I originally posted this piece in Oct. 2011 as They Are The Champions. But I'm reposting it again this evening in honor of the young man of seventeen (back row, third from right) -- my grandfather, pictured in 1932 -- who passed away peacefully on Jan. 1st, 2013. I'm so thankful I got to say goodbye to him in person the morning of New Year's Eve, 2012. He was impossibly slim and weak by then, but still so lucid, still so "there" -- amazing for a man less than three months shy of his 98th birthday -- and he still had a firm grip as he shook my hand as I got up to go, saying "thanks for dropping by, Brent, it was good seeing you." I nodded at him and couldn't help but cry. It was great seeing you, Grampa! All those years you demonstrated personal sacrifice and perseverance through so many tough times. What a great man you were -- understatement of the millennium. Missing you greatly, Grampa.
Edwin Kneisly: March 29th, 1915 ~ Jan. 1st, 2013
|Depression-era basketball team championship photo: Eldon, Missouri|
My grandfather (third from right, standing) played center at 6'0'' on his high school basketball team. Back in those almost antique days, circa 1932-34, there was a "jump ball" after every made basket. No fast breaks. No jump shots. No slam dunks. No Hoop Dreams. No recruiting. No March Madness. No NBA lockouts or prima donnas. Just pure basketball, in all its glorious and fundamental simplicity. My grandfather, who will turn 97 in March and is the lone surviving member of his team, has recounted many times the strange game that won them the championship by a score of 9 to 6. I've paraphrased his account below:
Eldon's opponent thought they could win the championship game by stalling, holding the ball for several (what must have been oh so embarrassingly uneventful) minutes each possession before attempting a shot. Keep in mind there were no shot clocks back in 1932; a team could take twenty-four minutes to shoot if they wanted. But Eldon's adversary's slow-down strategy backfired and the tables got turned on them; when, early in the second half, with Eldon already ahead by two points, the score 8 to 6, my grandfather got fouled and stepped to the free throw line. He made the first free throw but missed the second, "I could feel myself shaking so," he's said many memorable times (and I cherish each time he's said it). But he got the rebound off his own missed free throw; so, possession remained Eldon's. Since three-point shots didn't exist in 1932, Eldon, with a three point lead, found itself with a "two possession lead," meaning that even if their opponent got the ball again, they'd still have to get it at least one more time after that, and meanwhile hold Eldon scoreless in the interim, in order to have a chance to win or tie.
"After I got that rebound, our coach called time out and told us to just hold the ball on offense. He said if they want to stall on us and play like that, like a bunch of [expletives]," my grandfather chuckled, in remembrance, "Then he said lets show them how stalling is properly done!"
Eldon showed them properly all right, holding the ball -- and the lead -- for the rest of the game. State championship to Eldon, Missouri, even though they didn't score a measly ten points!
The largest of the trophies pictured still sits on my grandfather's nightstand, in his assisted-care room.
My grandfather's coach (pictured standing, far right) -- shrewd coach if there ever was one -- once advised my grandfather before an important game to run non-stop no matter what, to never stand still in the post, because he'd heard their opponent's center smoked two packs a day, and figured if my grandfather wore him out in the first half up and down the court, back-and-forth constantly beneath the basket (the phrase "in the paint" hadn't been coined back then, as there was no painted area extending fifteen feet from the baseline to the basket), never stopping for a second, that the other team's center, a six-foot-five giant (a Manute Bol by 1932 standards) would get so winded he'd not be able to recover in the second half, since he smoked so much.
"Coach was right," Grampa said. "He couldn't move to save his life in the second half; his coach was yelling at him something fierce. We just smiled but didn't let them see. We pulled away in the second half and won with ease."