winn Coach Jacob Elsbernd, whose team finished 10th in Class 1A - the best showing ever for the Warriors - and crowned just the second champion in school history in 220-pounder Nick Schmelzer.
"This was a big weekend and a turning point for South Winn wrestling," wrote Elsbernd in an e-mail. "Tanner (Phillips), Nathan (Brincks, who finished fourth) and Nick were definitely prepared coming into the weekend. We had a schedule that put us against powerhouse teams such as Osage, New Hampton, Independence, Nashua Plainfield and Denver Tripoli multiple times this season.
"Each one of the guys had tasted defeat, so they knew how it felt and that they didn't want to be there again. We turned up the intensity the second half of the season and started working out twice a day a few times a week and had some great workout partners to push them. I felt very confident that I had four state place winners going into districts. We were only able to get three of them to state, but I still feel the same way about it."
For my money, competitor and wrestler are synonymous.