Ah, the pursuit of perfection. To attain the unattainable. A desire to do something special that will withstand the test of time. Whether it be in sports or life, that level of success can provide a memorable legacy for those so fortunate to be involved.
And years ago, I shared that special experience with some friends, old and new.
You can talk all you want about the ‘72 Dolphins. Or all those Wooden years in Westwood. Even the King Felix perfecto. But more often than not, that pursuit of perfection ends up like the litany of oh-so-close, just not quite outcomes (we’re looking at you ‘21 Gonzaga).
But you know what’s missing in those conversations? One of those all-time great seasons that folks rarely talk about… the ‘79-80 Columbia River High School Boys Basketball C team. Ease up there with the chuckles. Yes, I’m serious. (By the way, insert obligatory ‘Go Chieftains’ here…) 🙂
20-0. That’s Twenty wins, and *checks notes* zero losses. Here’s a list of all the River hoops teams, at any level, that have also ever finished a season undefeated.
– 1979-80 Boys Sophomore Team
Yeah, that’s it. Short list. 🙂
As a new hoops season is set to tip off forty-three years later, that group of guys still holds the distinction of having the only undefeated season in school history. I guess there was a hoops team that was close a few years back, but like those ‘21 Zags, they couldn’t seal the deal and ended up just another one-loss footnote. (Sorry, friends from that class… too soon?) 🙂
Anyway, that memorable season brought together a great group of guys, merged from two previous rivals, who found friendship and fun – yes, winning is fun – on the hardwoods.
The team was a collection of characters, and Coach Dale Backlund (he of that fancy yellow TR-7) deserves a big shoutout for putting the pieces together and letting us make the magic happen. Guys like Barnum taking up space in the paint, ready to flatten some unsuspecting and undersized Guard (we constantly had to remind Bruce that football season was over). Or Steve Lucas who perfected the International Step before it was popular – or properly officiated (I wish I had a dollar for every time he was unfairly called for traveling). Then there was Steve Oberst, our own version of Jason Williams before ‘White Chocolate’ was even a thing (just search for JW on YouTube, thank me later). The team could have been even better, but two of our best guys, Dave Ashcraft and Todd Swan, played up a level.
But since this is my blog, I’m going to focus on this one role-player. Like I’ve done often in life, I might have peaked early in my HS hoops career. I was coming in from the ‘wrong’ side of the tracks (I was a Gaiser guy, living in this new Jason Lee-dominated world), so I guess I was fortunate to even make the team. But I prevailed, and was just looking for my opportunity to prove I belonged.
As luck would have it, in an early season home game against Prairie, I get the call off the bench. I’m feeling great and proceed to start tossing up shots (to Backlund’s dismay) and they’re dropping (to everyone’s shock, including mine). When the game was all said and done, I led all scorers with double digits off the bench and I’m thinking this could be the start of something big.
Note: I’m prone to get out over my skis, so I should’ve probably cooled my jets a bit, but that wasn’t my style.
After that performance, I was stoked to find out I was getting a starting lineup nod for our next game. My time had come, I was feeling it. Well, that feeling must’ve just been some bad Taco Bell I had for lunch, because I immediately went out and led the team again – only this time it was in Personal Fouls. I definitely used all five I was allotted before being DQ’d, and likely several more that somehow weren’t called. After that fleeting brush with sophomore stardom, I was back to filling the 6th man (or some weeks, the 10th man) role.
But that’s just fine. As I look back, I can’t tell you if I averaged two minutes or 32 minutes a game. I can tell you I likely led the team in PF and shots that should never have been taken.
Ultimately though, Basketball is a team sport, and last I looked we were a 20-0 team. Yeah, Undefeated.
And undefeated is a beautiful thing… in the right context.
Now, those 40-plus years removed from that undefeated season, I find myself on the other side of the Win/Loss ledger.
See, sadly, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis is also undefeated. Sporting a 162-year ‘winning’ streak, millions of people (patients, family, friends) have been affected over all those years.
ALS is an opponent that no one has ever beaten, so my odds are not looking so great.
Despite that ominous record or those daunting odds, that’s not my focus. I’m going to relish the fact that I was blessed to have been able to play the game. I’m going to revel in the fact that I played it with a determination to be good – and, more importantly, a passion to do good. Here, in this aspect, I’m not talking about the game of basketball, but the game of life.
Now, looking back, I believe I have proven that I did indeed belong. I know I will finish this game – not in the stands, not on the bench, but in the game. I will trust myself to take that final shot. I will watch with conviction as it goes in. I will finish with profound satisfaction that I have determined the outcome. ALS may think it will have won… but I will have won, for I will have played the game.
That passionate participation in this game of life, including the memories of the time with those teammates, that Prairie game, and the feeling of being part of something very special… a season of perfection, will be something that ALS can never take from me.
In that, I will remain undefeated.
Note: In case you’re curious, the guys who made up that undefeated team, as shown in the picture are (L-R): Dave Russell, Rick Dall, Greg Cobb, Ed Stemler, Steve Mattice, Steve Lucas, Mitch Canton, Chip Ambler, Ron Thomas, Bruce Barnum, Glenn Russell, John Peabody, Tim Wyche, Steve Oberst, Mike Matkowski. Not pictured: our awesome Coach Dale Backlund.