The Best Christmas Gift

by Paul Sykes

Back in the days of my misspent youth, I enjoyed sports of all types. After high school football season ended, I would rotate to the basketball team. I played both sports about the same, was never mistaken for an outside shooting threat but could rebound, putback, play a little “D” and knock opponents around. Finesse simply wasn’t in my vocabulary but I was another five fouls available to the coach

The several of us that went from football to basketball caused consternation for the basketball-only guys. They knew their playing time would diminish, practice would get a lot more physical and the advent of bruised ribs, sore backs and banged heads were on the way.

One guy that loved seeing us show up, though, was Bill, the assistant student equipment manager. It gav

e him more guys with which to pal around and chatter.  Bill took care of the menial things, the towels and practice jerseys collection and distribution. Bill was our unofficial mascot, too. Not the brightest or handsomest guy at school…tall but skinny as a rail. Bill took a mental and social beating from a lot of the kids at the school, but we loved him on the hoops team.

Bill would shoot around on the court before and after practice. He really wasn’t that bad a marksman…not quite to the talent level of the guys who dressed and played, but he’d give you a run for your money in a game of “horse”.  He would talk to himself non-stop during his shootarounds..describing his feats in sportscaster style as he tossed in jumpers and layups. He would sit at the end of the bench during games and continue his rambling play-by-play, cracking up us reserves. Several of us decided that we would make it our mission to get Bill in a uniform and dressed for a game.

Coach had one more surprise in store for us. He had inserted Bill in the starting lineup.

At first, coach was dead set against the idea. Bill, a likeable guy, had his job and his duties and that was that in coach’s mind. But, we got a couple of the assistant coaches on our quest and finally…coach agreed to consider it.

Early one morning, we decided it was time to get Bill on the court. We went to Coach about it during our breakfast and he said he’d think about it. Several of us offered to let him wear our uniforms for the game.

As we got ready to dress for the game, coach called me aside. “You’re about Bill’s height…you willing to give your uniform up for a night?” he asked. I grinned from ear-to-ear and told him it was a done deal.  Minutes later, he called us together for a pregame talk. I was still in street clothes and none of the guys knew what was about to happen.  Bill kept bugging me to suit up. I just told him I would in a minute.

Tears were flowing from Bill's eyes as he put on the uniform and laced up his sneakers.

Coach gave a few brief words and then walked up to Bill, standing at the back of the room. He put an arm around him shoulder and walked him to my locker.

“Suit up, Bill. You’re playing tonight,” he growled and walked out of the locker room. We went nuts. Tears were flowing from Bill’s eyes as he put on the uniform and laced up his sneakers. I think a few of us may have teared up also.

Coach had one more surprise in store for us. He had inserted Bill in the starting lineup. When the public address announcer called his name, he looked around in amazement and we practically had to shove him out on the court for his introduction. The few fans we had that had traveled down for the tournament went nuts in the stands, as we did on the bench.

I’d like to tell you that Bill had a great game early on, but he picked up two quick fouls and coach substituted for him. We were a much better team than our opponent, though…and led by about 20 going into the final quarter. Coach inserted Bill back into the game and on our first chance on offense, we ran the old “back door” play that coach outlined to everyone in the huddle during the break and made sure Bill understood it. Bill took a pass to the hoop and hit a layup. More pandemonium ensued. Coach took him out to a roaring round of applause from the bench and our fan base.

After the game, Bill stood before the guys in the locker and told us “this is the best Christmas gift I could have got.”  No one in that room disagreed.  Bill spent the rest of the year resuming his duties as assistant student equipment manager but on that one winter night had his one shining moment in the spotlight.

These days Bill works as an orderly at a long-term healthcare facility out of state. Married and with several grown kids, he’s picked up a few pounds…but hasn’t lost that boyish attitude or gift of gab. I saw him at a reunion several months ago and we recalled the night he played. In typical Bill fashion, he reminded me that he was the only player that year that shot 1.000 for the season.

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Paul Sykes

Paul Sykes owns Paul Sykes Advertising and does contract work for other advertising and publishing firms. The proud husband of Sonja, he has a fascination with bears, bars and Cardinal sports. He's also the moderator of CardinalCouple.blogspot.com

2 thoughts on “The Best Christmas Gift

  • December 18, 2009 at 1:58 pm
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    Good story paul, well worth the time it took to read it, glad you shared it.

  • December 19, 2009 at 1:23 pm
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    Thanks for sharing that story, Paul. Someday you’ll have to share your wonderful story you told me about setting the school rebounding record that held for…what was it…29 years? Happy holidays to All!

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