Hoops And A Book Mini-Preview

      37 Comments on Hoops And A Book Mini-Preview

I confess:  during the programming marathon that lasted nearly three weeks, I took one evening off from coding, but didn’t write a post.  Instead, I bought a basketball hoop for Sara and got it set up.  It was important to her.  To understand why, I’ll share the opening paragraphs from our upcoming book for kids:


You probably remember someone like me from grade school.  I was what the other kids called a brain.  But that was almost 50 years ago, and I’m told kids nowadays wouldn’t insult me like that.  Today they’d call me a nerd, a dork, or possibly a dweeb. Anyway, you know the type.  I was usually the smartest kid in class, and I was lousy at sports.

How lousy?  Well, here’s one of my not-so-fond memories from gym class:  We were running a relay race where each guy on the team had to dribble a basketball down the court, make a layup, then dribble back and hand off to the next guy.  I was the last guy on our team, and when I got the ball, we were in the lead.  I bounced the ball down the court, tossed it towards the basket … and missed. By a lot.  I tried again and missed.  And missed again.  And again — mostly because my weak arms couldn’t fling the ball high enough.

The other team had already won, but the gym teacher growled, “You’re not quitting until you make that basket.”  So I leaned back and hurled the ball as hard as I could.  It bounced off the rim, smacked me in the face, and knocked me on my butt.  At that point the gym teacher decided I could quit after all.


That’s the type of kid I was.  The opening chapter goes on to briefly recount my life as a fat kid and fat adult, and how I finally lost weight and got healthy as I neared age 50.  Like many other people, I’ve often wondered what life would have been like if I’d figured out the diet thing decades earlier.  That’s why the title of the book is Fat Head Kids: stuff about diet and health I wish I knew when I was your age.

Anyway, back to the basketball hoop.  Sara inherited so many of my traits, she’s referred to herself as a female mini-me.  She has a quick sense of humor and likes to write.  (She already writes poems that are genuinely funny.)  She loves reading books and thinking about concepts and ideas.  She routinely scores 99 or 100 on standardized math and science tests.   She’s watched some online tutorials on programming and done the exercises just for kicks.  Often she’ll say or do something that prompts Chareva to turn to me and say, “She is SOOO your daughter.”

Unfortunately for Sara, she also inherited my athletic abilities.  Before summer vacation started, she asked if we could please get a basketball hoop so she can practice.  She explained that during basketball games in gym class, other kids had taken to chanting “Pass it to Sara!  Pass it to Sara!  SARA!  SARA!”  I was impressed … until she went on to explain that other kids want her to shoot so they can cheer another “spectacular miss.”  That’s how she put it.

Yeah, I know all about those spectacular misses.  My school gym-class career was full of them.

As I explain near the end of the book, I was never going to be a great athlete.  I don’t have the natural coordination or the preponderance of fast-twitch muscle fibers that produce explosive power and quickness.  But I didn’t have to be the worst athlete in class, either.  I was weaker, fatter and slower than I should have been because of my lousy diet growing up.

As an adult, I worked out and got stronger.  I still had a belly, but not the weak muscles.  I found that with dedicated practice, I could become competent at some sports.  Back when I played a lot of golf, I usually shot between 85 and 95 – not great, but not embarrassing.  I’m pretty good at disc golf these days.  And at one time, I actually got to be a good shot with a basketball, thanks to hours of shooting baskets.  I still wasn’t a great player, since I can neither run fast nor jump high, but I could shoot.  I was no longer the guy nobody wanted on the team for pickup games.

I explained all that to Sara.  She replied that she has no illusions about becoming the star player during basketball games, but she’d like to become a decent shooter and silence those chants of “Pass it to Sara!”  I promised we’d go shopping for a hoop some weekend.

Next thing I know it’s late July, and the new school year is approaching.  Sara reminded me during my programming marathon that our driveway still lacked a hoop.  I looked at some portable hoops at our local sporting-goods store and mentally selected one that costs around $350.  But I wanted to check around for a service that would assemble and install the thing.  Last thing I wanted to tackle during a programming marathon was a huge box full of parts and badly-written instructions with little dotted lines pointing to bolts and such.

While I was at the office one day, Chareva sent me a link to an ad on Craigslist.  Someone was selling the same hoop for $125 as part of a moving-out-of-state garage sale.  She’d already called for a location, and the family selling the hoop was about 25 miles north of Nashville.  We live about 25 miles south of Nashville, so it would be a waste of time and gas for me drive home and pick her up, then drive 50 miles north, then 50 miles south.  Okay, I said, pick me up at work and we’ll drive up there.

