A benchwarmer's ultimate highlight
Every winter I am physically reminded of my basketball career back in Wakefield, Mass.
It's because of the diagonal lines that still appear on my legs when I get cold. One just above each knee. No, these are not scars from some horrible reconstructive surgery; these were earned by resting my forearms on my knees for approximately six years while I spent the vast majority of my organized playing days on the bench.
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Senior year was going to be different. I was going to be the backup center to my friend Matt Lane, which I had no problem with at all. Matt was better than me, taller than me he was even nicer than me. So during the first game against Burlington, I took my customary seat on the bench, knowing I wouldn't be there long. Then the minutes began to tick by; Coach Simpson called out names of players to report in, but none of them were mine. Paranoia started to sink in as I looked across the court at the crowd. "I know I told my parents I was going to play. Wait, who else did I tell? Did I tell those people? What about THOSE people? Oh my god, are they staring at me? I think they're staring at me." When the final buzzer sounded my stamp on the box score would be the same as always: "Did Not Play -- Coach's Decision."
I collected many more DNP-CDs the rest of the season, even as we racked up loss after loss, limping into the end of the season with a 1-16 record. But as we prepared for our final game of the season against Melrose, Coach Simpson announced that since it was Senior Night, all the seniors would play. Instantly I had a vision of the previous year's Senior Night. My friend Ed Burns (who I know has those same marks on his legs) got in, got the ball unguarded at the 3-point line and didn't shoot! I was crushed. He was one of us! The guys who never needed to take a shower after the game. The guys who returned their uniforms after the season cleaner than when they got them. Right then I vowed that would never be me; swish, brick or air ball, I was going to let it fly.
As we got closer to the game, I did something that I still do to this day: I talked way too much. I told everyone what I was going to do: friends, teachers, parents. Thank god I wasn't on the Internet in 1992, or my Facebook page would have read: "Mike Philbrick just joined the group 'I'm going to shoot a 3-pointer if it's the last friggin' thing I ever do.'" And I kept talking, and talking, and talking. Next thing I knew, I was telling people I'm going to the corner and I'm going to shoot it Larry Bird-style with my finger in the air. Next thing I knew I'd made bets with six different teammates' fathers. I bet them $20 a pop that I would get in, take the shot, nail it and never be heard from again (courtesy of a coach's benching for well, I believe your local human resources office calls it "gross insubordination.")
Even now, looking back, my closest friend on the team (and starting forward) Sean Beagan saw it as a recipe for disaster, saying: "We're friends, but back then Mike and I both knew that he had no business shooting from nine inches, let alone 19 feet."
No more talk. It's game time.
As I warmed up in the layup line, my nervousness was palpable. My skin became flushed and blotchy, and the diagonal lines on my legs started to knowingly throb like Harry Potter's scar. I kept pulling on my warm-up pants every 30 seconds due to a deep-seated fear that I had forgotten to put on my shorts. My pride (and $120) were on the line, and because of my enormous mouth, everyone knew it. The moments after that are still blurred by anxiety in my brain: national anthem, starting lineups, tipoff then everything becomes crystal-clear. Coach Simpson looked down the bench and told me and the rest of the benchwarmers to report in.
I was on the court for less than 20 seconds when I saw a chance I figured I would never get again. So I drifted to the corner and waited for the ball. My friend Eric Bertrand, who couldn't avoid my yammering all week and knew exactly what I was planning to do, got the ball but he passed it to someone else. I jumped in the air out of pure frustration (and immaturity). But wait, the ball was coming back Eric had it again he no-looked it to me, still standing in the corner. I cocked my arm and let go a shot that someday should be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as the most technically unsound jump shot in history. It felt like there was total silence, until
SWISH. Nothing but net.
The crowd, knowing my plight/plan, erupted. And you could hear the PA announcer -- my history teacher, Mr. Blanchard -- say "Michael Philbrick, for 3!" as he fought back laughter. While I jogged back to play defense I saw my mother with her purse open collecting my winnings, each father shaking his head and laughing as they enthusiastically handed over the money. Hugh Beagan, one of the dads who took the bet, recently told me where that $20 ranks: "Next to the money that goes to my grandchildren, it was by far the best money I've ever spent."
Soon after, our opponent called a timeout, and I was exiled to my familiar place at the end of the bench, with my forearms back in their familiar role of making permanent marks in my legs.
Oh, and one more thing. We won the game by three points.
Mike Philbrick is an editor at Page 2. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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