(HOST) Recently, a potent combination of mud season, cabin fever and the NCAAs inspired commentator W. D. Wetherell to take his son on an outing.
(WETHERELL) I took my son down to Springfield, Massachusetts last week for a visit to the newly renovated Basketball Hall of Fame. “I have only one complaint,” I told Matthew, after three fascinating hours admiring the exhibits. I pointed toward the domed ceiling from which huge photos of the Hall of Famers look down. “How come there isn’t a picture of your grandfather up there?”
Matt gave me the incredulous look I expected. “Grandpop played basketball?”
“Not only played,” I said, squinting down at him the way you do when you want to be forgiven some hyperbole. “Your grandfather was the most remarkable basketball player I ever saw.”
How remarkable? Well, the only organized b’ball Dad ever played was back in the l930s – Sunday School basketball in Brooklyn, which sounds pretty tame, but was anything but. When the inevitable fight broke out, it was my grandmother’s job to run over and turn out the lights, plunging everyone into darkness – whether to calm things down or let her boys get in some sucker punches, no one in my family ever explained.
The second, more remarkable phase of Dad’s basketball career started after I became old enough to start shooting baskets in our driveway. Dad lost most of his eyesight during the war, but handled this handicap bravely, with no complaints. Playing basketball with him when he came home from work, I would have to point him in the general direction of both the garage and the backboard…but once I did that, he could swish the ball almost every time, using a soft, graceful two-hand set shot that was a beautiful thing to watch. He was legally blind – he couldn’t recognize a friend standing ten yards away – but put a basketball in his hands, give him a vague idea of where the hoop was, and he couldn’t miss.
Was it just his great instincts? His infallible technique? His soft hands? Or was this a small miracle, giving a boy who wanted so badly to admire his father plenty of reason to do so?
I haven’t mentioned the best feature of the Basketball Hall of Fame. Knowing how the exhibits get the juices flowing, they have a basketball court right in the center of the museum where everyone is welcome to take some shots. Matt grabbed a ball and drove toward the basket. Me, I grabbed a ball, too, positioned myself about thirty feet out, well beyond the three-point line.
Feet planted wide to give a stable launch platform. Hands lightly on either side of the ball, fingers spread wide. A deep wistful sigh as you release the ball, spreading your hands apart to give it extra arc.
Did I hit the first one? I did not. But I swished the second, and though my son didn’t see it, a little kid wearing a Celtics jacket did see and grinned. Whoa, his look seemed to say. Where did that come from?
From my Dad, that’s who. “Walter Joseph Wetherell,” his Hall of Fame plaque should read. “For him the ball had eyes.”
This is W. D. Wetherell of Lyme, NH.
W. D. Wetherell is a novelist and essayist who spoke from our studio in Norwich.