Getting there was the easy part.  Figuring out how to get the whole contraption into the van was a royal pain in the @$$.

The seller was an engineer/baseball coach/basketball coach.  He was, not surprisingly, a very fit and strong guy.  But even with all us (including has athletic teenage son) tugging and pulling and banging with tools, we couldn’t get the two-section pole to come apart.  So after about an hour of sweating, we decided the only option was to remove the backboard and the base, then slide the entire pole into the van.  Fortunately, I’d had the good sense to tell Chareva to bring my socket set and some other tools.

The pole just … barely … fit … into the van.  I’m talking with the top of the pole touching the dashboard and the bottom of the pole almost resting against the back hatch.  We slid the backboard and hoop in alongside and wrapped a seatbelt around it.  But the real fun part was the base, which is filled with sand and must weigh 400 pounds.  That took some serious hoisting and yanking and wiggling.

By this time, I was hot and sweaty and tired and thinking about all the work I had to get done and sorry I hadn’t just bought a new hoop and paid someone to deliver it and put it together.  But we’d already paid for the $125 used model and loaded it into the van, so we thanked the seller and headed south … just in time to run smack into rush-hour traffic.  We crawled along to the office, where Chareva hopped out to drive my car home.  Then I drove the van back into the line of cars crawling along on the highway.

Frankly, I didn’t mind the slow traffic.  My worst fear at this point was having to slam on the brakes and watch the pole launch itself through the windshield like some medieval weapon of war.

Once we both arrived home, my worst fear was that we’d never 1) manage to wrestle the 400-pound base from the car, or 2) remember exactly how to attach the pole to the backboard and base.

Both fears were overrated, as it turned out.  We couldn’t just lift the base from the van, but as small-time farmers, we’re the proud owners of a good-sized crowbar.  So with the magic of leverage, we managed to scoot the thing out the hatch, onto the ground, and into position.  We used sawhorses to get the backboard positioned near the top of the pole, then I screwed it back into place while Chareva held it steady.  Then I held the pole – which is impressively heavy with a backboard attached – in its place at the base, and Chareva attached it.

Whew.  Done.   My visions of the pole falling over and the backboard shattering weren’t premonitions after all.

Most parents have had an experience like this:  child begs and pleads for some must-must-must-have object.  Parent eventually makes a mildly heroic effort to acquire the must-must-must-have object.  Child is delighted and enjoys the object immensely  … for approximately 137 minutes, then loses all interest.  Forever.

I’m happy to say that didn’t happen with the hoop.  Sara’s been out there shooting for at least a little while almost every day.  After dinner, she’ll often invite me to join her for a game of Horse or Pig.  Sometimes Alana joins in.  We’ve played a few pickup games, first one with five baskets wins.  (The rule is that I can’t attempt to block Sara’s shots.  I have a wee bit of height advantage.)

As a result, I don’t think the other kids will be chanting “Pass it to Sara!” this year.  She’s already improved her accuracy by something like a hundred million billion percent.  Okay, that might be exaggerating.  But she’s hitting a lot of shots, and her misses are no longer spectacular.

She’s my daughter, and I’m flattered that she likes being like me in so many ways.  But I don’t want her to re-live my gym-class career.


37 thoughts on “Hoops And A Book Mini-Preview

  1. Beatrix Willius

    My sports experience in school was similar to yours. I wasn’t overweight but I was totally useless at sports. My worst experience was a handstand where the wrist joint just gave up and I fell flat on my back. Today I would say that the teachers never made any effort for the weaker children. And being ridiculed by the other children didn’t help.

    It was only after school that my coordination got better and I started enjoying some sports.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Gym classes seem to be designed on the assumption that all kids are athletes. At least that’s how it was when I was a kid.

      1. Walter Bushell

        In my high school, the gym teacher’s primary job was coaching the sports teams, primarily football, of course. They had no empathy or sympathy for a fat awkward kid like me.

        Of curse, to play football, you have sado-masicistic tendencies big time.
        (Except for the kickers, who are not considered real football players, unless they bring down some returner with a brutal tackle.

        1. Tom Naughton Post author

          If I’d had the size and speed, I would have happily played on the football team. I friggin’ love football. I don’t believe I’m secretly sadistic or masochistic, however.

          Kevin Butler, a kicker for the Bears back in the glory days, was a real football player. When the other members of the kicking team all missed tackling the returner, Butler didn’t hesitate to smash into the guy himself.

