Seven Foot, Two Inches

Nebraska — the land of my birth — is a football state. Based on the sorry past few years, young people can’t imagine that the University of Nebraska once was a powerhouse in the world of college football. In fact, the November 1971 matchup between University of Nebraska and University of Oklahoma was referred to by Sports Illustrated as the Game of the Century. Nebraska defeated its rival by four points, thanks to a late-game touchdown by the Cornhuskers. I was 17 years old, and I remember the game like it was yesterday. Indiana might have its basketball, but Nebraska was football All The Way.

The high school I attended offered three primary sports: football, basketball, and track. Three sports for BOYS, that is. There were, hmmm, let me think, NONE for girls. At least not back in the 1970s. Now I think the school offers girls AND boys many sport options.

I watched basketball in the winter when the Shamrocks basketball team (which included my high school boyfriend) played. I enjoyed watching the games, but see above: Nebraska was a football state.

It really wasn’t until Jen’s now-deceased husband Leroy entered our lives that we paid any attention at all to basketball. But to my surprise, when my son Court became old enough to hold a ball, basketball was his game of choice. Oh, he liked football and still does. But even to this day, he loves his Denver Nuggets.

One of my fondest memories of my mother was how pissed off she was at Court’s high school basketball coach when he was cut from the team. Court was a decent basketball player, but the Catholic high school he attended during his freshman year was as well-known for its sports teams as it was for its academics. That Court didn’t meet the coach’s expectations didn’t sit well with his grandmother. I won’t say what she called the coach, but the word includes an F. Court transferred schools the next year, and played basketball.

When Court was a youngster, I bought ticket packages for Nuggets games for a couple of years. We could attend something like seven games each season. We had so much fun. The Nuggets were a good team in those years, and very exciting to watch. Their center was Dikembe Mutombo, who was known for his blocking, rebounding, and finger wagging: Not in my house, he would say. When he was introduced at the beginning of the game, the announcer would say: And at center, standing 7 feet and 2 inches, Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean-Jacques Wamutombo, which his birth name from his birthplace, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The crowd would go wild!

This trip down Basketball Memory Lane is because the past two nights, I watched Court’s first-born — Kaiya — play basketball for her middle school. As I watched, I realized just how much I enjoy watching basketball. I like the sounds of squeaking rubber soles on the wooden floors. I like the spinning plays and the tosses of the ball resulting in a great assist. I love nothing-but-net.

Of course, when you’re watching eighth grade basketball, there isn’t a lot of nothing-but-net or three-point conversions. But I love how hard the girls work. And I love that Kaiya scored a couple of goals the first night, thanks to some tenacity under the basket, especially given her short stature. She made an extra point for her team on the second night, and had a great assist — something I find even prettier than a nothing-but-net basket.

I have tried watching basketball on television the past few years, as the Nuggets have once again emerged as a decent team. For me, however, it’s just not the same as being in a hot gym with the smell of sweat permeating the room. Plus, you never see the Nuggets center Nikola Jokic being hugged by his little brother in the middle of the game like this…..

Round Ball

I spent the first two decades of my life in Nebraska. You know, Nebraska, home of the Cornhuskers. Go Big Red and all that jazz. Because of the success of the Cornhuskers, the state was and is nuts about football. Basketball, not so much. Oh, I think Creighton University in Omaha always had a decent basketball team, but, well, GO BIG RED.

Despite my lack of childhood familiarity with basketball, Court grew up to be a basketball fan. He loves basketball.  From October through April, he is glued to his television every night watching an NBA game, preferably one involving the Denver Nuggets. Last October, I asked him if he was glad that the Cavaliers won the championship.

“I guess so,” he said. “But mostly I’m just sad to see the basketball season come to an end.”

That, my friends is how I feel every February after the Super Bowl. Sad to see football season end.

Court became a fan of basketball, I’m convinced, because of Jen’s ex-husband, Court’s Uncle Leroy. He certainly didn’t get it from me or my extended family. I’m certain he didn’t get it from his dad’s side of the family, the tallest of whom is probably 5’8”. His dad was a gymnast in high school, and probably never set foot on the basketball court in school.

But from the time he was a small boy, Court dribbled a basketball. While other boys dreamed of being astronauts or superheroes, he wanted to be an NBA player. He tried out for the basketball team the one and only year he attended Mullen High school, a Catholic high school in Denver known for its athletics program. That year my mother, despite already being quite sick, was thoroughly angry that her grandson wasn’t selected to be on the team. I thought I might have to wrestle the woman to the ground to prevent her from going to the school to give the high school basketball coach a piece of her mind.

mutombo

Dikembe Mutombo

It was around this period of time that Court actually got me interested in basketball. I watched him play the following three years when he DID make the basketball team at the public high school he attended. For several years, I actually had seven-game season passes for the two of us for the Denver Nuggets games during the glory years when Dikembe Mutombo, along with his signature finger-wagging not in my house, and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, along with his beautiful nothing-but-net shots, were the stars of the show. We would cheer like crazy when the announcer would introduce Mutombo, using his full name:  And standing at 7-2, from Georgetown, Center Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean-Jacques Wamutombo.

Court and I carefully watched Denver native Chauncey Billups – a scant four years older than Court — grow up to be a professional basketball player. Billups attended George Washington High School – not too far from our house

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf

— and it was clear that he was something special. He was so special, in fact, that Court and I got tickets to the high school basketball championship game played at the Pepsi Center just so we could watch Billups play and win the championship. He went on to play basketball for CU, and eventually played professional ball for the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors, Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks, and Los Angeles Clippers, proudly wearing number 1.

Chauncey Billups

Chauncey Billups

Billups is now retired and apparently lives in Denver. I’m guessing this to be true because about a year ago or so, Court was playing a pick-up basketball game during his lunch hour, and the group was looking for a fifth player. Court noticed a man shooting hoops across the gym, and recognized Billups. The group invited him to play, and he accepted. Uh, I’m pretty sure he was better than the rest.

I’m going down basketball memory lane because Court posted this photo recently of his son Cole proudly wearing an old-school Chauncey Billups basketball jersey. Well, I’m not sure how proud Cole actually is, but his ol’ Nana got tears in her eyes…….

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If you are a basketball fan and have a few minutes, watch the Denver Nuggets during the glory days….