I don’t think I ever saw a happier coach in my life, although the only play he knew was the weave, which is a silly and pointless play…”
by brian doyle
I am that rare man who can vividly remember his first lesson in the dark art of boxing out other players under the basket, a necessary workmanlike task before you or a teammate could snare a rebound. It was a warm Saturday morning, many years ago, in a grade-school gymnasium, and our coach, one of the other guys’ dads, was animatedly showing us how the proper technique was to position yourself between the opponent and the basket, and crowd up against your opponent close enough that you were sure he was stuck or rooted there behind you, and then you spread out your arms widely but innocently, without smacking anyone in the kisser, and cocking your elbows slightly as warnings against incursion or trespass into the space you thus create in which you or a teammate can snare the rebound, and then, the most important part, boys, the crucial part, the secret of the thing, you crouch down low, as if you are about to sit down awkwardly on the pot, and you hold that position as long as necessary, and the genius of this crouch, boys, is that your posterior acts as a lever to further establish your secure position against the incursion or trespass of the fella who is stuck there behind you, and also it creates a little more space over which bigger fellas have to reach over you for the rebound, and referees hate it when guys reach over other guys, even the appearance of reaching over another guy for a rebound is enough to make the refs blow their whistles, which they love to do, I think to prove that they exist on this God’s earth, and are in charge of the game, and can blow their damned whistles, although how hard is it to blow a whistle, hey? Okay, you guys try to box me out.
And for the next fifteen minutes there was the hilarious uproarious vastly entertaining sight of a parade of scrawny eleven-year-old boys trying manfully to box out our coach, who was a tall eager cheerful man with the face of a disconsolate bulldog and not the slightest hint or shred of athletic ability. We took turns jumping in front of him, opening our dewy wings wide, crooking them slightly so as to emphasize our pencil-point elbows, and then crouching and owning our position, that’s your spot, boys, no force on this God’s earth can dislodge you from your spot, you are camped out there, and that ball is yours, it has your name on it, or your teammate’s name, and the only way your opponent can possibly get to it is through you, and that won’t happen, will it, boys? Or he can try to reach over you, and the referee will blow his whistle if that happens, in fact he will blow that damned whistle if your opponent even looks like he is thinking about reaching over you, trust me on this one, boys, trust me.
He was a most pleasant and energetic man, our coach, the kind of guy who actually bounded from place to place in the gym, though he had not the slightest scrap or speck of athletic ability, so that it was like watching a tremendous rabbit lurching joyously from place to place; I don’t think I ever saw a happier coach in my life, although the only play he knew was the weave, which is a silly and pointless play, though fun to watch if you enjoy journeys with no particular destination in mind.
In the twenty years I played basketball after that morning I learned many other entertaining things about boxing out, such as how to back up steadily while you were crouched and so take away the legs of taller players, and how to pretend you had been shoved out of position when you hadn’t, and how to accidentally elbow your opponent sharply in the throat while establishing position, and how to shove a guy who had established position off the spot you wanted, and how to hold a guy’s shirt with both hands and yank down when he tried to jump so that he didn’t, and how to box out a guy by just flashing in front of him at the right instant, and how to box out huge guys by accidentally getting all tangled up with them for an instant while your teammate floats by and snares the rebound, and many other subtle and satisfying things like that, but even now when I hear the words boxing out I think immediately of that bright Saturday morning many years ago in a grade-school gymnasium, as we learned to hold our position against all sorties and assaults, boys, against all trespass and incursion, against the devious plots and wiles of the opposition, not to mention the referees, never put your faith in the referees, boys, for they are not above blowing their whistles occasionally just to assure themselves that they are still alive. They are not the brightest bulbs in the universe, boys, and that’s a fact. Trust me on this one.
(illustration: brian doyle)
Brian Doyle was the author of many books, including the sea novel The Plover, which has, no kidding, music printed in it, not to mention Mink River, Martin Marten, The Wet Engine, and more than we can recall. He won the 2017 John Burroughs Medal for distinguished nature writing for Martin Marten, which was plenty cool and much deserved. Brian passed away peacefully at his Lake Oswego home on May 27, 2017. Faced with the prospect that Brian will not be here to support his family, there is an effort underway to pay off the mortgage to sustain Mary and their children: https://www.gofundme.com/doylefamilyfund
More, much more, from Brian Doyle can be found in the Vault of Smoke.