Swen NaterMarch 20, 2008
Who am I? Where am I?
I don’t know. It depends. A guy who wishes he could build a fort out of couch cushions. A guy ready to spend the next four days dissolved in a solution of basketball. A guy looking back.
Twenty-seven years ago I bought a couple packs of basketball cards just as my interest in baseball cards was waning. Basketball was taking over. I got two Swen Nater cards.
A few years later I was in college. I decided to try out for the college team.
Who was I? Where was I?
I was a basketball player in America. It was 1988.
At the top of the basketball world in America in 1988 was Magic Johnson. Magic Johnson was the star of the Los Angeles Lakers. The Los Angeles Lakers were the champions of the National Basketball Association.
There was some minor league basketball being played in America in 1988, but the most talented players in America not playing in the NBA were in college. College basketball was divided into many levels. At the top level was Division I of the NCAA. There were then, as now, many conferences in Division I, some better than others, each conference with its own smaller internal hierarchy, each individual team with its own even smaller individual hierarchy. At the very top of the mountain of NCAA Division I basketball that year was Danny Manning, star of the National Champion Kansas Jayhawks. I don’t know who was at the very bottom of the hierarchy of NCAA Division I basketball, because easily accessed records are not kept on the worst player on the worst team in the worst conference of NCAA Division I basketball.
But I do know that below NCAA Division I basketball is NCAA Division II basketball. I don’t know who was at the top or bottom of that organization of conferences and teams and players. I can however tell you that below NCAA Division II basketball is NCAA Division III basketball.
And below all three divisions of NCAA basketball is the NAIA.
I’m not sure what NAIA stands for. But it is a college basketball federation that has its own hierarchy of conferences and teams and players. Some good players have come out of the NAIA, such as He of the Blond Perm of Unmatched Magnificence (Jack Sikma) and Scottie Pippen. They most likely played on the best teams in a top conference in the NAIA. But this isn’t about them.
In 1988 the worst conference in the NAIA was the Mayflower Conference, a small collection of little-known state-funded schools in northern New England, that regional hotbed of skywalking, rim-rattling basketball talent.
The worst team in the Mayflower Conference, by far, was the Johnson State Badgers.
The Johnson State Badgers employed an unorthodox roster configuration that designated 10 players as team members in full and six other members as “alternates.” The alternates took turns suiting up in the remaining two team uniforms, two alternates for each game. A few games into the fruitless season, all but one of the alternates had gotten some end-of-humiliating-blowout playing time. This final alternate accompanied the team to a game in Plattsburgh, New York. The outcome of the game was never really in doubt, but somehow the Badgers managed to keep the game from being a rout, which of course made it impossible to insert the final alternate into the game. With a couple minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Badgers somehow still weren’t without a slim hope for a miracle comeback. Their first- (and last-) year coach, a befuddled English teacher, realized that the only chance for such a victory hinged on the old strategy of sending the other team to the foul line and hoping they missed. He identified the opposing player most likely to clank free throws and started shouting at the guy guarding him.
“Luneau, foul number 32!” he shouted. “Luneau! Luneau! Foul 32!”
Luneau either didn’t hear or didn’t want to hear, and merely kept trying to play tough defense. He was a good player. He had his limitations, to be sure, but he was a good scorer and a relentless offensive rebounder. He was certainly not the worst player in the world. He had his pride.
“Luneau! Luneau! Foul 32!”
The English teacher’s voice had begun to crack. The gym was mostly empty, so his pleading could easily be heard above the bouncing basketball and the squeaking of sneakers on the floor. Finally he spun away from the action in disgust and looked at the players seated behind him on the bench. He spotted the last alternate.
“Wilker,” he said. “Get in there and foul 32.”