Back in the mid-1980s, I was a portly lad. An odd combination of an elongated torso attached to reed-thin legs surrounded by a doughy exterior. Luckily, my NASA-grade glasses distracted people from making too much fun of the rest of me…. And there was a lot of me.
Above all, though, I was tall. Like, really tall. So tall in fact that it was a legal requirement for me to play basketball. I was not necessarily that good, but I played nonetheless.
During the summer of 1985-ish, I also worked at a machine shop owned by my father. As a chunky, near-sighted sixth grader I didn’t do a lot, but I was there from 7-4 every day like everyone else.
My main duties included assisting the driver, Otha, with local deliveries of various gases necessary for welding. I was essentially the Robin to Otha’s Batman—if Batman and Robin drove a welding supply truck instead of fighting crime.
As the only resident middle schooler at the shop, I caught my fair share of flak. I was sent on errands for non-existent tools like ‘skyhooks’ or ‘steel stretchers’ all the time.
One day, I brought my basketball to work as I was hoping to play after hours at my grandmother’s house. Jack, one of the other employees at the shop, worked at Satterfield then and he was the guy who enjoyed messing with me the most.
Jack saw my ball and asked if I played. I told him I shot hoops all the time.
He said, “Well…just don’t ever…ever, ever, ever…play Otha. It’ll crush your little, fat spirit.” And then he just walked away.
I was stunned.
Otha didn’t exactly have what I would describe as the body of a prototypical basketball player. He had more the body of a prototypical basketball. Otha may have been an athlete at one time in his life, but he seemed rather stocky to have a “hoops Jones.” Besides, he and I were roughly the same height and he had to be in his 40s if he was a day.
Channeling my inner gambler, I chased down Jack and told him I would gladly play Otha for any amount he wanted to wager…as long as it was not more than $20.
Jack just grinned eerily and said, “I’ll let him know.”
OK. I’ll admit it. Because of that wry smile, I was nervous. Did Jack know something I didn’t?
It only took a day to plan the game. It was set up so the first one to get 24 points won $10. (This is 1985 dollars, people, and I only made $75 a week if memory serves).
Jack and Otha seemed downright giddy all day long. I asked Otha, “Where are we going to play?”
Otha said, “At the church.”
“Which church?” I asked.
“The Church of Christ,” Otha shot back.
I stared at him with a puzzled look and then said, “I thought all churches were the church of Christ?”
Otha paused for a moment and said, “Maybe you should just ride with Jack.”
Quitting time came, and it was time to head towards the church. Jack took me in his car and suddenly got very serious. He took a deep breath and then gave me the lowdown.
“Luke…I wish you had not agreed to this game. You don’t know this, but Otha was a three-time all-county player at New Site High School. He once scored 42 points on two sprained ankles against Reeltown. Otha was going to play in college, but he got married. I am pretty sure he still shoots 100 free throws in his driveway before bed every night though. The guy just breathes basketball. He just never talks about this because he gave up his dream of playing. When he beats you, try to learn from a guy who is a legend.”
I…was…petrified. By the time Jack was done, even I wanted to bet on Otha.
Here I was, a lowly, mildly obese 13-year-old who thought I could just roll out my basketball and destroy this former hoops prodigy. On his home court no less.
But it was too late now. We pulled up to the court and there he was waiting on me.
Otha walked out and met me at half court. We agreed on “make it/take it.” I got the ball first and could barely keep my knotted knees from shaking.
I saw Otha mysteriously grimace as he crouched to get in his defensive “stance.” I took two dribbles and darted by him for a layup. “Well, I must have gotten lucky,” I thought.
The next play, I did the same thing. This time, Otha barely even turned his head. I was beginning to get suspicious that Otha was not a former playground legend.
Two more possessions for me; four more points.
After the last bucket, I turned to have Otha check the ball in bounds, but he was lying on his back on the hot concrete. He was breathing heavily and wheezing like an old Dodge Dart.
He winced and said to me, “Luke… there…there’s a…there’s a $10 bill…in my wallet…in my truck. Just go get it. Please.”
The small crowd of coworkers who had come to be witness to Otha’s triumphant return to the court had barely gotten out of their cars before the show was over. Thank God they were there, though; it took all of them to help Otha to his truck.
But Otha’s condition was of no concern to me. I had done the impossible. I had beaten the legend. Even if he was a legend in my own mind.•
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