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A love of the game, beginning with some resounding dunks

A love of the game, starting with some resounding dunks

POSTED: Aug 27, 2012 7:32 AM ET

By Stuart Smith, special to


Stuart Smith taking a shot for the Hargrave (Va.) Tigers.

David Aldridge's Monday morning column, The Morning Tip, is on hiatus. Before he took off, Aldridge asked for volunteers to fill in while he's away. This week, it's the fan's turn.

Stuart Smith, 28, is from Danville, Va., a latecomer to NBA fandom who is now a diehard Lakers backer. He insists, though, that he is no bandwagon-jumper. "Anyone that wants to call me a front-runner for being a Lakers fan," Smith says, "should know I didn't really start to root for them until the several seasons during which Smush Parker and Kwame Brown were starters."

The regular Morning Tip will return in mid-September.

The author as a kid, on his home court in Virginia.

I couldn't have been more than 5 years old when my parents bought this rinky-dink basketball goal for my brother and me. We always had a regulation hoop, but they bought us this Fisher-Price-type job to give us something we could really have fun with at such a young age, and it's that goal I always think of as the first goal I ever played on.

The rim stood about 6 feet high. The backboard was a thin piece of plywood painted white with orange trim, and it was attached to a hollow metal pole that was an inch, maybe an inch-and-a-half in diameter. At the bottom, the pole split off in four directions to form the base. A flimsy operation, for sure -- not likely to withstand more than one or two years of being subjected to the athletic, adventurous and sometimes purely destructive exploits of two energetic, sports-crazy young boys.

Only, nobody ever told that to the goal.

Man, we played on that thing for years. And we weren't exactly dainty with it. There are few plays in all of sports that look and feel as cool as dunking a basketball, so once we got big enough to throw down on "the little goal," as it came to be called, we unleashed a years-long assault of tomahawks, 360s, double-clutches and every other brand of dunk imaginable. One day my brother's best friend, with a stroke of genius, devised what we called "the rejection game." It was simple: A defender stood just in front of the goal, and an offensive player would go flying straight at the goal and try to dunk on the defender as hard as he could, while the defender attempted to block the shot. A made dunk was worth a point, while a block was worth two. First to ten points won. No jumpers, no layups. Only rejections and dunks were rewarded. Imagine the savage fury that rim endured during those games.

When I would play alone, the dunks lacked some of the ferocity those in-the-heat-of-competition ones held, but I made up for it with quantity. Night after night, dunk after dunk after dunk, I punished that pitiful-looking hoop. Occasionally the entire goal would tip over, like the time in fifth grade when I threw down a powerful, two-hand reverse jam and turned my back to the goal, preening to an imaginary crowd, only to have the thin iron rim crash onto the back of my head seconds later.

But, in utter defiance of the laws of physics, that goal never did break. It withstood the relentless onslaught of two dunk-crazy kids and all their friends for years, until they were too big for "the little goal." Like so many other nostalgic childhood artifacts, it eventually made its way into the attic, but not before it had sparked in me a love for the game of basketball.

Competition and a championship

My love for the game began to really blossom during middle school (grades 6-8). Several things happened during that stretch. One was that I realized I would never be able to hit a curveball, so I hung up the cleats after my last year of Little League Baseball. From then on, it was all basketball, all the time.

Another thing that affected my growth as a basketball player and lover of the game was the budding on-court rivalry between me and one of my best friends from up the street, Hunter. I always liked to play sports, but I never really knew what it meant to compete until I came across this ruthless sucker, a guy who would literally stew in anger for days over a loss at miniature golf. Man, did we get after it. Hunter got married just over a year ago, and when I stood to deliver a speech at the rehearsal dinner, I opened with, "I have wanted to punch this guy in the face no fewer than 683 times."

There we were, two 12-year-old kids in the driveway of a home in rural/suburban Virginia, no scoreboard, no referee, no trophies on the line, no coach's eye we might want to catch and no pretty girls we might want to impress. Nothing at all at stake. But to watch us play in that driveway, you'd have thought our lives were on the line. We sweated, and banged, and scratched and clawed and damn near came to blows every day, game after game after game. I've often said that a true competitor doesn't love to win. Everyone loves to win. A true competitor hates to lose far more than he/she loves to win. That belief was born on my driveway more than 10 years ago, doing battle with my best friend every day in the sticky summer heat of southern Virginia.

And then there was the 1996-97 Blairs Middle School Rams Boys' A1 basketball team. What a season. We had a great group of kids who all loved to play, and we all liked each other. Everyone knew his role on the team and was happy to play it, from the volume scorer (Brandon) to the defensive menace (Jonathon) to the always-cool-under-pressure, tempo-controlling point guard (Brett -- a 12-year-old Jason Kidd, basically) and on down the line. Add those elements together -- a collective love for the game, great chemistry and everyone accepting his role -- and I don't care if we were a bunch of seventh graders: We played really great basketball and you'll never convince me otherwise.