          1. Dianne

            Well, Tom, I think this is a tweechy zone. (A friend’s mother and her friend were listening to the radio long years ago when the DJ announced that the next song would be “To Each His Own.” “Tweechy Zone!” cried the friend, “What’s a Tweechy Zone?” This tickled my own mother so much that it entered our family lexicon, and ever since then anything that is purely a matter of personal choice or taste is a tweechy zone.) Anyway, I just do not like football at all. I don’t like any blood sports, and near as I can tell, those guys are out there trying to kill each other. Give me a good baseball game any day! And I’m glad you did not have the size or speed to play football, our you might have sacrificed your brain to a series of concussions, and then who would keep us edjicated while making us laugh?

            1. Tom Naughton Post author

              It has occurred to me that if I’d had the size and speed for football, my bad knee might be even worse.

              In our Tweechy Zone, I’m the only one who likes football. Sara will watch with me occasionally, enough to use words like “sack” and “pick-six” correctly.

  2. Anna

    You have stirred up a traumatizing memory for me! I too could not make the hoop and the gym teacher insisted I keep shooting until the ball went in. The entire class stood idle for maybe 10 minutes while I repeatedly missed the hoop, retrieved the ball and tried again. I don’t recall if I actually made the basket.

  3. Stella

    Well shoot! You were probably in my general neighborhood and I could have gotten the chance to meet you. Or at least waved at you and your family as you drove by! We moved to Greenbrier 3 years ago from Montana. Not regretting it yet! One day, some day, I’ll see you out and about.

  4. The Older Brother

    Unfortunately, kids never realize that it’s not a lack of ability on their part — it’s that their “teachers” suck. Then they decide they’re no good at something, or they don’t have “natural talent.” Idiots.

    Related, I just finished listening to “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise” by Anders Ericcson and Robert Pool. Outstanding, and very relevant for kids’ learning. Their research is where Malcolm Gladwell got the “10,000 hour rule” in his book outliers (Ericcson & Pool explain how Gladwell got that wrong!).

    Bottom line: other than some very activity-specific traits (i.e., you’re extremely unlikely to be a basketball pro if you’re 5′ 8″ ) there’s essentially no such thing as “natural talent” (or natural NON-talent). It all comes down to the willingness to spend spend hundreds or thousands of hours of “deliberate practice.” Maybe just tens of hours if you aspire to enjoyable competence instead of world-class.

    As to the hoops game specifically, Tim Ferriss’ “Four Hour Chef” actually has an outstanding short section in the appendix about how to perfect the Free Throw. The book, although generally about food, is actually a treatise on learning how to learn.

    If this blows a hole in your book budget, well, paybacks are hell!


    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      I’ll have to read that, budget or not, because my initial reaction is to disagree. I’m on board with the need for lots of deliberate practice to develop talent, but I still believe many talents are inherited. Some people are born with musical ears, others are tone-deaf. (The tone-deaf people usually have no idea they’re tone-deaf and sing very loudly in church. Right behind me, if memory serves.) Some people are born with a high ratio of fast-twitch muscle fibers, others aren’t. Some people are born with a sense of humor, others are Germans. Etc.

      That being said, whenever one of the girls says, “But I don’t know how to do that!” I always reply that people don’t know anything until they know it. That’s why we have the capacity to learn.

      Alana is taking up the saxophone, by the way. I’ve told her I’m going to call her “Duke Silver” whenever she plays. She of course didn’t get the reference until I found some YouTube clips.

      Just checked. “Peak” is available from Audible.com, so it’s now in my queue and will soon be on the iPhone. Most of my reading time these days is in the car.

      1. Lori Miller

        Body type (not just height) is important for being good in a sport, too. Swimmers have a big, broad upper body and short legs, wrestlers are stocky, gymnasts are short with a round bum and a flat chest. When I was a lindy hopper, every great female dancer in the scene–to a woman–was built like a gymnast.

        1. Tom Naughton Post author

          And long-distance runners aren’t skinny because they run. They’re long-distance runners because they have that a lean body type that helps them excel in long-distance running.

          1. Galina L.

            I have got an impression that there is a disproportional amount of LCarbers who have unhappy memories about a gym class. It must be something rooted in a metabolism type. I am a heavy build tall well proportional female, who can’t perform sprints or hit or catch a ball in any sport game, but I can do skiing or rollerskating for hours, I thrive in a cool weather but suffer in a heat. Starchy foods make me fat. There are also too many people who have roots in a Northern or Easter Europe in a paleo movement.

    2. The Older Brother

      Yep, Audible is where I got it.

      Interestingly, one of the examples is of someone who took a number of young children and, by working with them regularly for several months, ended up with nearly all of them developing “perfect pitch.” This was while they were in the “magical” under 7 years old range, beyond which it has always been understood it is impossible to develop. Except, as they illustrate later, it isn’t. So those musical ears don’t come out of the womb that way, they tend to develop through exposure, probably most often via serendipity vs. intent.

