JP Pelosi remembers a locker room filled with fear as he was coached to play mistake-free basketball.
It was always cold in the locker room. Muscles were tight. Frozen. I’d yank my socks up high an hour before tip-off, which helped, but inevitably ruined the elastic so that they flopped, like Pistol Pete’s.
Basketball locker rooms tend to be sparse, orderly, sometimes sterile. I suppose that’s what makes them conducive to young scattered minds in need of focus. Sure, you can prepare for battle in isolation, but there’s truly a reduced burden in numbers.
Due to the preparatory circumstance of game day, locker rooms fill quickly with anxiety, possessing men with ghostly purpose: bags slung over shoulders; headphones throbbing with Pearl Jam and Eminem; eyes downward, meditative, and resilient. In fact, locker rooms remind me of those movie scenes where a platoon sits solemnly in the belly of a chopper en route to a dark jungle. There, in the moments before terrible challenges, fear is often internalized, and color runs from faces like a popsicle in the July sun. Of course, basketball could never be so serious. But in a few instances, it’s similarly consuming.
My high school wore yellow uniforms with royal blue trim. Our warm-up shirts were the same blue, with the school’s name emblazoned across the chest like baseball jerseys–broadly, and with long loops. St. Aloysius. Perhaps if they were red like Louisville’s Cardinals, or orange, like Syracuse’s Orangmen, waiting together in that quiet room might have calmed our nerves instead of amplifying them.
We were a good team. Well-drilled, supremely fit, but also like the Hoosiers of Hickory–undersized. I was a 5-foot-7 guard for crying out loud! Though I told everyone I was 5’8. At least, I imagined, if I ever had my own Fleer or Topps card, I’d be listed as such. (Are you telling me John Stockton fulfilled all of his advertised six-feet-one?)
Locker rooms can be unsettling. They’re rife with habit and routine, like the way our starting point used to tape his ankles so tightly, you wondered if the aim was to shock the ligaments. He’d then slowly lace up leather ankle guards over the top, an implication that nothing could quell his anxiety about sprains. When you witness such things you’re somehow less comforted, as if any minute deficiency impacts the group’s potency.
Our starting small forward used to try loosen the team with one-liners like Don Rickles at Caesar’s Palace. But Rickles can scare anyone into laughing. It’s much harder to draw a chuckle from an audience with knotted stomachs. I always liked his light-hearted approach, however, even if others didn’t. His impression of Coach was suitably distracting. “Okay, c’mon guys, get your mind on the job,” he’d say in an exaggerated New York accent. “Pass and screen away–look for the cutter–box out!” Some coaches have a habit of condensing a season’s worth of mantras into a single sentence, don’t they? And when your palms are moist, and your stomach pitted and shriveled like a dried apricot, they always find a way to further clog your brain with throwaway phrases.
Coach Lane was tall, and loose, but stern. He was once a local talk show host, with a velvety voice which turned to a growl mid-game, as if poor officiating had lifted gravel from his core and into his throat. He’d bellow and croak at the referee until spittle launched into the thick air of the gym and onto the old wooden floor. But he was effective, as so many ill-tempered coaches are.
We won seventy percent of our games that season, and I presumed it was because Coach scared us into playing mistake-free basketball. He reinforced those lessons in the confines of our locker room. You see, something happens when you gather twelve anxious men in a cramped room, as if the lack of space and air better prepares the mind for confrontation. It was a dramatic setting, and one that I always recall when the Final Four comes around.
photo: daveynin / flickr