Once A Loser, Always A Loser
February 19th, 2009

Reading Michael Lewis’s profile of Houston Rocket player Shane Battier in the New York Times Magazine, I had this thought: When it comes to basketball, not only am I insufficiently tall and insufficiently coordinated, I’m also too stupid to play the game!

What a bummer. All my adult life I’ve been waiting for that moment when I could point to some jock and say, “I am so glad I’m not him! So not bitter after all these years that I didn’t make the team!” Alas, I fear that day may never come.

To understand the roots of my embitterment, you’d have to go way back to when I was in high school, which just happens to be the stage in life when one’s self-image and position in the social pecking order is set in concrete. And where I went to high school there were basically two groups: boys who made the team and those who did not.

Those of us who did not make the team had a number of choices. We could join the band, the choir, the science club, the debate team, Future Farmers of America or whatever. It didn’t really matter what we did. We were losers, and everybody knew it.

Following three unsuccessful attempts to make Little League, I had decided in junior high to concentrate on photography, and by the time I entered high school had become a fixture on the football field sideline—along with the water boy and old Doctor Hubbard. Whenever one of our players went down, Doc Hubbard would administer free medical aid, while cheerleaders wept and wailed and gnashed their perfect teeth. How I wished at such times that it was ME lying unconscious on the grass!

“Smart lad, to slip betimes away

From fields where glory does not stay

And early though the laurel grows

It withers quicker than the rose.”

~ A.E.Houseman

To be an athlete dying young, what could be better? To perish on the playing field, in full view of not just adoring cheerleaders but the entire community? The closest I ever came was the night I guessed correctly that our quarterback was going to pass deep, and sure enough the football came spiraling directly over my head, followed by the would-be wide receiver and two or three defenders. The resulting photo, which can be found in my high school yearbook, is captioned “The Night We Lost Our Photographer.”Night_we_lost_the_photogWas there weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth? Let me put it this way: My classmates did not require grief counseling.

Somehow my interest in photography survived the collision, and down the road I found myself working as a television cameraman. My partner, aka “talking head,” was a former jock, and right away we two began experiencing what is known in the industry as “creative differences.”

At the time I did not look up to jocks. I thought they were all self-centered oafs who had stolen all the good-looking girls and glory in high school and who had gone on to colleges where they had stolen STILL MORE good–looking girls and glory. From college they had gone on to so-called careers that—let’s face it—are nothing but games, for which they are paid ridiculous sums of money and from which they retire early, to pastures with holes known as golf courses.

That in a nutshell was my TV partner, and so when push came to shove it was me who ended up at the unemployment office because—let’s face it—those of us who didn’t make the team in high school are all just a bunch of losers.

Which is not to say that I don’t enjoy watching a good basketball game now and again—which is seldom, since, being a loser, I don’t make very much money and can’t afford the price of admission. A few years back I attended a game between the Utah Jazz and the Houston Rockets at the old Salt Palace, courtesy of a friend who had scored two free tickets by buying a used pickup truck from team owner Larry H. Miller. Our free seats were in the nose bleed section, from which vantage point the action on the floor resembled a flea circus.

“So that’s Mark Eaton? Geez, I thought he would be bigger…”

On another occasion I happened to come face to face with Jerry Sloan in the hardware section of Fred Meyer. Coach Sloan was weighing a handful of hex nuts and as our eyes met, my blood froze. That baleful countenance, that hooded, unblinking gaze—I decided against trying to drive the aisle!

On television, Sloan comes across as a guy who wishes more than anything that he just could just run out onto the court and crack some skulls—which I’m sure he would do were it not for the efforts of assistant coach Phil Johnson, whose only job, as far as I can tell, is restraining Coach Sloan from running out onto the court and cracking some skulls. I like Johnson a lot. He reminds me of Doctor Phil McGraw. He strikes me as the sort of guy who might take time out of his busy schedule to listen to my sad story. I’m almost sure he’d understand why it is that after all these years I’m still resentful that I never made the team. All the same, I’m guessing he wouldn’t send me in.

-Richard Menzies