Jon Maletz: The Hammer
As I sit here, aimlessly staring at my computer screen, a group of Aspen boys basketball players is airborne, likely somewhere over the Atlantic.
Soon, they will be touching down in Frankfurt, Germany.
Soon, they will embark on a two-plus-week summer excursion chock full of culture and competition.
The contingent, which includes parents, coaches and even a few athletes from across the country, will tour Bavaria and the Black Forest region. They’ll visit renowned cathedrals and castles – including Neuschwanstein, the inspiration for Cinderella’s Castle – and walk the streets of Strasbourg, France. They’ll enjoy expansive views of Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower, stroll through the Louvre and pose for photographs under the twin spires of Notre Dame.
There also will be basketball – and lots of it. The squad will square off against some of Europe’s most promising young club teams.
“I feel so lucky I’m in a position where I can offer this type of thing to kids,” said Aspen High coach Steve Ketchum, who is spearheading the excursion for the third time since 2006.
“This transcends basketball. Basketball simply is the vehicle that allows these kids to have an incredible life experience that will actually change their outlook on the world. You want people to come back wiser and more mature, and they always do just come back different. They understand the bigger picture beyond Aspen or the Roaring Fork Valley. There’s so much out there, and they’ll learn a ton.”
I cannot help but feel a tad envious. I’m excited to see the pictures and collect the anecdotes, but I wish I would’ve had an opportunity like this when I was younger. The closest I’ve ever come to Europe is Disney World’s Epcot, and I’m not convinced that being able to recite every line from “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” counts as being refined.
The summers of my youth were more about surviving the monotony than creating memories. Growing up in Connecticut had its perks (as well as Lyme disease and eastern equine encephalitis), but in terms of teenage entertainment options, the Nutmeg State has to rank right up there with Greenland.
My idea of an exciting afternoon was hanging out at Dairy Queen, tossing a tennis ball against a rotting piece of plywood propped against my neglected basketball hoop, or riding my bike down to the pharmacy to fill up on Coke and gummy worms.
There also were the occasional trips down to Lake Pattagansett to take a friend’s paddle boat for a spin. One set of pedals was broken, though, so we’d typically give up after 20 minutes of going in circles, sneak behind the boathouse and smoke the cigarettes I swiped from the glove compartment of my sister’s car.
Sure, there was the beach. It is always packed with out-of-towners, however, and the sweeping views of Long Island Sound are obstructed by a large power plant situated about a mile away. (On the bright side, the water is always warm, and there is a good chance you’ll come across a lobster with four eyes.)
There were beach dances – Wednesday nights teeming with nervous energy, cheap cologne, bad ’80s music and punctuated by stretches of sheer boredom. (At least the ice cream truck stopped there.) My presence became scarce, however, after the time I entered a jump-rope contest only to realize two minutes in that I forgot to wear a belt.
There was American Legion baseball. But committing for the summer afforded me the opportunity to ride the pine in such exotic locales as Plainfield and Killingly – dusty old towns from a bygone era where cows outnumber people and John Wayne movies likely still play at the local drive-in.
(The scent of sweat and Icy Hot did not do wonders with the ladies, either.) There was a driving range next to True Value Hardware. I stopped going there, however, after once hooking a drive so far that I swear it ended up on I-95.
There was sleepaway basketball camp. But spending hours on end in layup lines in the humidor that is the Central Connecticut State University gym, learning the nuances of 2-3 zones and being boxed out by damp kids who outweighed me by 100 pounds, was about as appealing as a root canal. Also, I am as good at hoops as Michael Jordan was at hitting curveballs.
I once was stuck sharing a room with a hopped-up Rhodes Scholar from West Hartford with the bathroom etiquette of a 6-month-old beagle and an unhealthy obsession with “Weird Al” Yankovic. (His midnight rendition of “Another One Rides the Bus” failed to amuse counselors, who made us do push-ups in the hallway – in our underwear.)
Those are memories that last a lifetime.
A few words of advice to those on this European vacation: Soak up the history. Savor both the moments and your good fortune. This sure is better than standing in front of the DJ booth with your shorts at your ankles. Believe me.
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