B is for Basketball

On staying inside the lines, remembering to dribble, and reviving a family legacy. How my 3-year-old learned to be a Hoosier.

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This article appeared in the November 2009 issue and is part of Indianapolis Monthly’s celebration of longform journalism. 

 

I am typically a very deliberate writer. Some writers sketch an outline, throw all their words onto paper, then go through several layers of perfecting until everything is in the right spot and hits the right tone. Me? I put together a clumsy nut graf that reminds me what my overall point is. Then, I write the first sentence. And then I rewrite the first sentence. And then I take another stab at it and maybe add a second. And then I perfect them both. And eventually I have an entire first paragraph. And then I move on from there, with the same painstaking caution.

“B is for Basketball” was much different for me. It was a fluid story — I knew where to start, where I was going, and how on earth to make the clumsy antics of a game played by 3-year-olds fit within a story about our state’s fervor for basketball; one of its favorite son’s passion for passing it along; my dad’s generation’s relationship with the game; my personal affection for where I’m from; and how my daughter’s emergence as her own person clicked into place with all of that.

These days, Edie is a 10-year-old fifth-grader at Sugar Creek Elementary in New Palestine. She is a gifted writer and thinker, and her first love is soccer. (“Basketball is not my thing,” she announced a year or two ago.) This summer, I went on an epic tour of Indiana with my two favorite lefties — Edie and my dad — and I hope, somewhere along the way, she picked up her own appreciation for it. But the big news is that she has been spending more time in Bloomington lately and went to her first Indiana University basketball game this year with her dad, my dad and me. In the corridors of Assembly Hall, we pointed out some photos of Tom Abernethy and reminded her that she learned her shooting form from the best.

Edie also now has a 3-year-old sister, so perhaps it’s now time to sign up Vivian for the Indiana Basketball Academy. –Amy Wimmer Schwarb, author

B is for Basketball
Edie, now ten years old, at an IU basketball game.

Amy Wimmer Schwarb


 

The little girl at center court had no game. She just stood there, stoic, watching as the boys raced past, dribbling and tripping and, on occasion, pushing. She looked as if she had been crossing the street when the light changed, and had decided that the safest place to be was right where she was, between the zooming lanes of traffic, holding her breath and waiting for the “Walk” sign.

A basketball rolled by, and a sweet-faced boy in a Kobe Bryant jersey that came down to his knees dove at the girl’s feet. A boy in a crewcut and Velcro-ed shoes brushed against her as he ran off the court for a potty break. Then a big kid—nearly four feet tall—raced by so close that the girl’s blond ponytail fluttered in his wake. Still, she stood—motionless, expressionless, one thumb in her mouth, the other tucked beneath her shirt, resting against her belly button.

“Edie!” I called to my daughter from the bleachers in a loud whisper. “Run!”

And she did run. Straight to me. A wide grin replaced her pensive stare, and I realized she wasn’t terrified after all. She was just awestruck by a strange new place where sneakers squeaked and bouncing balls echoed and the air smelled faintly of buttered popcorn.

“You have to run,” I told her. “You have to run and help the red team.”

The smile disappeared. “I want to help the red team and the blue team,” she countered.

The world Edie Schwarb had known up until that moment had altruistic rules. She had been guided to make decisions that were kind and safe. Thomas the Tank Engine, though blue, helped the red engines, too. Sharing was more important than winning. A simple I-think-I-can could transport you over a large mountain. Was 3 years old too young to learn that sometimes you have to pick sides? That life has winners and losers? That even the Little Engine That Could probably needed a little skill and hard work to accomplish his task?

“You,” I began, giving her belly a poke where the “I” and “U” interlocked on her T-shirt, “are wearing red.”

“But … but … but,” she stammered, “my favorite color is blue.”

And then she was off, running, to help her teams.

B is for Basketball
TEAM SPIRIT: John, Hayden, Luke, Jack, and Edie await some floor time at the Indiana Basketball Academy.

Tony Valainis

At 3 years old, children are steady on their feet, capable of following basic instructions, and, more often than not, can be trusted not to potty on the playing field. Modern society looks at these qualifications and deems such children Eligible to Participate.

