Every year during the NBA finals I become nostalgic, but not for the superstars of the past such as Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Doctor J and Michael Jordon. I think of Tom, Oscar and Jimmy, three middle-aged players who defined blue collar basketball, and some of the best days of my life when all I cared about was putting the ball in the hoop.
In 1969, the disappointment of not making the Grant High School basketball team during my senior year was tempered somewhat knowing that my arch-nemeses, gym rats Tom, Oscar and Jimmy, would still be there across the street from the high school in the gym at Los Angeles Valley College. They’d be there waiting for my friends Mitch, Larry and me for the continuation of our rivalry: half-court, three-on-three games that matched inexperienced upstarts against savvy veterans.
They enjoyed beating the living daylights out of us, the young guys, and we enjoyed beating semi-geezers (their ages ranged from mid-40s to early 50s, but they looked really ancient to us back in the day). They didn’t like us because they thought we were brash, arrogant, showboating punks, and we didn’t like them because of their rough and tumble style of play which left us quite sore, especially when we awoke in the morning. It was difficult to like Tom, Oscar and Jimmy because of their aggressive style of play. We were about finesse. They, on the other hand, were about grunt work.
The Detroit Pistons of the National Basketball Association were known as the “Bad Boys” in the 1980s because of that team’s physical style of play. As tough as their players were, including center Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn, Dennis Rodman and John Salley, they had nothing on the three players we went up against. Tom, Oscar and Jimmy; they were just shorter than their NBA counterparts, but possessed the same heart and soul that made them difficult to defeat.
Tom, who looked and acted like a drill sergeant, wore a grotesque, crude-looking knee brace that could have been made in the dark ages. The device featured all different types of knobs, pulleys and levers. Many of his shots, which were mainly midrange jumpers, went uncontested because whoever defended him feared sustaining a deep bloody cut from the brace’s protruding metal. Defenders also worried about suffering concussions if they put themselves between him and the basket. He was only five feet six inches, but solidly built. No one wanted to be flattened by a human steamroller.
Oscar was always trying to lose weight even though he didn’t appear to be heavy. He always wore a sweat jacket and rubber waist trimmer so he was sweating even before the game began. A three-point marksman, he benefitted from the illegal screens that Tom usually set. He was five feet ten inches tall.
The most raggedy member of the group was Jimmy, who resembled actor Jimmy Stewart. Approximately six feet tall, thin and borderline gaunt, he was always outfitted in a white threadbare T-shirt that looked to be ten years old. In addition, he wore oversized shorts that made him appear even more emaciated. His favorite move was making successful slow twisting reverse layups while throwing out his elbows to create more space between himself and the defender. This prevented his shot from being blocked.
Tom, Oscar and Jimmy were proverbial “gym rats” who were inseparable. Rarely would you ever see one playing in a game without the other two. You would typically hear, “No, I’ll wait until Tom and Oscar show up,” declining an invitation to play on someone’s team, or “No thank you, I’ve had it,” from Oscar as he followed his teammates out of the gym into the cold night.
When my friends and I played against them, we knew it wouldn’t be just another basketball game. We were entering into battle. And if we were fortunate enough to win, we knew that the next time we played them we would pay dearly. There would even be shoving, tripping, elbows to the ribs and chops and low bridging. It was the roller derby without the roller skates, football without helmets and padding. You get the picture.
And there were no referees to protect us against their grueling tactics in the sprawling, sweaty gym packed with players of all ages, heights and ethnicities. It was the modern day version of the Roman Colosseum with players engaged in simultaneously occurring round ball combat stretched out on three full-sized basketball courts.
The games that were taking place on the other courts could also be quite physical, but they were much tamer (collies) compared to our battles against Tom, Oscar and Jimmy (pit bulls). There were no swords, spears, nets or chariots, or lions for that matter. It was our finesse versus their brutality. My teammates and I sustained bumps and bruises, abrasions, scrapes and cuts, but whenever we beat them, it felt like an elixir which took our minds off of any agony we were recovering from.
If I had made the team at Grant, it’s possible my name would have occasionally appeared in the sports section of the local newspaper, and maybe, just maybe, I would have had a blonde cheerleader as a trophy girlfriend. At the gym, there wasn’t any real glory, a trophy, letterman’s jacket or beautiful girls to cheer us on. Recognition came in the form of, “Hey, Gary, nice game,” “Guard him, he’s got a great shot,” or “That’s a gnarly bump on your forehead. How did you get it?”
“Them,” I would respond by pointing a finger at Tom, Oscar and Jimmy sitting together on a close-by wooden bleacher’s bench discussing the winning strategies they would employ against us when we played against each other again.
The late Los Angeles Lakers announcer Chick Hearn used to say, “No harm, no foul” after a player took a vicious hit. There was definitely harm in the games against Tom, Oscar and Jimmy. For instance, my “cojones” still smart all these years later from taking a knee from Tom as I drove to the basket and attempted the game winning shot. I went down in a heap and could only see stars as I stared up at the rafters. The jock strap obviously didn’t do its job.
I can still remember the first words I expressed after the pain subsided slightly. “Tom, you son of a bitch! How could you do that to me?”
“Calm down kid. It’s not my fault. You stuck your leg out. I was just trying to protect my own balls.”
Instead of firing another verbal volley, I cried out, “Ice! Someone get me some ice. Agh!”
