The Underdog

I watched a tape of an old fight where the underdog came in with the odds against him, no shot at a victory, no chance to walk out with his hand raised, and in all likelihood, the underdog would not only lose, but he was predicted to lose in the worst possible way. I suppose no one told the underdog this. Or, maybe they did tell him and the underdog decided not to listen and he showed anyway because shortly after the bell for the first round, the favored champ took one on the chin and then the champ went down
The problem after this was the underdog was not the underdog anymore. He was thrust into the spotlight and put on a new stage. He wasn’t the underdog anymore. Now he was the champion.  Although he defied the odds, the underdog lost his title shortly after. This was the part that I always found interesting. Everyone spoke about how the underdog won and shook up the world. But after the loss, the cheers became quiet, and suddenly the previous victory was no longer unthinkable. And now it was just a fluke.

Put aside the fact the underdog beat the unbeatable, and that on his best day, the underdog went up against the better man with a better record, young, stronger, faster, and by all rights, the champ should have been able to take the underdog apart; however, when the underdog showed up, he beat the best in the world. He won and yet because of a following loss, the achievement was written off as a fluke.

I say that’s ridiculous.

Back when I was young, I was never much of an athlete. Of course, I wanted to be. I mean, no one ever wants to be the kid that is picked last for teams, which I never was.
I was never picked first either but I was never picked last. I was always somewhere in the lower-middle. This meant I that I was neither worst or best, but more pawn-like and able to fill a spot on the field.
I could throw a ball and catch one too. I could dribble a basketball but I never really played before. And to me, the idea was to play, to have fun, and enjoy.

Play [pley]: To have fun, to run, to enjoy one’s self, to throw a ball, to kick a ball or catch it; as in “to play a game,” like tag, or to enjoy a moment with amusement.

First day of practice, mind you, I never shot a layup before but that didn’t stop me from getting on line to play with the others. I knew what a layup was. I knew how to dribble a basketball and even with minimal experience, I knew what the backboard was. I knew that if I tossed the ball up and hit the backboard at the right spot, the ball would bounce off and fall through the net. Simple, right?

I was last on a line of boys who all knew each other. I was a stranger to them all, with the exception of two boys in my class. The rest went to Catholic school and the two boys from my class knew the other kids from religion class. But me, I never went to Church, nor did I go to Sunday school or receive communion.
I was neither Catholic nor did I really know the difference between being Jewish and Catholic. I did know the league I joined was called the C.Y.O. league, which stood for Catholic Youth Organization, which should have stood for a few other things, but I will get into that in a few.

These things did not bother me at first. I was just a kid that wanted to play a game, which again, to play meant to have fun, to run around and enjoy myself.

I was excited to meet new people. I was excited to be part of a team, to play a game and go to different towns, to wear my jersey and feel the prestige of being part of something. Meanwhile, at my first practice, I waited on the layup line and one by one, the boys shot before me. One by one, I felt the excitement grow. I felt the anticipation grow to an amazing level-and next, it was me. It was my turn and I waited with excitement to dribble the ball, run up to the net, shoot my layup, and then return to the end of the line to do this again.

The practice was in a gym of a neighborhood Catholic school with a dark tan, glossy floor, bleachers on the sides of the gym for home games, and school pride banners hung all around. The sound of basketballs bounced and echoed throughout the gymnasium. The coached blew a whistle on occasion; he talked loudly and cheered the boys as they took their shots. These were the sounds I could hear.

Finally, I got the ball. I dribbled it up fine and I jumped to make the shot, excited as ever,  and then BAM! —when I tossed the ball up, I tossed it up in poor timing. The ball hit the bottom edge of the backboard and then it rebounded fast. it bounced back and hit me directly in the face. Suddenly, the sound paused in the gym. There were no more echoes from the bouncing balls or the coach cheering on his team. Instead, there was the sound of 12 year old kids laughing at me. This was all I could hear

The coached paused as well before blowing his whistle to stop the laughter, which never really stopped, but the coach shouted out, “That’s enough.”

Meanwhile, I was brokenhearted and my face hurt. I returned to the end of the line and waited for my next chance, which I would love to say it was a redeeming shot, but that was not the case. And it went this way for a while. I never played much nor was I ever picked first at scrimmages. I was the kid on the bench that played in small spurts.
But I tried though.
I tried and I never quit.