Some 3-year-olds zoom rapidly to the front of the field. By 3, Tiger Woods had already taken on Bob Hope in a putting contest on national television. Three-year-old wunderkind Mark Walker Jr. of Kansas City signed an endorsement deal with Reebok after impressing the shoemaker with his hoops skills. A search for “3-year-old prodigy” on YouTube yields hundreds of videos posted by parents who believe their child is the next LeBron, A-Rod, or Tony Hawk.

In this town, at age 3, your opportunities are boundless. A 3-year-old can take the floor at Sharp’s Gymnastics Academy, the northside gym that produced 2008 Olympic medalist Bridget Sloan. Likewise, at the IU Natatorium at IUPUI, 3-year-olds can take swim lessons, kicking and floating in water where Michael Phelps has set world records. At age 3, a child can seek
instruction at the Pepsi Coliseum and learn to skate on the home rink of the league-champion Indiana Ice.

And then there is the Indiana Basketball Academy, where, beginning at age 3, children can sign up to learn dribbling, passing, and shooting—or, at least, what those words mean, and that you need to stay within the lines while doing them. The academy is owned by Tom Abernethy, a starting forward on the IU team of 1975–76—a stellar squad that, with Bob Knight at the helm, finished the season undefeated and won the national championship. At the academy, Abernethy himself—with assistance from other coaches on the staff—introduces the children to drills, tweaks their shooting form, and doles out candy at the end of practice.

Edie Schwarb’s parents do not, for the record, think she is a basketball prodigy. Her mother is five-foot-four; her father, five-foot-nine. She wears Stride Rites purchased on clearance at T.J. Maxx, and her “people” are not seeking any sort of shoe-endorsement deal. My daughter’s hoop dreams will, most likely, be short-lived. But she, like all other kids whose parents make them sign up for tee-ball or wear goofy outfits at dance recitals, is still malleable to the hopes and aspirations her parents have for her.

And this, truth be told, is what I have always wanted for my child: I want her to be a Hoosier.

She nearly wasn’t. In 2005, when my husband and I learned that I was pregnant, we looked around the part of Florida where we had lived for years—a place where manatees lumber in the springs and dolphins jump in the surf and sawgrass sways in the breeze—and feared that a child who grew up in a place like that might not recognize the subtler beauty of a dusty cornfield after harvest. I wanted my family farm to be a source of pride for our daughter, not a boring destination at the far end of a Thanksgiving roadtrip.

Months before her arrival in the world, we quit our jobs in St. Petersburg, found new ones in Indianapolis, and set about raising a native-born Hoosier.

We gave her the first name Estelle (after a great-great-grandmother who was a Howard County farmer’s wife) and the middle name Delaney (after a great-great-grandfather who was a deliveryman for the Batesville Casket Company). Then we “smooshed” the names together to create her nickname, Edie—a whole lot of heritage, packed into two syllables.

At 3, because of her parents’ meddling, Edie Schwarb begs to wear her Peyton Manning jersey, even in the off-season; knows the words to the IU fight song; understands the difference between a John Deere and an International; and refers to Monument Circle as “My Steps.” She witnessed (in utero) Reggie Miller’s last game with the Pacers, the 2006 Little 500 (where she soaked through a diaper), and the first game played at Lucas Oil Stadium. She has never missed an Indiana State Fair, which magically falls on the week of her birthday.

Someday sooner than we would like, her parents will cease to be the most important influence on her. In the next couple of years, we might visit the Gulf Coast beach town where she would have grown up—a place where kids play in the sand after school, Disney World is just an hour’s drive up the road, and 3-year-olds can learn to windsurf—and Edie might just wonder what her parents could possibly have been thinking.

So while we still have control over her heart and mind, we wanted to introduce her to an experience that, if not unique to Hoosiers, is coded in their DNA. When she turned 3, instead of enrolling her in tap-dancing or tee-ball, we signed her up to learn how to shoot a basketball.

