Friday, February 17, 2012

Believe It or Not, I Survived Another Year

Another year, another high school alumni basketball tournament. It's a bit hard to believe that it's been about 13 years since I was playing basketball as a high school student. What's even more hard to believe is that we keep coming back to play each year. As another tournament has come and went, we participated, we didn't get last place, and we all were a little more worn out afterwards. At least there were no injuries this year!

I think the main reason that our year, the class of 1999, puts so much effort into getting back together to play in the tournament is it is our way to remember one of our close friends--Mike Johnson--who passed away from cancer while we were all in college. Probably half a decade ago the annual tournament looked like it was going to fade away as the local high school coach didn't really care to organize it and no one else stepped up... until one of our players, Eaton, stepped up to get the tournament rolling again, putting the focus on fun, charity, and remembering the good ol' days. I find it interesting that as we finished yet another successful tournament, I ran across an article I wrote for the re-launch of the alumni tournament, when we branded it the Mike Johnson Memorial Alumni Tournament. I think it's just as fitting now as it was years ago, and helps to keep fresh a good friend's memory.

From the 2006 Mike Johnson Memorial Alumni Tournament launch:

It’s been well over seven years since the class of 1999 graduated and left the halls of Hayfield High School. I’m sure that for the majority of us it doesn’t feel like it was that long ago that we were still running around the school and going through the numerous senior year events we all remember so fondly. In hearing about this year’s alumni tournament and the mention that it would be in Mike Johnson’s honor, it stirred up many old memories, as well as a little bit of my competitive nature, more than I would normally let bubble up because, let’s face it, who wouldn’t want to win the tournament in Mike’s honor?

As we’ve grown up and become more immersed in our personal lives, our jobs, our families, and all of the other things that now mean so much to each of us, staying in the shape we were back in high school has, well, sometimes taken a back seat. I know it definitely has for me, so in trying to prepare for the upcoming alumni tournament, I decided I’d attempt to put in some miles on my parents’ treadmill while I was down to visit them over the Christmas weekend. However, I found I left my running shoes at home, no doubt because subconsciously I wanted to keep myself from doing any of that running nonsense. That competitive nature I mentioned before took over, though, and I found myself rifling through my closet in my old room and came across a t-shirt that was too small, some shorts that were too short, and my beat up basketball shoes from senior year. Somehow, some way, they survived and were waiting around for me to find them.

Armed with clothes and shoes that fit my body back in high school, but were a little tight around the extra pounds that the years have put on, I approached the treadmill tepidly. Before I could even get up to a full on jog, I found myself not only starting to breath heavily, but also awash in memories. These high school basketball shoes felt a little bit funny on my feet. It had been seven years since I’d worn them last, after all, but even though it was a little weird having these old shoes on, there was also a sense of familiarity and nostalgia that accompanied the sensation.

Once I got the treadmill and up to a running, the shoes felt right at home on my feet, just like I was back in high school at basketball practice. Everything seemed so fresh in my mind. It may have been five years since Mike passed on, but in the memories that have stuck with me he’s still right there poking away the ball as I try a lame crossover during practice. Instead of getting upset or angry for getting the ball stolen as I was prone to doing, when it was against Mike I couldn’t help but laugh instead because he wasn’t trying to make me look bad or show off -- he was just having fun. He didn’t need to make me look bad; I was doing a good enough job of that myself without his help.

It was that sense of fun that helped make basketball practice with Mike as enjoyable as it was. If it wasn’t the good natured playing on the court that got us all grinning, it was probably talking about the tomfoolery that went on before practice started or after it was done. I remember one time in particular when Mike and I had unscrewed the top of Mike Young’s cologne in his locker room locker and placed it just so perfectly above his practice jersey so that it would fall over from the slightest jarring. Once Young moved into position near his locker, we “accidentally” bumped him so that the cologne spilled all over his uniform. Listening to guys complain about guarding a sweaty, gross, and slimy players was pretty commonplace, but listening to everyone throughout practice ask Young why he smelt like he was going on a date while they were guarding him was priceless.

Chugging along on the treadmill, chuckling, I could still smell the overpowering stench of Aspen cologne in the air. Practice was always a fun time, but so were the games, mostly because I had prime seating for all of the games – right up next to the coach in the front row on the bench! I was never a starter and didn’t go into games unless we were either winning or losing by 20 points or more so on most nights I spent my game time cheering more than actually playing. Because of this, my high school basketball career was lived somewhat vicariously through the players on the court, and one of the many memorable moments that I now recall was watching Mike heave up a half court shot as the buzzer sounded, following it through the air as it glided by on a prayer, and then staring in amazement at the scoreboard after the ball magically fell through the cylinder for the last second win. How often does something that crazy happen? Not often, friends, not very often at all.

Much like that storied once in a lifetime shot, our memories of Mike are always with us. Our lives are busier than ever as we constantly make our way through this world, creating new memories and forging our own paths, but as we live our lives, we are often reminded of the memories we have already made. I know that I often fondly remember the time shared with Mike, not only on the basketball court, but also on the farm, in the fields, cruising through Rochester, playing back yard football, and just hanging out as friends. And those are just my memories. Combine them with the rest of the class of ’99 and you’d likely be overwhelmed with a cornucopia of stories to be told.

You are not forgotten, Mike, and you’re still an active memory in all of our lives today. Seriously, who else would manage to motivate me enough to throw on my old basketball shoes and torture myself on a treadmill for a few hours in a last ditch effort to get in shape for this tournament? Eaton? Not a chance. We’re thinking about you, remembering you, and playing for you, Mike, knowing that all the while you’re watching us from the best seat in the house and cheering us on.

No comments: