Monday, October 12, 2015

Pinetta, Basketball and My Mom's Legacy

As my loyal reader knows, should someone be digging for my roots, they lie deeply in an obscure little north Florida village called Pinetta (have fun looking up the history of that word), which hugs the border of Georgia and is about 60 miles east of Tallahassee on Interstate 10.

This little place, surrounded by pine forests, swamp land, and fields of corn, cotton and tobacco, shaped my life in many ways and, the good Lord willing, we'll get to all of them in this fireside chat of a blog.

Pinetta, in the 1940s, '50s and 60s, was the Indiana of Florida, meaning that the hoop was hallowed there, that basketball was life. Before school consolidation in the late 1960s, Pinetta was among a string of little schools -- many of them, Pinetta included, stopping at 10th grade -- too small to field football, leaving basketball as the community's life blood.

Places such as Lee, Day, Jennings, Salem, Foley, Greenville, Aucilla, in Florida and, just above the Georgia border, Clyattville, Lake Park, Quitman and Statenville, all mattered a lot more back then, thanks in large part to basketball.

Basketball began to be the driving passion of my youth on a November evening in 1941, a few weeks before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and several years before I was born. Still, I remember it well:

A very small girl -- 5 feet tall at the most -- sat impatiently on the end of the bench while her Pinetta Indians fell behind the Greenville Pirates. That girl, a freshman, was my mom, but her friends call her Joyce.

That's Joyce on the right, no longer a freshman, but still tough as nails. On the left is my niece Lauri, daughter of my beloved sister Martha.
At halftime, coach Audrey Leslie (later to become Miz Audrey to generations of Pinetta first graders) got fed up with one of the girls' lack of productivity, so she told Joyce to go in for her.

It didn't take her long to prove coach Audrey right. Joyce was as quick and elusive as a water bug and, in spite of her youth and inexperience, was not the least bit shy about taking an open shot. Nine times she tossed up her compact little two-hander, and six times the ball ripped through the bottom of the net, making her the Indians' high scorer and leading them to a comeback victory.

I should point out that in those days, girls' teams could often win games by scoring as few as 20 points. So 12 points in a half by one freshman -- that was a big deal.

That night in bed the little girl’s body ached with fatigue, but it could not rest. She was too much in love to fall asleep. When she closed her eyes, she could feel the ball in her hands, seams lined up just right, the smell of dust in the air, the leathery-dusty smell of the ball. 

The ball would roll off her fingers, arcing over the unseen defender, following some invisible tunnel to the orange rim on a white backboard, everything else blocked out, then the familiar TTHPT! as the ball snapped through the net.

As she lay in bed, a muscle would jump occasionally, still ready for action. Her eyes about to close, she’d see daylight between her and the basket, her defender momentarily out of position or off balance: “Gimme the ball!" Her dreams gave her no rest. She kept running, shooting, passing. She could hear the crowd. She heard that old Pinetta cheer, echoing in the dark:

Pinetta's gonna win tonight,
Pinetta's gonna win!
When the sun goes down
And the moon comes up,
Pinetta's gonna win!

If you've heard the story of Wally Pipp and Lou Gehrig, you've heard this one. The girl my mom replaced never regained her starting job. Instead, Joyce started every game from then until she graduated. 

As a junior, she became the team co-captain, then captain as a senior. While the star of her team was Mary Frances Blair, Joyce was a rugged little leader who never learned how to relax in a game, regardless of the score or the opponent. In every game, she played full speed even when air and energy would finally forsake her in the final minutes. Hands on hips, she would bend over so her mouth was almost even with her knees, sucking in all the oxygen she could get. 

When you love a game, after all, there is only one way to play it.

About four years after I was finally born, my mom placed the enchanted ball itself into my hands. It was somewhat smaller than a real basketball, and my backboard wasn’t white – just some boards nailed onto a pecan tree in front of my house.

My dad helped with this, but basketball clearly took him out of his element. He’d never played this game and, in fact, had no such love affair with any sport. He reckoned basketball was for girls and sissies. When he shot, he shot with two hands, his elbows jutting out awkwardly on both sides, like a young father holding a baby for the first time. 

Then his feet would go flying out behind him, one foot often landing with a soft thud on his rear end. The ball, of course, never knew where the basket was. It was liable to go anywhere. He’d walk off, dusting his hands, muttering, “Well, shoot. I liked to ’a got it.”

After a few days, the leaves and the grass and the pecans began to disappear from around my tree. I had found my Eden and I would only stop shooting if I were exhausted or if my mom called me away for a chore. When I got too tired to play, I stood, facing the basket, the ball on my right hip bone, held there by my forearm: I had seen a picture of my mom doing this, and one of my heroes had done it during the first game she took me to. It was apparently how real basketball players stood when resting.

One day while in this stately pose, I realized that this game was now and would always be a part of me – but as a child, I couldn’t really have thought it like that. Perhaps I thought I was the game. More likely, I believed the game was mine, and that I could beat anyone at it if they played by the rules.

That turned out to be a faulty assumption, which was a heartbreaking lesson. Although I was fortunate enough to realize some of my basketball dreams, I never became a great player, but it's still hard to measure or express how important basketball was to the way I lived my life.

How wonderful it is to have a mom who gives you life, then gives you the passion that makes life more meaningful, that fills your heart with joy and makes it want to keep on beating even in the midst of all the terrors, blunders and confusions of adolescence.

With her encouragement, basketball became my one true thing. I could turn to basketball, often alone in my makeshift backyard court studded with annoying oak roots, to heal from disappointments, to forget anxieties, and to create a comfortable fantasy existence where I did big, big things as a star player.

I saw basketball then, and still do today, as having a beautiful intensity, blurred by speed. It showcases grace, but also a simmering, scarcely bridled violence, with an almost intimate competitiveness: At the moment of victory or defeat, one is almost always within inches of the opponent, making a win more exhilarating, a loss more devastating and personal.

I'm grateful to my mom for opening this door for me, and even though she was born the year Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic and Babe Ruth hit 60 homers, she still has the will, if not the skill, to kick some butt in the 90-and-Above League.

In future posts I'll chronicle how, somewhere near the middle of Nowhere, basketball transformed the daughters and sons of farmers, teachers, preachers and mill workers into the stuff of myth and legend.

Meanwhile, go ahead and put your money on it: Pinetta's gonna win tonight!


  1. Thanks for sharing this Roy. Keep the stories coming.

  2. Jeepers, thanks Don! I will. I have several more basketball yarns up my sleeve, then a bunch of stuff about high school, college, working in tobacco -- the whole scene. Thanks for reading and I'm glad we're back in touch.