Mitch and Larry, and our opponents, acted as if they were in shock. They just stood there and watched me writhe in pain on the hardwood floor as I grabbed my scrotum (there were no women and children around thankfully). Mitch could only manage, “Should we put a substitute in for you?”
“Just give him a minute,” suggested Tom, the assailant. “He’ll be okay.”
I figured he wanted me to stay in the game because now he would have the upper hand if I was more concerned about my nuts than guarding him.
“You’re going to pay for this,” I threatened him.
“Hey, kid. I’m sorry. What else can I do? I won’t rub them for you though.”
“You’re a fucking bully.”
“Under the circumstances, I’ll let you get away with that. If these games are too rough for you, perhaps you should consider tiddlywinks. No, better yet, synchronized swimming.”
That infuriated me. As I attempted to pick myself off the court in the hope of landing a punch to his jaw, I thought twice about it. I wasn’t stupid. That type of retaliation would have landed me in the hospital for sure. The fight would have probably been shorter than the championship rematch between heavyweight boxers Mohammad Ali and Sonny Liston. Liston was knocked out in less than two minutes.
“Take it easy kid. You’ll be okay,” said Tom. “Your balls might stay blue for the rest of your life but you’ll still be able to have kids.” His buddies grinned.
“You’re not going to get away with this you bastard.”
“Does your momma know you use bad language?”
Tempers flared frequently.
“You traveled. It’s our ball out of bounds.”
“No way, you’re crazy. It’s still our ball.”
“You’re always taking steps. Now give me the ball you ass. It’s our ball out of bounds.”
“Who are you calling an ass?”
“I’m calling you an ass, ass!”
“You’re just blind or you’re making up calls just because you’re losing.”
“That’s a bunch of shit. Hand over the ball.”
“Fuck you, too.”
Most arguments were settled by the accused rule violator shooting a free throw, and then life went on. No hard feelings, just more physicality. Surprisingly, I cannot recall fisticuffs. It wouldn’t have been my teammates or me who would have started a fight. We would have been manhandled by the threesome who weighed much more than we did (okay, maybe not Jimmy). The thought of being on the receiving end of a blow to the kisser or being socked in the stomach and left unable to breathe was also a deterrent.
These hard-nosed players fought us tooth and nail. The first team to score twenty-six points won (each basket counted for two points and the margin of victory had to be by four or more points), but getting there against that trio was always a long, uphill battle. What they no longer possessed in talent was more than made up by their tenacity and familiarity with each other’s moves. They always knew where the other one would be.
Without the ability to make fancy moves any longer to the basket and unable to jump more than a few inches off the hardwood floor, they nevertheless still managed to put the ball in the basket by making precision passes to one another or utilizing their patented moves. And on the defensive side, their “get-in-your-face” defense meant you had to earn every field goal you scored.
They never scored points in the fashion department, however, suiting up in the same worn out clothes and gear. On the other hand, I always wore the latest in sweatpants, shorts and sneakers which probably made them even more determined to take us apart.
“Snap, crackle, pop.”
If only that was the sound coming from a bowl of milk and cereal. Unfortunately, it was my anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments being crunched into the human body’s version of Kellogg’s Rice Krispies.
“Oh, my God! My knee! My knee! Someone help me!”
There I was again. Back lying on the hardwood floor again. Moments earlier, I had soared through the air (admittedly an exaggeration) to reach for a rebound. After descending to earth, I landed awkwardly on the slippery hardwood floor, twisting my right leg completely around, or so it seemed. Tom, Oscar and Jimmy were not the culprits of my misery this time. In fact, they weren’t my opponents in this particular game. The floor had been moistened by players tracking in the rain. The hot pain from the torn ligaments in my right knee, which had swollen to the size of a melon, was excruciating.
My teammates and the opponents gathered around me as I squirmed around for what seemed like an eternity. A person I didn’t know stopped by to reassure me I would be okay. “I’ll call for an ambulance,” he said, quickly exiting the gym to apparently make an emergency telephone call.
The Good Samaritan turned out to be an imposter. It was a hoax. Paramedics did not rush to the scene. The telephone call had not been made. Instead, it was my dad and brother who eventually lifted me off the floor about one hour later and drove me to the hospital. I attempted a few comebacks following surgery, but I was never the same player again because I had lost the ability to move laterally. I was a liability on offense and defense, so I put the basketball away; my playing days for all intents and purposes came to a sudden end at the age of twenty-four. The rivalry was over.
Before the knee injury, I had played in hundreds if not thousands of games in the gym against Tom, Oscar and Jimmy.
Now at the age of sixty-three, I wonder how long the three continued to play in the gym at Los Angeles Valley College. Did they stay hoopsters until their 70s or beyond? I wouldn’t be surprised. More importantly, I wonder how many other young people they helped. That’s right. Helped. I believe that the physical pounding they inflicted on my friends and I was well worth it. In the process, they were teaching us lessons that would serve us well in every aspect of our lives, including to always try your best no matter what obstacles get in your way, never give up even when all seems lost and don’t give in to Father Time. Tom, Oscar and Jimmy were role models. If they’re still around, perhaps we can have a rematch, not that Mitch, Larry and I would fare any better. I miss them.
# # #
Gary Wosk was born in New York City. After earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, Northridge, he reported for such newspapers as the San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune, Brawley News and the Newhall Signal, and was special sections editor for the Los Angeles Daily News. He went on to become senior communications officer/spokesperson/editor for Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Los Angeles, followed by media relations manager at The ALS Association. Gary lives in North Hills, California with his wife Mina.