The Indiana Basketball Academy is a 17,000-square-foot building near the corner of 96th Street and Keystone Avenue, created solely for basketball instruction: Inside are two full-sized basketball courts with nine-foot hoops; an additional miniature court for drills, with five hoops; a scoreboard with a bleating buzzer; and two bins the size of upright freezers, containing dozens of basketballs.

Parents watch the practices from a smattering of bleachers that line the courts. The littlest kids shoot on the mini-court, and parents crowd around glass windows that separate it from the lobby. They munch on fresh popcorn sold at a concession stand in the small business office, an offering that makes the building not just look and sound like a high-school gym, but also smell and taste like one.

Following his success at IU, Abernethy spent seven years in professional basketball, including stints with the Lakers and the Pacers. But it is his service as a loyal soldier in The General’s star squadron that makes him legendary: Never since has a Division I basketball team celebrated an undefeated season. “Take a good look at these kids,” Knight once said of Abernethy and the other four starters, “because you’re never going to see the likes of them again.”

When he built the Indiana Basketball Academy in 1996, Abernethy had already had a successful post-NBA career in commercial real estate. But the academy was a chance to merge two loves: basketball and working with children. He also uses the forum to share his faith; the little ones’ classes end with a piece of candy, a basketball card, and a short Bible lesson. “My motivation for this isn’t to crank out NBA or major college players,” Abernethy says. “What I have a heart for is basketball as a vehicle to help kids develop character.” He has
turned down opportunities to offer similar programs in other parts of the country; he simply isn’t convinced it would work outside of Indiana.

The academy hosts clinics, tournaments, camps, and leagues, plus adult leagues. In the preschool training class, a series of six weekly one-hour sessions, kids practice the fundamentals. Each class ends with a scrimmage—full-court with full-height hoops—in which a score is kept (three points for a basket; two for hitting the rim; one for brushing the net), refs blow whistles (Abernethy lets a lot of fouls slide), and a loud buzzer signals the end of the game (and causes sound-sensitive kiddos to cover their ears).

One evening earlier this year, on the first night of class, the coaches gathered 15 little boys and one girl in the mini-court and told them to dribble. Balls careened off toes, off knees, off elbows. Asked to weave through traffic cones, many of the children simply dribbled in a wide circle around them, or zigzagged through but dribbled only every third or fourth step. On pivot drills, some immediately caught on and kept one foot stationed; others simply swayed from side to side, basketball in hand.

The General, Abernethy is not—he’s more like a kindly drill sergeant who keeps a stash of candy in his pocket. And while the class sort of resembled a live pinball machine, with orange balls pinging off three-foot-tall flippers, the practice was mostly orderly, and the kids followed Coach Tom’s lead. Even when he asked them to dribble while looking at him, not the ball. Even when he asked them to walk and dribble at the same time.

Throughout the drills, the basketball hoops loomed in the background, awaiting their turns as the stars of the show. The more advanced—those who understood the difference between a pivot drill and a jumping jack—were sent to the nine-foot hoop. A few young ones who showed promise headed to the middle-height hoop. Edie and two small boys shot baskets at the shortest hoop of all, set at six-foot-three. Another boy from the mid-height hoop tried shooting baskets there, too, but the coaches shooed him away, reserving this hoop for the kids who needed it.

Abernethy showed Edie how to hold the ball—right hand by the right cheek, left hand providing light support on the side—but each of her attempts seemed to go straight up in the air and drop down again, on a vertical axis. Between the drills and the scrimmage, Abernethy reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of Tootsie Rolls. Edie took one, unwrapped it—and then handed the former national champ her empty candy wrapper.

Not far from where I grew up, near a northeast Indiana town called Mount Etna, is a basketball goal mounted on a backboard affixed to two old beams that rise out of a field. There’s no concrete pad beneath it, just a flat spot in the dust where a ball can find a good bounce.

I had never noticed it, despite its proximity to my hometown, until a photographer friend visiting from Florida snapped its picture as a sort of life-in-Indiana vignette. The hoop seems to grow organically from the Indiana soil; in fact, when corn is at full height, it disappears from sight. It is a reminder that—no matter how detrimental the advent of class basketball or how empty the gymnasiums on Friday nights or how distant the Milan Miracle—around here, still, basketball just is.

