watched him tie his shoes
moment I knew never would
I be an athlete
Getting ready for a walk with my wife, I got my walking shoes on my feet and holding onto the shoestrings, I stretched out my leg and pulled the shoestrings tight and tied the shoestrings into a proper knot.
Watching the laces slide through the metal grommets on my shoes as I pulled them tight, a moment in my life came back to me.
It was a moment from when I attended the Grand Rapids Junior College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
GRJC, as it was known claimed to be famous as one of the first satellite two year colleges ever set up in the United States.
GRJC was established in 1914 as a joint venture between the University of Michigan and the Grand Rapids Board of Education.
From what my I remember, it was slated to be called the University of Michigan – Grand Rapids until the GR School Board felt that as they would be running the show, the name should reflect that and Grand Rapids Junior College would be more appropriate as well as more prestigious.
It was famous for having such a strict curriculum, set up by UofM, that students never ever had any problems with transferring credits to a 4 year institution.
It wasn’t until much later that it took on the more anonymous name of a Community College or GRCC.
To me it was and is GRRR-JIK or GRJC.
It was also known as Raider High or the Grand Rapids Public Schools’ 13th Grade.
It was where you went if you didn’t want to pay a 4 year college tuition for Freshman English 101.
I never gave much thought about whether or not I would be going there.
I think I heard those stories about 13th grade and just assumed I would show up on the first day of class and get my schedule.
I mean I knew I would END UP in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan but as there were 4 of my siblings currently enrolled at UofM, I also knew that I would be starting my college career at GRJC as my matriculation would be delayed.
It was in conversation with a friend of mine who I later ended sharing an apartment with in Ann Arbor, that I realized I had to apply and even be accepted at GRJC.
Even after that delay, it was no surprise at all to me that I walked into my first class at JC, CHEM 114, and saw most of my friends, Doug, Dan, Dave and Carl from Creston High School sitting in the same class.
This group of friends stayed together and for reason I have cannot recall, we decided to form a team and enter the JC Intramural Lunchtime Basketball League.
I must have pushed for it so my friends made me player / coach.
We named the team after our Chemistry instructor, Ms. Wurn.
It was a bit of thrill to see the Intramural League schedule posted around JC and find the name, WURN’S WORMS, listed.
These games were played in the GRJC Main Fieldhouse, at lunchtime.
It seems to me that we played two 20 minute halves on the main court of the fieldhouse.
The league was run by Gene Paxton, the head coach of the GRJC Varsity Basketball Program.
I was on the GRJC Collegiate, the student newspaper as a photographer, so I was familiar to Coach Gene.
The fieldhouse at lunch time was full of people as the fieldhouse had one of those multipurpose composite floors with a running track and people would be in there on their lunch hour jogging on the track or taking part in other basketball games on the side courts.
But the main court, the court surrounded by the running track, was our court.
And we showed up to play.
After we showed and got out on the court, any resemblance to any other organized basketball games ended.
What were we thinking?
If we got the ball off the opening tip, that would be the high point of the game and there weren’t many games that opened on a high point.
We were given possession of the ball after each basket by the other team but unless the other team set up their defense on their end of the court, we rarely got the ball over the time line.
We played games with scores like 62-10, 88-10, 102-10.
We were a bunch of guys who shot the ball around in our driveway’s once in awhile playing in a league of teams that took the game seriously.
It wasn’t that sad.
But it was that funny!
We would run around for 20 minutes and the horn would sound at the half (they used the real scoreboard and clock for all to see) and Coach Gene, who with two players from his team, ref’ed the games, would blow a whistle and look at me and say THE FIRST HALF IS OVER … SECOND HALF BEGINS IMMEDIATLY.
What was the point of delaying the inevitable.
After the game, I remember how joggers who been running on the track would look at us in the locker room and try to be positive by saying things like, “You guy’s aren’t that … well … aren’t … that … well … good.”
Hey, we knew that.
Ms. Wurn came to watch a game once.
She left after about 10 minutes.
The scores would be posted with the updated schedules in the fieldhouse hallways.
I think most folks felt it had to be typo.
It seems like we even had a following as people would see me around school and ask me if maybe we might break 20 points today?
One friend of mine from Creston who knew about the team but was smart enough to not be on the team would yell out the latest score anytime he saw me on campus.
Well, if you are going down, go down in flames, I guess.
And goofy things beyond the score happened to us too.
One game, Carl went down screaming.
“My foot is on fire”, he screamed.
He lay on the floor and we removed his shoe and sock and the bottom of his foot looked like it fell off.
Somehow his skin had melded to his sweaty socks and when he turned to change direction in a single motion he twisted his foot inside his shoe and all the callous stripped off the bottom of his foot.
This one big creepy piece of skin, an exact match to his foot, fell out of his sock.
Coach Gene came over and looked and said that happens and he told Carl his foot might tingle or sting a bit for a couple of days.
Then he looked at me and asked who was coming in to the game to replace Carl?
I can’t remember how many games there were on the schedule, but we always showed up.
Until the last game and I realized we were short a few players.
I talked to Coach Gene and he looked at me with this big smile on his face as if to say you aren’t getting out of this that easy.
Coach Gene looked across the crowd in the fieldhouse and called out to two of his players, real players from the GRJC team, that he saw over in another part of the fieldhouse.
“Here,” he said, “you two play with these guys.”
One of the two was this massive round kid.
I don’t remember much about him but that he was BIG.
And looked really mean.
The other was a tall basketball player who later in life, I might describe as a younger, thinner Ben Wallace type.
My memory says his name was Walter Jordan.
