“Shoot!” somebody shouted.
You were open and you shot from the right corner, a jump shot from what today would be three-point range. The ball went in, all net, just as the buzzer sounded, the only buzzer beater in more than 20 years of playing disorganized and organized basketball, beginning in grade school and continuing through a pretty good Philadelphia adult league that had some former college players and even one ex-pro from the old Eastern League. He was on our team and technically should not have been allowed, but nobody complained because our team clearly needed some help.
Anyway, the thrill of that buzzer beater was compromised by the fact that as your feet landed, an ankle gave way. You could hardly walk in the second half, but after using ice on the swelling and having a teammate, who was also a football coach, tape the bad ankle, you were able to play a few days later.
It was the only buzzer beater and the only injury in all those years of playing basketball. The memory comes alive this time of year when college basketball winds down, as we watch the NCAA tournament. It is always fun to see some of the old-time film when schools and players with glory in their past are recalled. You see a much slower game, with players wearing shorts that do not resemble prom gowns and often shooting outside shots without leaving their feet. You also see a game with far fewer injuries than today – a game that was designed by Dr. James Naismith in 1891 to be played indoors and in safety.
The fundamental premise was to reward skill rather than brute strength – a sport in which a clever little sharpshooter could compete with a larger person. Until the 1950s, and even into the '70s, his concept stayed intact. Basketball was a pretty safe game. It was unusual, at least on the college level, for a player to miss a major part of a season because of injury.
Over the last several decades Naismith’s game has become almost unrecognizable as the rules have relaxed to permit much quicker movement and physical contact that would have appalled the game’s inventor. The result is that almost every team in the NCAA tournament has been affected by injuries, some of them, as in the case of the Louisville player over the weekend, shockingly severe.
It is a rare team that does not have at least one key player out, or playing hurt. The team closest to home is our La Salle, whose tallest player at 6-11 missed almost the last month of the season after spraining his foot. La Salle managed to win three tournament games without him, but was crushed under the boards in most of its final games, even while winning.
Our main gripe is all the contact, much of it intentional. Players driving to the basket are taught to make contact, and what once was charging now mostly goes against the defense. Size and strength (which translates to speed) are rewarded – just what its founder did not want. Injuries are inevitable. Sorry, Dr. Naismith.