My dad and uncles were hard-charging, small-town basketball players of the ’40s and ’50s, when every little town had a high school and every school had enough boys to front a team. Their stories persist today: To hear them tell it, my dad, a left-hander with remarkable skill at free throws, maxed out the number of Kewpie dolls he could win at the basketball booths of the 1950 Indiana State Fair. He went home with 39 of them in the back of a 1948 Kaiser, and then gave them a second life at the school carnival—as prizes at a basketball booth.

That same summer, the owner of a service station in Greentown, a small Howard County hamlet, let my dad and his buddies build a basketball hoop out back. They laid gravel, hung a backboard, and, late one night, added the net—but no one had a ball. So they headed to a festival in nearby Kokomo, where a basketball booth offered three shots for a dime. “I’ll give you a quarter if you let me try a long shot,” my Uncle Johnny told the man at the booth. Then my uncle stepped back and threw the ball as far as he could, over the basketball booth and into the waiting arms of another boy—“the fastest kid in Howard County at the time,” as my dad describes him—who carried it all the way back to Greentown.

My dad, a left-hander with  remarkable skill at free throws, maxed out the number of Kewpie dolls he could win at  the 1950 Indiana State Fair.

The rims and backboards of my youth hung from the rafters of my dad’s truck-parts warehouse, from a pole in the concrete parking lot of my mother’s restaurant, inside the barn at my great-grandparents’ place. But like so many other families’ basketball stories, ours faded when high schools consolidated in the 1950s and ’60s. (My brothers and I went to the only high school in Huntington County, where even the name of the yearbook—the Deka—still pays homage to the 10 schools that were closed to create one big one.) Bigger schools meant fewer hot small-town rivalries. More competition for the five spots on the floor. Rising participation among other sports. My earliest memories, in fact, are of my older brothers’ Huntington North football games, where I sat backward in the bleachers, a coloring book propped on the row behind me. Thirty years later, Edie’s first sporting event was a football game at Greenwood High School, where my brother was the coach. She was nine days old and wore a Greenwood Woodmen onesie.

Today, even my dad is out of the game. A few years ago, beneath his collarbone, doctors inserted a defibrillator, which shocks his heart into action should it ever miss a beat. They didn’t ask which hand my dad favored, and he didn’t offer that he was a lefty, and so the defibrillator was installed on his left side. Today, it’s difficult for him to raise his left hand above his shoulder. So much for his never-miss free-throw shot.

About the time that Edie was learning to shoot a basketball, she was also learning to write her name. At home, I would hover behind her, helping guide her right hand with mine, making the straight sticks of a capital “E.” But when I left my post, she would transfer the pencil to her left hand and continue practicing. The circles she drew with her right hand were wobbly and deflated; those drawn with her left were fat and sure. Edie, it seemed, had inherited more from her grandpa than his smiling eyes and easy laugh.

Her choice was so natural, so matter-of-fact, so lacking in defiance. And yet it was a decision all her own, a stroke of independence, a reminder that her parents weren’t calling all the shots. Being a lefty in a right-handed world, one where a left-handed racecar driver must shift with the weaker hand and orchestra violinists must play right-handed, meant that my daughter would be a natural at adapting—something I had never really aced. And she would, starting with basketball class, have to speak up for herself.

“Coach,” Edie announced through a mouthful of Goldfish crackers, “I’m left-handed.”

Try it again, I urged from the driver’s seat. Louder this time! “Cooooaaacchhhh,” she squealed, belted into her carseat in the back. “I’M! LEFT! HANDED!”

Left-handed people are special, I told her. Grandpa Wimmer is left-handed. Uncle Rod is left-handed. Larry Bird is left-handed.

“Who’s Larry Bird?” she asked, reaching for more Goldfish.

We were on our way to the last night of the six-week session at the Indiana Basketball Academy. Her grandpa was coming, too, drawn to the idea of watching the family’s newly declared lefty shoot a basketball.

By this point in her basketball training, Edie could dribble, more or less, and even walk and dribble at the same time, on occasion. She had nailed the pivot drill. She delighted in taking her turn at the bounce pass, which she called a “balance pass.”

