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Glory days: The fun and camaraderie of team sports

March 24, 2014

Two valley girls are doing us proud here in the Shenandoah Valley as March Madness gets serious. If we can’t have spring yet, at least we can enjoy great basketball.

The two are seniors Kirby Burkholder and Nikki Newman playing for James Madison University, who have played together 8-9 years all through high school and now college. One hails from my husband’s hometown, Bridgewater, and both went to his alma mater high school, Turner Ashby. “TA” for short or “Trashby Ashby” depending on who was trash talking them. One of my daughters has as her alma mater JMU so we actually went to Burkholder and Newman’s last home game at JMU on a recent cold and rainy Sunday afternoon, enduring a 30 minute wait without umbrellas to catch a shuttle bus back to our parking lot after their brilliantly played rout. Drenched but glad now we made the effort.

How much women’s basketball, my first true love in sports, has changed since the days I began interscholastic competition as a lowly 7th grader! And yes, I remember playing half court b-ball, when only “rovers” could run end-to-end on the court with guards just playing on one end and forwards on the other because women were judged too unfit to all run the length of the court. Or maybe the purpose was to slow down the game, I don’t know.

P1050310My junior high 7th and 8th grade teams in Middlebury, Ind. I’m 2nd row, third from left. Yes, we played in white blouses. Blouses. So we’d match. (Some who forgot white blouses have on their gym uniforms here, including my bestest friend, Martha front row, far right.)

Today I probably enjoy watching football just as much, but how special it is to glory in the quick tempo and grace of a fast game of basketball. My sisters actually wore skirts to play (not just in gym but with other schools) but by the time I was playing we got to wear shorts. Worldly. We egged the coach into buying shorter shorts for uniforms because “it feels horrible to play with shorts reaching your knees,” I remember some girls saying. That’s funny now.

P1050311P1050313

Pert was short but she knew how to jump, lifting her way above outstretched hands on our high school team. It also helped that to me, she was fearless.

My glory years were three years of high school, two of which I got to play with my sister, Pert, who went on to a significant career playing in college and then coaching at both levels. She even made it onto an exhibition team that played in Asia as a Christian outreach at the time. Pert, even though she was never more than 5’2” tall, was grace and spirit personified on the basketball court, charging ruthlessly through a knot of girls under the basket, somehow “slopping” (her words) the ball into the bucket. And drawing the foul from an opposing player. She was a great outside shot too and would have aced many 3-pointers in her day if they had counted that way. My oldest sister Nancy played too but I didn’t get to play with her. We sisters were all on the short side, me the tallest female if I stretched to 5’6″. My brother, the tallest of us around 6′ never played on a team. Go figure.

P1050312Our high school team (not very uniform). We wore “pinnies” with numbers for games. Pert on far left, middle row, long hair; me on far right, back row, long hair.

I remember especially one game when our small Bethany Christian school team traveled about an hour and a half away and some of the first string couldn’t go, or were sick, or whatever. When someone got into early foul trouble, I was number 6 off the bench that night, and I frankly wasn’t in shape enough to playing full court basketball for 32 minutes straight, doubling over at one point feeling like I was going to retch right there on the basketball floor. I motioned to my sister that I was about to puke and she got the coach to take me out. I think we won, no thanks to me. Usually I just played B-team, which is all the further I got in college too. But I played for fun. In Indiana, November was my favorite month because that’s when our season got under way. I loved playing the game and couldn’t wait for each opportunity.

I played for three years of high school until my family moved to north Florida where I was disappointed to learn there was no girls basketball in our area at the time. What? It was inconceivable to me, and even the boy basketball games played second fiddle to football, the only sport where big numbers of fans came out.

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My team at Eastern Mennonite College (now University), 1972. I’m #33 next to the coach with her hair in a bun and likely a homemade dress. We played JMU that year.

When I got to college at Eastern Mennonite University, the cross town university to JMU, the women’s team at that time still actually competed against JMU. I remember playing in Godwin Hall and even then it was a ridiculous mismatch, a game JMU (then Madison College) agreed to simply because it was a sure win and an easy trip. But we were proud because the men’s team would never have played against Madison at that time, so we had one up on the guys. Right? And now I can say I played against JMU. Whoo Woo.

These days children have to start playing basketball and other sports in earnest by the time they reach third grade or maybe even earlier to have a chance of ever playing high school or college sports (but that’s another story and gripe). I guess that’s how kids like Burkholder and Newman and all of their colleagues play so crazy-skilled, fast, and awesome. Last night, at the point Gonzaga moved briefly ahead, Burkholder took over the game for her team, in my opinion, and made sure JMU stayed in the hunt.  (Photos and run down here.) Let me hasten to say the strength of this team is their balance and tremendous team playing abilities more so than any one-or-two-woman show. Various players have stepped up during various games to give them a 29-5 record this year and I owe a shout out to at least two more players who will carry the JMU women forward after Burkholder and Newman graduate, junior Toia Gibbets (Norfolk, Va./Lake Taylor)  and sophomore guard Precious Hall (Tallahassee, Fla./Maclay School). Somewhere along the line, north Florida women must have really started playing basketball!

Go JMU women. You gave a clinic last night on playing your hearts out and it just looked like you wanted this one a little more badly than the other team. And gave your hometown something to cheer for on this cold March night when more snow is predicted by Tuesday.

P1050314(Huddle: Anyone got a good joke to tell? I’m #34 here.)

But the real glory of those days was not any game won or individual records but the camaraderie and fun of being part of a great group of girls and women who loved playing the game. Traveling, especially in college, to schools throughout Virginia and now knowing just where many private women’s colleges like Sweet Briar and Longwood and Radford and many others were tucked away in small picturesque communities. It was eating those packed lunches on vans (low budget teams) and occasionally eating out and huddling before and after games and joking during time outs, when the coach ran out of things to tell us, “anybody gotta a good joke?” On the ESPN broadcast last night, I heard one player express much the same thought about the fun and joy of team camaraderie and thought, good for them. They’ve still got it right. And that’s something to keep in mind as parents, players and coaches.

Enjoy the ride.

***

Did you play a team sport in middle, high school, or college?

What sport to you enjoy the most now?

Do you think kids are playing for fun today or because their parents are hoping for stars or scholarships for their kids?

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