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Mike Tharp: Basketball made me who I am

Mike Tharp
Mike Tharp

Our new president plays ball.

I don't mean across-the-aisle, Chris Matthews bluster ball. Or W-style throw-out-the-first-pitch ball. Or Slick Willie golf.

I mean real ball.

Basketball.

The game I played for 47 years. The game I hated to give up when my back went bad. The game that made me a lot of who and what I am.

Basketball.

Obama told Sports Illustrated a year ago that basketball taught him about "being part of something and finishing it up. And I learned a lot about discipline, about handling disappointments, about being more team-oriented and realizing that not everything is about you."

That's a lot of what I learned too. Guys liked to play with me because I got The Concept: to win. I played hard defense, liked to pass, worked to rebound and shot free throws over 80 percent. Even today, seven years after my last game, basketball influences the ways I edit this newspaper and Web site.

So let's talk ball.

First took a shot at age 10 on the Assumption Grade School asphalt playground. The rusted orange rim had no net. A seventh grader taught us a little about dribbling, passing and shooting -- but no jump shots. "You're not big enough to shoot a jump shot," he told us. So I started shooting jump shots.

Played CYO league the next four years. Papa put up a hoop on the back of our garage, then moved it to the mulberry tree in the big lot because the ball would bounce over the wood fence into the backyard of the neighborhood witch, Miss Davidson. I learned to dribble around tree roots and to shoot under branches.

My dad never played any sport in his life, but he was glad to help however he could. He'd read about a Pittsburgh star who practiced while wearing gloves, galoshes and a blindfold. For the next several months, I was in our basement, wearing the same gear, trying to avoid the cracks in the concrete and not run into the furnace.

My best friend then Vincent Dechand and I once rode our bikes up to St. Matthew's school, carrying snow shovels in one hand. We shoveled off enough of the parking lot to play one-on-one. Wasn't a big deal -- had to do it if we wanted to play.

Over the Christmas holidays in eighth grade, an event happened that changed my life forever. Roger, a 16-year-old, asked if I wanted to go up to Highland Park High and play. It was just above freezing in Kansas, so no problem. We shot around till two other guys showed up, both around his age. I was already 6 feet tall, weighed about 125 and was matched up against the guy my height who must've weighed 200.

As I drove down the lane, this dude gave me a forearm shiver right to the heart -- no attempt to go for the ball. I dropped to the blacktop, unable to breathe or see. But I did manage to gasp, "Foul!" So we got the ball back.

I had Roger take it out so I'd get it on the inbounds pass. Turned, saw the same guy defending the lane and drove right into him. He backed away at the last second, I went by and scored on the layup.

If I hadn't done that -- if I'd let that guy intimidate me -- I'd have never been worth a damn as a ballplayer. After that one incident, I was never afraid of anyone or anything on a basketball court.

In high school the pattern began that would last the rest of my playing days: I made friends for life and we won a lot of games.

I'm still in close touch with the four other starters on our team that went to the Kansas championship tournament our senior year -- Greg Bien, Ed Tucker, Don Gregg, Lonnie Hansard. Our coach, Ken Bueltel, influenced all of us in many ways; I still quote his favorite saying: the easiest thing in the world to do is to make an excuse.

In college, at St. Benedict's in Atchison, Kan., coach Bill Samuels taught me how to shoot right. Coach Tom Colwell taught me how to play D. Our senior year, when my two roommates, Jack Dugan and Don Schuering, were co-captains, we won the NAIA small college national championship in Kansas City. One of the top five things ever to happen to me. I got to carry the trophy back to our hotel.

The next year, I spent a year in grad school in Wales. I played on and coached the university team, which won more games than it ever had. Toured with a Welsh team in Germany. That spring I was voted Sportsman of the Year, a cool deal because the runner-up was captain of the rugby team -- and the Welsh do love the sport they invented.

