Between the Lines / Breaking balls
Published 11:47 am, Tuesday, October 26, 2010
If I had any illusions about being a hotshot basketball recruit at the University of Hartford in the 1960s, they were quickly dispelled when I started my work-study job. I soon realized I was about the only student-athlete who actually showed up for assignment at the RecPlex.
The job was an easy one but not without some lessons in humility. I would stand at the window of the inner sanctum, and when the players tossed their dirty towels and sweaty uniforms into the wheeled canvas laundry bin, I would hand them a clean replacement. I also ran the washers and dryers and swept and mopped up around the locker room. I've always enjoyed menial work, so I didn't mind it at all. It gave me time to think.
However, being around so many young men in this situation inspired my first stirrings of feminist thought. There was an enormous arrogance about the team. Although the bin was quite large and they were trained athletes, they flung their wet towels and jockstraps in all directions. Some of them missed the bin entirely and some of them even hit me in the head with their soiled things. It wasn't a pleasant experience to have to wipe another man's sweat off my face.
The guys often strutted around with nothing on. I was used to this after years of athletics, but it seemed excessive and exhibitionistic to me. I think they were out to prove who was the biggest man among them, so to speak. Over all young men tend to be impressed with their own nakedness. I started to resent testosterone as the vernacular of my gender. My teammates belched and broke wind at will and they brayed like mules for no reason at all. Of course, I was one of them, but beginning to have second thoughts about joining their company. It wasn't that I lacked grossness myself; I just wasn't as proud of it as they were.
One day I was assigned to clean up the basketballs. They were as brown as chestnuts from use and sticky with sweat and varnish. The Athletic Department had purchased a new product that was supposed to renew the leather finish as it cleaned, but the spray really did neither. It was opening night and the balls had to look brand-new on the court in our just-built field house. We were a classy outfit, remember.
I soon emptied the spritz bottle and still had a rack of balls left. Nothing seemed to be working. So I immersed the balls in a tub of hot water with powdered detergent and scrubbed away at them. After using some ferocious elbow grease, the balls were so clean I could read the labels again. With a few more dunks and swipes they were immaculate. I was immensely proud of my resourcefulness as I loaded one magnificent ball after another onto the two rolling racks. They gleamed like new. Joe McFadden, the locker room director, came over and shook my hand. He called in the head of the RecPlex to admire my work. I was the man of the hour.
After the varsity players suited up they got antsy and needed to have a ball in their hands. The captain was a cocky fellow who never smiled. He slammed open the door to my workroom and demanded to know where the balls were. I told him I had orders not to give them out until coach arrived. He elbowed me aside and grabbed a rack, pushing it ahead of him to the locker room. It was moments like this that convinced me I didn't really want to play college ball. The guys were all the same -- limited, self-absorbed people completely taken with themselves. But I was to have the last laugh this time.
I watched in the doorway as the team lined up and took the court to enthusiastic applause. The captain, leading the charge, took the first dribble. The ball didn't bounce back up to him, and he tripped over it, ass over teakettle as my grandmother would say. The rest of the team started circling the court and bouncing as well. The balls hit the floor like lead balloons. They thudded and wobbled away instead of returning to the hand. They dive-bombed like shot quail. They shattered like clay pigeons. The varsity guys kept trying but they soon were falling over each other. "What the heck?" said one beer-bellied fellow, who rebounded like a stone wall. The ball wriggled right out of his hands. The other players started to look around in confusion as if a prank had been played on them.
I quietly closed the door at this point, suddenly aware that I was the unwitting culprit. It would take a couple of weeks before the waterlogged basketballs dried out and were ready for use again. I couldn't have devised a more fiendish revenge if I had planned it. In spite of all the bravado the male ego is quickly deflated. But men also have humor as a redeeming quality. The day after the game even the varsity players were laughing about it. A few of them even teased me good-naturedly. Despite my dippiness, I still had become one of the guys.
Barry Wallace writes a weekly column for the Fairfield Citizen.