One night at practice, I was in the locker room. Again, I was too young to know much about religion. I knew there was a difference in them but I never knew much else about it. I knew who Jesus was but I never knew the story about how he came into the world. I never knew Jesus had a Mom and I never knew that her name was Mary or that she was called the Blessed Virgin. But I did know what a virgin was. I also knew that one could not be a mom and a virgin at the same time because I knew you had to have sex to give birth to a baby, which is not the way the story went with Mary.

A few of the smaller kids (with me being the smallest) were lined up against the lockers and the three or four of the biggest kids (I swear they were all taller than 6’ by the time they were 10 years-old) interrogated with questions, which most answered with laughs, so I thought the same would go for me.

I was asked, “Do you believe in the Blessed Virgin Mother?” in a loud, screaming voice.
I never heard of this before.

I answered, “That doesn’t make sense,” to which, I was slapped across the face.

“You can’t be a virgin and a mother at the same time,” I said.
I was asked, “You don’t believe in the Virgin Mary?”

I was under fire and the heat was getting hot until one of the other teammates that knew me from school explained, “He’s Jewish, he doesn’t believe in Jesus.”

The others on the team began to shout in the locker room. If I didn’t feel bad from the stinging slap, which left a red mark across my face, I felt even worse afterwards because the rest of the team went on to scream about me being “A Jew!”

Yet still, I kept going. I went to every practice and every game. I took the abuse and the comments. I took it all, but I did not like it nor did I want to go. In fact, I tried to quit several times but The Old Man wouldn’t let me.
He told me, “You put it in their faces every time you show up,” but I was too young to understand and too hurt to see the victory The Old Man’s suggestion.

This was tough on me. Every time I had to throw a foul shot, I had to shoot it underhand because the strength to hit the basket. Every time I missed a shot, I had to hear the others on the team scream at me is if they never missed and I was the only one that ever missed a basket. But like it or not, I showed up.

On an evening when I thought for sure, I would quit, the others were playing on the court and the gym sounded out with the echoes of screeching sneakers and a bouncing basketball. One of the top players on the team was in the middle of his showboat style with his tongue sticking from his mouth as he did his best NBA impersonation. But then the whistle blew. The coach ordered everyone to line up, which we did.

The coach took the ball away and tucked it under his arm. Then he began to pace up and down the court while discussing what it means to “Play” basketball. He talked about heart and dedication. He expressed his anger about the hotdog style that some of the players showed which, in fairness, these kids were very good for their age. “You could have all the talent in the world,” the coach said. “But it doesn’t matter if you don’t have the heart.”

Then the coach pointed at me. “See this kid?”
“This kid comes here no matter what you do or say to him. Whether he plays or not whether he scores or not, he still comes to every practice and he tries with everything he has. Not one of you here gives me that much. NOT ONE OF YOU!”

This was the only time the rest of the boys on the team were nice to me. All of them were. And they said goodbye to me too, which never happened. But of course, as it is with you and our terrible ability to remember the lessons we learn —it all went back to the way it was at the next practice. But still, I did have my moment.

I never forgot the dignity behind this lesson. In my opinion, this is what it means to endure, to continue, and to keep going no matter what anyone says. This is what it means to be the underdog.

We went undefeated that year.  I never got much playing time but I did score a few points. I never played an organized sport again. It seemed their definition of  “Playing” was much different than mine. But I never quit. They can say I never played well but no one on that team can ever say I cried or I quit . . . . because I didn’t.

To me, this is what the underdog is. To me, the underdog keeps showing up no matter what his opponent says or does. The underdog never quits. No matter what, the underdog just keeps coming back.

When I began writing this to you, I mentioned a fighter that shook the world and defied the odds. He was the underdog. No matter what people told him, he showed up one night to fight the champion of the world. And yes, maybe he did lose his next fight. Maybe he wasn’t meant to be the champ long, but that doesn’t mean anything to me. The only thing important to me about this is a man defied the odds and beat the world. As far as I’m concerned, no one can ever take a victory like that away.

The way I see it, any fighter can lose but it takes a real champion to get back up and fight again. Win or lose, favored or not, this is the way I want to be.

I don’t want to care about the odds against me. I don’t want to worry who is better or not. No, I think I’ll stay as I am and just play the game, which we call life,  to the best of my ability



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