As a soldier in Vietnam I played on a team that won the battalion championship, and I'm still in touch with teammate Larry Schloss. One game was called because of incoming mortar rounds.

Four years in Dallas led to a 3-on-3 trophy with Tom Redmayne, Joe Frazier and Mike Gunn. Dan Esposito and James Bailey ran with us when we did 5-on-5 full court several times a week at the SMU women's gym.

During the 11 years I spent in Japan, I played mostly on an American team, plus two years on a Japanese team. There I met Eddie Joe Davis, a Dallas banker, and we played ball for five years. We used to drive to the U.S. Air Force Base at Yokota Saturday mornings so we could play tough competition. We'd often be the only white faces on the floor. Nobody cared.

Eddie Joe's the one who landed on the Japanese team, the Skylarks, and I got his spot when he left Japan. When he was later reassigned to Seoul, South Korea, we played ball there in the 8th Army gym.

I learned more about Japan and the Japanese by playing with the Skylarks than any of the books I ever read on the culture and society.

The Connor brothers, Chip and Nick, would haul us to games in their Rolls Royces and Mercedes. That was a neat way to pull up to a crackerbox gym in a Tokyo suburb.

Thanks to diplomat Brad Handley, we could play at the U.S. Embassy court, so he, Mack Mackenroth, Bob Johnson, Paul King, Rodger Berkley, Scott Parrish and others spent many Saturday afternoons running full court outdoors, sometimes playing with Marine guards. I'm still in touch with all those guys too.

My brother James, who died at 46 of a brain aneurism, didn't play ball till his 30s. He became a helluva hoopster when he was a cop and later police chief in his Oregon town. First thing we'd do when I came to visit was roll to the gym. He was left-handed, Paul Bunyan strong and liked to block shots -- especially mine. I miss that.

L.A. marked the first time I never played on an organized team. Played pick-up at the San Pedro Y and local outdoor courts. Once, while running with Kevin Haas, a buddy from Tokyo visiting L.A., he tore his Achilles tendon. I'd torn mine in '84 playing in San Leandro with Mike Ford, another Tokyo teammate.

After the Persian Gulf War, I practiced in Dhahran with the Saudi junior national team. Mike Hedges, a Kentucky stud, and I played 3-on-3 in Sarajevo with Bosnian Muslims when the Serbs weren't shelling. Played in Albania with Kosovar refugees. Played in North Korea with guys as tall as my shoulders with hands as hard as stone.

Taught my son Nao to play, and he wound up as center and captain of his high school team in Tokyo. (Daughter Dylann went into soccer and was All-Pac-10 as a defender for Oregon.)

For my 50th birthday, I decided to dunk again. Went on a 4½-month daily workout for my legs and threw it down in a San Pedro rec center -- it was my daughter's soccer ball, but it counted. And it's on tape. Also coached San Pedro High's boys varsity for six years as a volunteer assistant. We got as far as the L.A. city championship semifinals twice.

If anybody ever yells "Coach!" I still turn around.

Quang Pham got me into his sports club's gym in Orange County as my career was winding down. Last game I played was full court at the Pedro Y with Nao in 2002. He was the best player on the court, and I wasn't the worst.

Then my back went bad.

The point of telling you all this? Only to let you know how a game has molded my mindset. How it has led me to make lifelong friends -- Greg Bien is my son's godfather; Ed Davis is my daughter's godfather. And how it helps me manage here at the Sun-Star.

Basketball is the best game around because it combines individual and team talent in a way no other game can. One player can't beat five -- but he sure can shape the outcome.

That's how I coach in our newsroom -- we all work together, but I give individuals a lot of chances to shine on their own if it leads to what we want in print and online -- winning.

It's hard, sometimes, to believe that I'll never again lace up my high-top Cons, wipe my palms on the soles (like Larry Bird, my favorite player, did) and step across the black line onto the hardwood.

But I gotta admit -- I had a good run.

Executive editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2427/2456 or mtharp@mercedsun-star.com.

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