Christmas Vacation and The Unexpected Gift From a Basketball Game

By Dan Schmitt | December 23, 2014 | I suppose my journey began that Christmas break afternoon in 1964.   About the only activity t...

By Dan Schmitt | December 23, 2014 |

I suppose my journey began that Christmas break afternoon in 1964. About the only activity teenage boys did indoors during the cold, snowy north-central Wisconsin winters was play basketball, and I was at the YMCA in my home town of Wausau playing a game of pick-up when “THEY” arrived and put a dent in my sheltered existence.  

We were playing a game of three-on-three when the gym door opened and in stepped eight Black kids about our age. Our game instantly stopped and we stood, mouths agape, staring at the intruders.  One player muttered, “What the hell are they doing here?”

Small towns in my area of Wisconsin in the 1960’s were rather insular environments and, often times, breeding grounds for bigotry and narrow-mindedness. Those less than admirable qualities had not escaped any of us boys playing basketball that day. Fact was, our town was inhabited by people with surnames like Dembowski, Schmitt, Krasowski, Wegner, and Slawicki. In reality, none of us had ever been in the presence of a Black person prior to that afternoon.  As far as I can remember, not a single Black person lived in north-central Wisconsin at the time, and our unflattering perceptions of Negroes, as they were then referred to (unless we used the more derogatory N word, and we often did), were framed by that insular world. Although not one of us spoke up, it was clear by our body language that “THEY” were not welcome in our gym.

The director of the YMCA stepped through the door and asked if we would share the court for an hour or so with the new guests. Again, no one said a word, not even a “What the hell are they doing here and where did they come from?” although that question was surely on our tongues.  Silently, we took our ball and headed toward the far side of the court, leaving the other half to those “Negro kids.”

The situation was tense. I figured nothing good could possibly come from this experience, and it didn’t take long before my thoughts were put to the test. A player on our side made an errant pass, and the ball bounced onto the other court and out-of-bounds. A player on our side said something like “Well, that’s the end of our game,” and again we stood silently gawking at “them guys” on the other court, not knowing what would happen next. Then, the unexpected occurred – one of the boys picked up the ball and gently tossed it back onto our court. Incredulously, we all responded with an unappreciative “Thanks.”

For the next half-hour or so, the two basketball games continued on separate halves of the court.  Finally, one of the Black players asked if we wanted to play a game of full-court. None of us immediately responded, but thoughts swirled in my mind, thoughts like “They’re Negroes. They’ll kick our asses. They’re natural at games like basketball because they’re faster and stronger that we are, and they can really jump!”

But we local boys knew it was going to happen because none of us wanted to give the impression that we were afraid to take “them guys” on. Posturing has no racial boundaries. It was us against them!  

The game went on for some time before the Director again entered the gym and told the Black kids that their bus was ready and they had to leave, for where we never found out.  However, I did learn a few things that afternoon. That time in the YMCA gym taught me that not all Blacks were good at basketball, and not all Blacks could run fast or jump high.  It taught me that Whites could be as good as or better than some Blacks at basketball. It taught me the black Black kids were just like us. They simply wanted to enjoy a game of basketball.

So, my journey began that Christmas vacation afternoon in 1964. Exorcising oneself of ignorance and prejudice doesn’t happen overnight. For most people, it’s a long, hard slog, occasionally expedited by experiences, mostly ordinary, that chip away at those curses, experiences like the one I encountered playing basketball with “them kids.” Thinking about that experience some fifty years ago, I’d have to say that it was the best Christmas present I ever received.

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1 comment

Anonymous said...

You remain a great teacher.
An appropriate holiday reflection and a timely 'current events' lesson.

Thanks, Dan

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