Baskets and Volleys

Monday, April 02, 2007

Basketball was invented in 1891 when Doctor James Naismith - a Canadian PE teacher at a school in Springfield, Massachusetts – famously nailed a peach basket ten feet up a wall and told his students to have a go at lobbing a football into it. In a moment of inspiration, he called the game Basket Ball. His new game was initially popularised and developed across the USA and Canada by the YMCA.

A little more than three years later, William G. Morgan - the PE director in a YMCA just ten miles down the road in Holyoke, Massachusetts - decided to invent an indoor sport for the older members that was less rough than basketball but that still required a bit of effort. Less prosaic in his naming technique than Naismith had been, Morgan originally referred to his new game as Mintonette, but the American public at large couldn’t cope with his fancy French-sounding name and quickly took to calling it what it looked like: volleyball.

Basketball was an Olympic demonstration sport as early as 1904, but was only fully adopted in 1936. Since then, the USA has won all but three of the Olympic titles; the first time they lost a match was to the USSR in the controversial final of 1972. In Athens in 2004, despite fielding a team with combined earnings that could have funded a reasonably ambitious space programme, the USA had to settle for the bronze medal behind Argentina and Italy.

Volleyball was a demonstration sport in Paris in 1924, but had to wait even longer than basketball before it made it into the full programme, which it finally did in 1964. Despite being invented in the USA, the Olympic competition has been dominated by the European (particularly Eastern European) teams. It’s a serious business in Europe it would seem; in Greece last week, the crowd got so excited at a volleyball game that a riot kicked off resulting in the death of one man and the suspension of all team sports in Greece for two weeks.

Thankfully, nothing so dramatic happened on Friday night. Once again, an Oxford University sports club came up trumps and the volleyball club sent along half a dozen top class players who were willing to give up their Friday night to show a bunch of complete novices how to play their sport. They did so with patience, understanding and kindness. Perhaps as a result – or perhaps because it’s just a damn fine game – everyone seemed to really enjoy the first event of the evening.

After Brian and Ludo took the lead in showing us some basic technique and outlined the rules, we split into two teams of mixed gender, race, height and ability to have a match. Ludo started trying to formulate some sort of game plan for our team, but in the end resorted to my favourite sporting technique – “Never mind… we’ll improvise” – and we were under way.

We fought three close sets, each of which was littered with entertaining and impressive play, but in the end my team finished a tantalising second. I got the distinct sense that the top guys weren’t giving us the heat, but I also got the sense that it was probably just as well.

A couple of the guys were genuinely enormous individuals. On the odd occasion when they did find themselves opposite each other at the net, it was like watching gazelles robbing a pogo stick factory. It wasn’t so much the height they achieved – impressive as that was – as the length of time they seemed to be able to stay airborne; a talent some of them hung around to transfer to the basketball court later on.

Kev (right) would be the first to admit that he's not the tallest, but Tim (left) is 6'5". I dread to think what that makes Anders (centre).

Having played basketball, I could see why William G. Morgan felt the need to invent volleyball as an alternative for the “older members”. Having only a handful of people who really knew what they were doing perhaps hindered us, but it seems a game in which a lot of frenetic action leads to very little.

I have watched some basketball on TV and thought at the time that it looked a bit dull - they all just run to one end and score, then all run to the other end and score. Our game was exhausting, but it wasn’t dull, even if by and large all we did was just run to one end and not score and then run to the other end and not score. The only dull bits from my point of view were the bits when I stood around the centre circle trying not to wheeze too much.

There wasn’t much ebb and flow to our score line – perhaps the teams turned out to be a little lopsided – but my team, hindered by my lack of pace, fitness and talent, quickly found itself adrift and ended up losing by a margin that was in the end virtually forgotten. All I can really remember is that we were 42-28 behind going into the final quarter, and it quickly became apparent that there wasn’t much need to keep track of the score anymore - there was only one team going to win and we weren’t it.

Ben, the guy behind me, spent the hour that followed this warm up showing me that height in basketball isn't all it's cracked up to be. Without him on our team, we would have lost by a lot more than we eventually did.

The disparity in the scores did allow for some top class showboating. The prize for comedy moment of the game has to go to Will whose attempted through-the-legs-lay-up went hideously wrong and resulted in him making a last ditch pass to a completely unmarked breeze block in the back wall. One technique I did pick up from Will was the look-one-way-pass-the-other-way dummy. It would have worked wonders when I tried it, had I had the least bit of coordination, or any real idea of where my teammates were.

By the end of the game, despite spending most of the last quarter marking and being marked by an equally exhausted Rich Hughes on the halfway line, I was utterly spent. The basketball had been fun, but for those of us for whom the evening was presenting two relatively new sports, volleyball was the winner by a country mile. The pub was fun too, but then we all knew that anyway.

There are two questions I get asked a lot in the course of doing this challenge. One is “what’s your favourite event so far?” and the other is “are there any you have done that you want to do again once you’re finished?” After Friday night, volleyball is at the top of both lists.

Huge thanks to everyone from the volleyball club who came along to help out and then stayed to make up the numbers in the basketball. Thanks also to the legion of volunteers who came from far and wide (well, as far as Nottingham, and as wide as Simon) and helped make it a really fun night.

The Ultimate Olympian’s Dirty Half Dozen lost narrowly to Simon Bentley’s Screaming Spikes (25-21, 22-25, 15-11). Non-professional Man of the Match: based on sheer enthusiasm (two of his most impressive plays came while he was sitting on the substitute’s bench) the award has to go to Simon Bentley.

The Ultimate Olympian’s Fearless Five had their asses handed to them by Will Clapton’s Dunking Donuts (65-35*). Non-professional Man of he Match: even though he only stayed for the first half, Michael “Air” Weatherhead, who is now officially annoyingly good at swimming, volleyball and basketball.

*score estimated later in the pub - may not be entirely accurate


Statue John said...

Sorry to have just missed out on this...

My only memory of playing volleyball is that it causes your hands much in the way of stinging pain!

Wuss Adams

PS Bravo to all..

Will C said...

The volleyball was a lot of fun - more enjoyable than expected. I even tried my hand at a bit of volleyball during my trip to California, but it's a totally different ball game when you're playing on sand. I'll stick to the basketball.

the cockitts said...

Dear John,we are thouroughly enjoying your attempts to cover all individual events. We would give our right arms to see you execute the pommel horse, the trampeline and the pole vault.
Sue & Rob