From Chicken Soup for the Father & Son Soul

This Matchup Will Always Rank as a Classic

It was an all-time classic matchup, ranking right up alongside Bill Russell versus Wilt Chamberlain, Arnold Palmer versus Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods versus a dogleg par 5. It was Babe Ruth versus a fastball, Jesse Owens versus the stopwatch. Indeed, Ali and Frazier had nothing on this rivalry. It was Bird against Magic and USC challenging UCLA and Sampras opposing Agassi rolled into one. More than that, it was David and Goliath: The Sequel. What we had here was the aging, wily master versus the young, cocksure upstart. Brain against brawn, experience against quickness. Veteran versus rookie. One-on-one. No pennant was at stake, no world championship title to be won. Spoils to the victor did not include fame and fortune, a Nike contract, or one’s picture on a Wheaties box. Still, the two combatants—my pop and me—went at it tooth and nail.

Pride was on the line. In his heyday, the cagey veteran had been considered a BMOC—Big Man on Court. He not only remembers the days when six-foot-four college centers were in vogue—he actually was one at tiny Wittenberg University in Ohio. The rookie, on the other hand, was the prototype playground junkie. A gym-rat guard quicker than e-mail, with more moves than a bachelor in a singles bar. (Which, by the way, was only fitting, since at the time I was a bachelor—as most preshavers tend to be.) He dribbled with the sleight of hand of a magician and could shoot more accurately than Robin Hood.

The rookie wore out nets faster than he did the knees of his Levis. When he should have been in his bedroom hitting the books, he was often outside on the driveway hitting jumpers. The vet was a master of the medical boards, but the rook was a master of the backboards. We’re talking Dr. J (J as in Junior) versus Doc (as in M.D.). The vet had lost a step in recent years. Maybe two. Perhaps even three. In the late summer of his life, the spring in his legs had long since sprung. But with the dog days of summer barking long into the warm evening, his aging bones would be magically transformed and he would feel twenty years younger. Challenged, he was once more a BMOC. And yet the vet’s labored hustle and labored breathing were no match for the upstart’s tireless energy. Nor was his old-fashioned 1940s-era set shot half as deadly as the rookie’s soft-arching “J.” But in addition to guile and experience, the crafty old pro had one more asset on his side of the ledger: the Hook. An unstoppable weapon.

Don’t be misled. The Hook was not of the famed “Skyhook” perfected by the NBA’s all-time scoring king Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. No, it was not launched from out of the clouds or arena rafters. It didn’t even come from out of the eucalyptus treetops lining the driveway court. Rather, it was a sweeping shot released with a stiff arm from about the ten o’clock position. What’s more, it came ambidextrously, from both wings. Right-handed. Left-handed. Left-handed. Right-handed. It was like a windshield wiper gone berserk. Not a soft shot, the Hook banged the wooden backboard—bam—like a judge pounding his gavel, and rendered its own form of justice two points at a time. Make no mistake, the Hook was no “brick” that broke the backboard or bent the rim. The only thing the Hook broke was the opponent’s morale. Its unique sidespin—“English” is the word the old pro used to describe it—literally made the basketball dive off the backboard and through the net, like a diver knifing cleanly into a deep blue pool. Shoot. Thwack! Swish! Two points, side out. To the dwarfed rookie, the Hook was as unstoppable as the common cold. The kid was like a sandcastle defending a rising tide. It was the great equalizer for Father Time.

Thus the showdown featured the Hook seasoned with a few one-hand set shots, versus twenty-foot jumpers and occasional drives. On and on the games went—winner’s outs, first one to ten by ones—and then a rematch, and a re-rematch until darkness fell or dinner was called.

Four decades later it remains unknown who came out ahead in the long history of this torrid series. Each claims he did. Both know it doesn’t really matter.

Similarly, a new series is underway, one where I have switched jerseys and am the cagey vet against my teenage rookie-son. With drug scandals and contract holdouts and labor strikes littering the sports pages, it’s refreshing to see a sporting matchup played for the pride of it. For the fun of it. Where the sounds of skin-on-skin fouls are muffled not by arguments, but by echoes of laughter. Don’t believe that sports are still fun and games to some? Check out any driveway that has a basketball hoop at the end of it—and watch the new classic one-on-one basketball matchups between fathers and sons (and daughters, too!).

Woody Woodburn

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