Life lessons from high school basketball tryouts

Members of the Marlborough High School boys basketball team run sprints during a 2015 practice.
Members of the Marlborough High School boys basketball team run sprints during a 2015 practice.(Scott Eisen for The Boston Globe/File)

There was no 3-point arc stenciled on the gleaming wood court when we showed up for high school basketball tryouts in late November of 1968. Nor were there potential “ones,” “twos,” “threes,” “fours,” or “fives.” We had guards, forwards, and centers. Our 6-foot-4-inch freshman pivot candidate was not “long.’’ Phil was merely tall. And he didn’t operate “in the paint.” He maneuvered in the key — ever-trying to avoid getting called for three seconds.

Nobody played for an AAU team outside of high school. Our parents would have scoffed at the notion of paying good money to drive all over Massachusetts so we could play on teams with kids we didn’t know.


No. We just showed up for tryouts because we wanted to make the high school varsity basketball squad, which was the most important team in town (parents and townsfolk actually went to the games) and the toughest roster to crack.

The first days of tryouts were grueling. I remember vomit. We weren’t as dedicated to year-round fitness as today’s high school players.

We were like old-timey major leaguers who used spring training to sweat themselves into shape after a winter on the rubber-chicken circuit.

Our coach sensed our summer sloth and used those first days of practice to identify the slackers and make them pay. There were no basketballs in those early practices. Just a lot of running.

We ran what we called “end-liners.” Full sprint, baseline to foul line. Touch the line, then reverse back to baseline. Then to midcourt. Then back to baseline, then to three-quarters court. Then full-court. Touch the line at every reversal. It’s hard to believe there was a time when anyone thought it was OK to call these things “suicide drills.”

Sometimes we practiced with weights around our ankles. The weights were lead pellets encased in red rubber panels that wrapped around our ankles with Velcro straps. (America hadn’t been to the moon yet, but we bought into the myth that Velcro was invented by NASA.) When you took those weights off after a half-hour of running, you felt like you could touch the sky.


When the basketballs were finally introduced, they, too, were used as sadistic tools. Coach would line us up at both sides of the midcourt stripe. He’d stand near halfcourt and roll a ball toward the center circle. When he blew the whistle, a boy from each sideline would break for center court to scoop up the loose ball.

Today they call these 50-50 balls. Our coach just wanted to find out who was quicker and tougher, who wanted it more. This resulted in some spectacular collisions. We all wanted it more. We all wanted to make the team. I don’t think this drill would be allowed today.

Eventually we got around to actual basketball activity. We scrimmaged. Half court. Full court. We practiced free throws, 25 at a time, five rounds of five. Coach taught us a 1-2-1-1 full-court zone press to be used after our team scored. Coach told us he borrowed it from UCLA, the college basketball king of our time.

Pope John’s Michael Thompson (1) pumps his fist to celebrate his team’s victory in the 2018 boys Division 4 state semifinal game.
Pope John’s Michael Thompson (1) pumps his fist to celebrate his team’s victory in the 2018 boys Division 4 state semifinal game.(Jim Davis/Globe Staff)

We didn’t have hundreds of kids trying out, but we had more players than uniforms. Some of the early “cuts” were natural attrition. Kids who were not serious stopped showing up. Then came the real cuts: rosters posted on the wall outside Coach’s office in the boys’ locker room.


I was in second-period study hall in the first week of December when a friend rushed up to our table of four and whispered that the cuts had been posted. I beat feet for the gym.

Happy day. There was my name on the varsity roster list.

It was near the bottom of the scroll, and I knew I wouldn’t play much — a correct assessment on Coach’s part — but that didn’t matter. It meant a varsity uniform with the white puffy warm-up jacket. It meant a pair of free Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star high-tops that Coach always acquired from the nearby factory in Hudson.

It meant Tuesday and Friday bus rides to Oakmont, Nashoba, and Tahanto Regional High Schools that were part of our Wachusett League. It meant the pretty senior cheerleaders (are there still high school girls named Connie, Nancy, and Jeannie?) would know my name. It meant occasionally seeing “Shaughnessy” in the box score of the next day’s Globe (yes, the Globe ran high school basketball box scores in those days) if I made a garbage-time free throw against North Middlesex.

We had a very good Central Mass. team over the next three years, and I never started, nor played serious minutes, but making that squad, working hard in practice, and being part of the experience was truly life-changing. It made me feel part of something important and it gave me the confidence to do other things — things I was better at than playing basketball.


Years later, with a son playing freshman basketball, I attended a meeting for parents of all hoop teams at our gigantic suburban high school. At the end of the meeting, the coach, in Norman Dale fashion, introduced his varsity players and said, “This is your team. And it’s the hardest team in the school to make.’’

Maybe your school is different. Maybe in your school, it’s the varsity field hockey team. Or lacrosse. Or football. Or hockey.

Doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s tryout season for winter sports teams in Eastern Massachusetts, and this would be a good time to keep an eye on the teenage boy or girl in your house who is trying make a team.

Not everyone is going to make it, and it takes strength and courage for kids to put themselves out there.

Physically and emotionally, trying out is a trying time. And it can change a kid’s life.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy

@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Shaughnessy