But she had not yet made a basket.

Maybe if Coach Tom knew that her left hand was stronger and surer, I theorized, she might have a shot—at making a shot. I shuffled her into the girls’ restroom to change into her basketball clothes. “Coach, I’m left-handed,” I whispered to her. “Coach, I’m left-handed,” she giggled back.

But out on the half-court, staring at the knees of an IU basketball great’s khaki pants, Edie lost her nerve. No words to the coach, no signal that she had something to say. Between drills, she perched herself atop a basketball, one thumb in her mouth, the other on her belly button.

When it was time for shooting practice, she and the one boy who hadn’t graduated to the mid-size hoop headed to the six-foot-three goal with Coach Tom.

Again, she followed Coach Tom’s instructions: Bend at the knees. Right hand beside the right cheek. Ball balanced on the right hand. Left hand supporting the ball on the side. Then, a straight jump, ball of the foot to the tips of the toes, and a release, with her wrist following the ball. The ball floundered, with no arc, no power, no oomph.

Coach Tom hovered behind her and, just like me guiding her pencil, placed her hands just so—left hand supporting the ball on the side, right hand guiding the pushoff—but again, her release had no conviction.

basketball
HOOP, HOOP, HOORAY: With instruction from IU basketball great Tom Abernethy, Edie jumps, shoots, scores!

Tony Valainis

Abernethy knelt in front of her, his back to us, folding his six-foot-seven frame to meet her 34 inches. As we watched through the glass, he held out his right arm, and touched it with his left hand, then held out his left arm, and touched it with his right. Edie, looking her coach in the eye, extended her left hand. That’s right, Coach, she was saying, silently. I’m left-handed.

Abernethy gently, immediately, inverted his teaching. Bend your knees. Left hand by the cheek. Ball balanced on the left hand, with the right next to it for support. A straight jump, ball of foot to tips of toes, release. And then, swoosh.

No, really. SWOOSH.

She shot a second time. SWOOSH. And a third. SWOOSH.

Edie ran off the half-court and around the wall of windows that separated us, her basketball tucked under her right arm. On her left hand, she gleefully held up three fingers—one for each basket.

The kids met at center court for a pregame handshake before the final scrimmage of the final practice. Edie, wearing yet another IU T-shirt, was once again on the red team, and Abernethy paired her off against John, a quiet 3-year-old with thick hair. Abernethy blew the whistle.

The best player in the class, a 5-year-old whose mother reports that he likes to practice by himself in the driveway, dribbled down the court with the ball, weaving among the smaller kids. A few feet shy of the hoop, he stopped, jumped, and released a ball that grazed the net—one point for the blue team.

Over the next few minutes, between whistles, Abernethy called out instructions to his charges: Dribble. Stay inside the lines. Don’t guard someone who is wearing the same color as you. Don’t forget to dribble. Dribble means bounce the ball.

Amid the excitement, a boy in blue sat beneath his team’s basket, tracing the lane lines with his finger. He looked up, startled, when the basketball bounced off the toe of a player nearby and rolled to him. With less than a minute remaining in the 10-minute scrimmage, he scooped it up and handed it, like a hot potato, to the person standing closest to him, even though she was wearing red.

I have no reason to believe that Edie understood the gimme she had just been offered. Certainly the term “turnover” had no meaning to her. But she did seem to take in that she was beneath the opposition’s basket, even that she was within shooting range.

The boys gave her space. Even John, the kid in the Pacers jersey who was supposed to be guarding her, backed off. There were 10 seconds left on the clock, and Edie used every one of them. First she put her left toes a bit in front of her right ones. She bent her knees. Pulled the ball back to her left cheek. Placed her right hand beside the ball, for support, and the left hand beneath it, for propulsion.

Jump. Release. Wrist flick.

The buzzer sounded.

Edie did not follow the ball with her eyes. She did not notice whether it arced into the net or touched nothing but air. Instead, as the buzzer finished its call, she turned her attention to Coach Tom, who was about to hand out Tootsie Pops.

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