A reasonable person might wonder what my third- and fourth-grade basketball team has in common with John Havlicek, why at the moment I have more affection for a 51-inch forward than the great Hondo. Have patience; shortly, the connection will be at least as obvious as an NBA zone.
First of all, however, Havlicek in his wildest nightmare never endured as much hardship as our team. It began with the name: Pistons. The 9-year-old mind is not easily fooled, and Pistons at the moment holds the same attraction as peas.
Yuk. Then we were given black shirts. Nobody worthy of a sneaker commercial ever wore a black shirt.
Three of the players - half of the team, in fact - had been Trail Blazers last year; uptown at Al McGuire would put it. Clad in green, they won every regular-season game and earned trophies nearly knee high.But Vinnie and Paul had moved on, to fifth-grade teams, so we had no big man, no 5-footer.
Speed. That would be the answer. Hadn't John Wooden won his first NCAA title with guards and a press that began just outside the dressing room? But the Montgomery County Rec League does not allow full-court defense at the third- and fourth-grade level. That had seemed fair enough a year ago; this season, it was a clear conspiracy.
Most of our games were of the many-to-few variety, with the scores long since muddled together. Except for one. That was 18-0. Tell me, Hondo. I know your career has not been free of embarrassment, but have any of your teams ever been shut out?
"What do you think we should do?" I asked Scott one night.
"Retired," he said.
We did win a game at midseason, but there was little joy. Our defense was the Russian flu. The other team didn't have enough healthy players, so we won by forfeit.
Practices were nearly as bad as the games because we usually scrimmaged twice a week against a team with a gifted shooter-passer, a tiger of a rebounder and a guard not much taller than a splinter who kept stealing the ball. More losses.
But a strange pattern began taking shape. The more the players got pounded, regardless of the score, the more they wanted to scrimmage again. Especially Chuck, who seemed to have some sort of unseen homing device. Each time, he would bring the ball across midcourt, dribble directly to the right corner and assume the fetal position.
A pair of arms would engulf him - and the ball. A whistle would blow. Chuck would lose the jump ball. We would be back on defense.
"Chuck, pass the ball" became more common than that idiotic poem Larry Csonka recites with a towel around his paunch. But Chuck is 4-foot-3, and anyone who has played basketball against someone a foot taller knows exactly why he kept doing what he was not supposed to.
But the more Chuck failed, the harder he tried, until one scrimmage he actually threw a pass that went to a teammate. I remember the moment the way Von Braum must recall his first successful rocket launch. Suddenly, there there was no more fear.
Next game - our last of the regular season - he even took a shot, very possibly his first as a Trail Blazer-Piston. He let fly from eight feet, coiling his body and springing forward with a onehanded baseball-type throw that went up and up and up. It sailed over the net and the rim, even the backboard.
A few minutes later, he tried again, from nearly the same position; this time it went in, and his face was aglow. He had climbed his Everest. As fate would have it, the Pistons won by the margin of his basket, 4-2.
There was spirited drinking at the Slurpee store, even though one of the guards, Jimmy, had reminded everyone: "Hey, those guys were even worse than us."
Said Scott, recalling the talk of a month before: "I'm glad we didn't retire."
Bobby Knight insists the true measure of a team is not the won-lost record but how it plays against its own potential. By that standard, 2-5 was satisfactory. The Pistons scored more points in the last game, an 11-6 playoff loss, than in the first. Stephen went from hardly moving during an entire game to scoring three baskets in one half. Everyone kept trying.
Which brings us to Havlicek, whose memory, as he passed through Washington one final time last night, will be not as the best pro player ever but the one who worked the hardest. Probably, there was a little of Chuck in him at one time, but he also kept going back again and again until he got everything right.
Havlicek is that rare player whose spirit merits being passed from the generation which saw him to the generations which did not. Surely, Havlicek, at the peak of his fame if not his skills, would understand why he is No. 2 in our heart.