Rich LaRocco

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A 'career' in church basketball

by Rich LaRocco

Basketball is the No. 1 sport in my home state of Utah, probably because almost every boy and most of the girls grow up playing on basketball teams sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Almost every chapel has an attached "cultural hall" that gets more use as a basketball gym than a place where Mormons stage road shows or hold talent contests or piano recitals.

My first experience in basketball was in President John F. Kennedy's physical fitness program, which called for students to improve their bodies. I was probably about 9 years old when I had to see gauge my fitness by performing various exercises.

Here I am in our driveway, wearing my black glasses, after failing to block a shot. I'm sorry this old Polaroid print didn't survive the past 40+ years very well, but you can barely see a wire that we had to shoot over on the left side of the basket. "Shackleford from the corner!" was a cry we loved to describe a successful shot from the left side of the garage.

One test determined how many chinups I could do (zero). Small and wiry Brent Ferrin did well in that feat. I could do only about three or four pushups, but my standing broad jump was second in my class only to Theron Miller's. Then we were supposed to shoot some foul shots on an outdoor basketball rim at the school. I had seen my father play in a game at the church gym a couple of times and had watched one or two games on television but had never shot myself before that day. I missed a couple of times and then made two or three in a row. Something clicked in my brain, and I realized that making a basket gave me a special thrill that was unlike anything else I had ever done.

It wasn't until I turned 12 and graduated from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts that I had a chance to play on a team. Sponsored by our ward, which is the Mormon term for a parish, the team was composed of a 15-year-old who thought he was "the bomb" and, therefore, bombed away almost anytime he crossed the mid-court line, and a bunch of 12- and 13-year-olds. The rest of us listened to jargon we couldn't understand from our well-meaning coach and then ran around like second-grade soccer players, schooling like frenzied piranha wherever the ball happened to be. My mother remembers how I ran to the sideline during my first game and asked, "What's zone? I'm supposed to play zone."

It was difficult to learn basketball jargon from context. It took me a couple of years to understand the difference between "one-on-one" and "one-and-one." Most people are born as left-brainers or right-brainers, but I've always been an all-brainer, having talents and interests that are typical of both types of humans. I've always felt that my brain is wired differently than most with more signals crossing from side to side than is usual. This curious combination causes me to think differently and much more literally and phonetically than most others, and I often think about and spell in my mind each individual word that is spoken and have a difficult time trying to understand what people mean when their literal words don't convey the intended meaning.

I remember thinking that if "one-on-one" and "one-and-one" have meanings in basketball, there also must be "one-off-one" and "one-or-one." "Pick and roll" was another difficult concept to understand, let alone master. My first three coaches simply assumed that the players knew what was meant by "setting a pick" or "rolling to the basket." In my mind a pick could be a toothpick or an ice pick or maybe a regular axelike pick, but I couldn't understand what any of them might have to do with this game. A roll in my mind required wheels, which might apply to the popular female roller derbies of that era but could not reasonably apply to basketball.

Eventually I was able to divine the meaning of specialized basketball terms or learned what they meant by asking questions or reading books.