For Wurn’s Worms, it was like we had won the draft lottery and got two players better than anyone else in the entire intramural league.
The game started and while it didn’t go great, it didn’t go too bad as we started getting some rebounds.
That big round kid would stand under the basket and grab the ball out of the air with one massive hand and hold the ball out of bounds behind him and dare anyone on the other team to come and try and take it.
No one dared and he would flip the ball to one of us to get the ball up to the court to Walter.
The other team would gang up on Walter so we didn’t score a lot but it seems to me that at the half it was something like 24 – 16.
The best score we ever had.
A couple of things happened at half time.
One, we actually got a 5 minute half time.
Two, Coach Gene called the other team over and said that he was the League Commissioner and he made the rules so in the 2nd half, they, the other team, had to play man to man defense.
This meant that the rest of us could really contribute as even though there was no way we were going to get the ball, someone had to guard us and that meant Walter would be playing 1 on 1.
And three, Walter tied his shoes.
I was sitting on the bench and Walter came over and put his foot next to me and untied the shoestrings.
He was wearing Nike white high tops and the shoestrings were laced through holes punched through the leather.
I was wearing Nike white low cuts also with shoestrings that were laced through holes punched through the leather.
When I tied my shoes and I pulled on the shoestrings, maybe the top of the laces pulled closed together but no other part of my stiff leather shoe budged.
If I pulled really hard, all I could do was tighten the top part of the shoe around my ankle in a way that made me feel like I had cut off the blood flow
No matter how hard I pulled, there was no impact below the 2nd or 3rd lace and that was that for tying them tight.
Walter had the leather high tops and he wrapped the end of each shoestring around his hands and slowly pulled back with the muscles in his arms that exerted, some unimageable to me, pressure on those shoestrings.
Have you ever seen someone shooting a compound bow and arrow.
How when they pull back on the string, the string is strung through all these little pulleys that all move in unison in response to the pressure on the bow?
That was Walter tying his shoes.
He pulled and the shoestring, snaking its way back and forth over the front of the shoe from the top to the bottom of laces moved together and the stiff leather shoe reformed itself to Walter’s foot.
I couldn’t believe what I just saw.
I looked at the miserable way the laces looked on my shoes, all out of line.
And I looked at Walter’s shoe and the shoestring was as taught a bowstring and the entire shape of the shoe changed before my eyes.
Then he switched feet, and without any real sign of effort, did it again.
I was in awe.
All I did was watch someone tie his shoes.
Someone to whom, a properly tied shoe was very important, tie his shoes.
I marveled at how strong this tall skinny kid really had to be.
Not that I was wondering much, but at that moment, I understood why, I would never be an athlete.
The second half started and it was the Walter Jordan show.
We would cross half court, the big kid would park under the basket, the three of us out on the court went to the corner as far away as possible so someone had to cover us and Walter got the ball.
You name it.
The other team kept rotating players on Walter but he could not be stopped.
And with the big kid, we even got some defensive rebounds.
I want to say that once, maybe twice, a missed shot hit me in the head and I was able to redirect the ball to Walter for an assist.
Possible the only stats I ever got in a game.
We were in the game.
Walter scored some 30 points and with under a minute left we were up 47-46 and the other team had the ball.
I called time out.
The team actually came over and looked at me.
From somewhere I don’t know where, I said, “stop the shot and get the ball to Walter.“
Everyone looked at me then at each other and nodded.
Then the big kid said, “NO EASY TWO, they go for a layup … RACK’HIM GOOD!”
My first thought was, “U tawkin to me?”
My second thought was, “Look at me, then look at those other players.”
I weighed in at 110 lbs spread thin over 6 feet.
But I repeated “NO EASY TWO!” then yelled “LETS GO” as Coach Gene blew his whistle.
The other team inbounded and took the ball the length of the court.
As I remember it, one of the players on the other team drove the lane and laid it up and, boy oh boy, that big kid racked’him good, seems like he knocked him about 4 rows deep into the stands, but that player had dished off at the last moment and someone else put it off the glass for 2, we were down by 1.
I cannot remember who in bounded the ball but Walter had it in hand as the timer ran down.
The crowd in the fieldhouse all stopped to watch.
Walter crossed mid court faked a rush, bought some space, pulled up and let go a beautiful, Cazzie Russell, classic jumper.
I raised both arms and yelled YES YES YES!
I was dancing backward as I yelled and tripped over someone behind me.
It was Coach Gene.
He caught me but never took his eyes off the ball.
“OH OH OH”, he was yelling.
Time stopped I am telling you!.
The ball went in, hit the side of the rim, bounced up, bounced left, and bounced out.
“OH OH OHHHHHHHHHHHHHH … NO”, yelled Coach Gene.
And he steadied me on my feet and said, “Thought you had one Hoff.” and he slapped me on my back.
There was a collective “OHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH” from the crowd in the gym.
Coach blew his whistle and yelled “Game Over.”
Walter stared at the backboard for a second and then jogged off to the locker room.
I yelled, “HEY WALTER!” from across the fieldhouse.
He stopped and turned and looked me.
“GREAT GAME,” I yelled.
He looked me in the eye and slowly raised one fist and then nodded.
I am not kidding when I say that I thought of the sportswriter Grandland Rice and his, “For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, He writes not that you won or lost, but how you played the game!“
I had seen that today come to life, I thought.
Here was a guy who for no other reason played a great game because there was a game to be played.
I couldn’t even tie his shoes.
Boy, howdy, I couldn’t even tie mine.
And I knew, I would never be an athlete.
But I had seen one today.