My father was an assistant coach, the architect behind our offense. One day, he said he'd race the fastest guy on the team, while dribbling, from end to end. He wanted to prove a point. We decided on who was the fastest, and the race began. The player took off at the word go, but my dad stood still, holding the ball on his hip, watching. After the kid got to about halfcourt, dad reached back and hurled a baseball pass towards the opposite baseline. The ball easily made it there before the player did. Dad turned to the rest of us and said, "No one is fast enough to outrun a good pass."

When it came to the championship game, we executed that philosophy ... with extreme prejudice.

It was apparent early in the season that only two teams in the league mattered: us, and the Brosville Bulldogs. At the end of the regular season we had identical records, and had split our head-to-head matchups at one game apiece, so we played a play-in game to determine which team got the top seed in the tournament. We lost that game, but it didn't matter because we were going to be in the championship game, regardless of seeding. And sure enough, there we were a week later, ready to square off against our bitter rivals for the fourth time that season, this time with the championship on the line.

If it had been a track meet, our coaches would say later, we'd have been blown away. These guys were far superior athletically at every single position, save for the starting power forward spot (our defensive ace Jonathon), which was about a wash. And they tried to put their athletic supremacy to good use, running a full-court press the entire game. That's how they played all season, and on most nights their attacking style and suffocating press simply overwhelmed teams. But on this night, all that speed and quickness did them little good. For four straight quarters, we put on a passing clinic and, despite our athletic inferiority, ran circles around them. They pressed and pressed, chasing us all over the court, but we passed the ball beautifully and shot layups all night. By halftime we were up fifteen (a blowout at that level), and we never looked back.

A life lesson learned

The author today.

Even though I was so young, playing on that team was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. At the time, it was simply all kinds of fun. Now, as a grown-ish man, I realize that team, that season was more important than just a bunch of kids playing a game.

We had a great coaching staff, in that they were good at teaching and coaching basketball, but great at setting an example -- as grown men -- for a bunch of young kids. Our coach was Melvin Stamps, who was basically in charge of managing substitutions and yelling at the refs. He was good at the former, and an absolute master at the latter. We loved him. But we learned the most from our two assistant coaches. I mentioned earlier my father was one of the assistants. The other was Clinton Waller, father to Adam (our starting center) and our defensive coordinator. Coach Waller was and is one of the finest men I have ever known.

He commanded respect from his players simply by carrying himself with great dignity. Not by screaming at us or forcing us to run countless suicides when we screwed up. In fact, he was perpetually jolly and constantly cracking jokes. Now, that is not to say he babied us or was always nice, either. Whether it was his own son, or just some kid who happened to play for the team he was coaching, he expected and accepted nothing less than your best effort. Miss a shot, fine. But failing to get back on defense or loafing around the court would quickly get you an earful. Because Coach Waller expected the best we could offer as players, and because he commanded our respect so universally, our best effort was exactly what we gave, from the first day of practice to the championship game. Even though he was such a nice guy, and so much fun to be around, his authority was never questioned. And he taught us so much about what it takes to be a man. Fairness, honesty, responsibility, respect ... I could go on.

Then, of course, there was my dad. I could go on for a few thousand words about what makes my dad such a great guy, and why he was such a great leader, role model, etc. to the kids on that team, but I don't want to get too sappy here. So I'll just tell a story. One of the years he coached, during the pregame speech for the first game of the season, dad posed the following question to the team: "How many of you know a kid, about your age, who has some form of disability that prevents him or her from playing organized sports, from being on a team like this?" Nearly every hand in the room went up. "Well, when you go out there tonight, I want you to think about that kid. I want you to think about that kid, and realize how incredibly lucky you are to be healthy and to be on a team like this. I want you to think about that, and go play as hard as you possibly can, and have as much fun as you possibly can. Don't take one second for granted."

I'm not certain which year and which team it was exactly when he said this, but that quote epitomized my dad's approach to coaching, and I always associate it, first, with that '97 championship team. I played on a couple of other teams that won championships, and even played for an All-Star team once (in Little League Baseball, funnily enough). But no team ever meant as much to me as the 1997 Blairs Rams. I think we embraced that "play every play like it's your last" philosophy more than any other team I played for over the years.

So who cares if we were just kids? We did something that, at the time at least, seemed important, seemed special. And that season really solidified in me a love for the game that has brought immeasurable joy to my life. In a world filled with such horror, such agony, such routine suffering, we need silly little distractions like sports just to make it through the week. Basketball has been the cause of some of my highest moments in life, a source of solace during some of my lowest, and sometimes both at the same time.

So let's just say, however much money my parents spent on that little goal back in the day ... well, that turned out to be a pretty good investment.

Smith helps run the family business, FCS, Inc., in Danville. His favorite player is Kobe Bryant. "You can say a lot of things about Kobe, but even the most ardent Kobe-hater readily admits that no one works harder or cares more about winning than the Mamba. His ruthless competitiveness and desire for greatness are what I love about him," Smith says.

"Oh, and watching him play basketball. As a former highly fundamentally sound player, I'm a sucker for his exquisite footwork and mastery of ball- and shot-fakes."