      (Actual tone deafness is real but exceedingly rare — it probably couldn’t account for more than one or two church singers across the entire nation on any given Sunday.)

      Of course genetic body types are going to confer an advantage when you start getting to the fractions of the top one percent, but that’s not the same as ability (as all Fatheads know, correlation does not equal causation!). Being skinny doe not mean you will automatically be able to outrun the chubby kid. Being tall does not mean you can play basketball. But being tall probably does mean the coach is going to give you more time and attention, and make you more likely to be motivated to practice.

      McGuff’s example of the swim meet in “Body by Science” is of course spot on — as you get to highest levels of competition, body type confers more of an advantage until you end up with “swimmers body” types left on the podium. So They’re not lean because they swim, they win at swimming because they’re lean. The flip side, however, is that on that march to the top, lots of those lean swimmers body-types get eliminated by swimmers without torpedo bods who put in more (meaningful) work.

      The point is that, assuming most of us aren’t interested in an Olympic gold medal, or aspiring to become a chess Grand Master, or plan on being first violin for the Met, there is no genetic constraint preventing us from singing in the local choir, or running a sub-50 minute 10k, or being a scratch golfer, or hitting 80% of your free throws.

      Be interested to hear your thoughts after you read it – I started it thinking more like you, but it shifted my thinking.


      1. Tom Naughton Post author

        It’s next on my list. My current listen is “Man Made,” written by guy who never had any interest in tools, hunting, football, baseball, cars, camping, drinking scotch, or other “manly” pursuits. Then as he was nearing age 40, he learned that his wife (whose male family members are “real men”) was pregnant with a boy. So he goes on a quest to become manly. Pretty funny stuff. Also relevant to the current conversation, because he discovers that with proper instruction, he can, for example, learn to throw a baseball. And drink scotch.

      2. MikeG

        What happened to my golf game is interesting. I think the same thing happened to Ian Baker-Finch. I went from being able to break 80 in my late 20’s, to not being able to get through the front nine without having an anxiety attack in my late 40’s. It was scary enough that I gave up the game for three years, hoping that my brain would somehow recover. I tried again this spring – and I could not finish a small bucket of balls at the range – anxiety returned – only worse! The clubs are in the attic for the near future, unless anyone has suggestions. I think I understand when people tell me of panic attacks they have. So practice is good for most endeavors, but it’s not a cure-all…

  5. Firebird

    I excelled at baseball, football and hockey. I never cared for basketball. Having been a sportscasting editor and having to endure those 2nd half/4th quarter marathons, I’ve come to the conclusion that both teams should start out with 70 points and play for 2 minutes. 😉

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Ugh, I hear you. Nothing takes longer to wrap up than the last minute of a basketball game. Foul, timeout, another timeout, another foul. A team is down by 11 with five seconds to go, their coach calls timeout … apparently to discuss the secret 12-point play.

  6. Chad Wallace

    Oh man, that brings back some memories which I would have preferred to have kept repressed! I too, was the last one picked for anything in gym class, not necessarily because I didn’t have any ability, more that I had no self-confidence and was often picked on for being ‘different’.
    Remember Tom, in our day, most gym teachers were ex-jocks, so they had natural athletic abilities. And I’ll wager that many got through school and got jobs based upon prior athletic successes. Therefore their teaching and interpersonal skills may have been a bit suspect. Of course in those days, ridiculing the weak was tolerated, if not encouraged by some “teachers”.
    Back to your recent adventure, that reminds me of some of my escapades, all in the name of saving a few bucks. Kudos on another successful project my friend! I continue to be impressed with your mechanical abilities. Keep up the good work!

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Spot on. I’m pretty sure the gym teachers I had were natural-born jocks who had no idea how to relate to or coach kids with no natural abilities.

      1. Walter Bushell

        The “If I can do it, anyone can do it,” syndrome. We hear this a lot from Vegans. I was a math major because it was easy for me foreign language was a big obstacle. For the language majors foreign language was easy. Of course they were all Indo-European languages.

  7. Susan

    Ah, yes. Gym class. My least favorite part of the school day.
    And basketball brings back memories too. In my senior year, in the heat of a game, I jumped up to block a shot and came down on top of my opponent’s foot. Why I bothered to jump – I was 6 feet tall; she was about 4-11 — I never could figure. I also never asked what happened to her foot, but my ankle rolled and I fell to the blacktop. Figuring it was just sprained, I iced it at home and returned to class the next day on crutches. The coach – in her best unsympathetic coach manner – told me I’d better have it x-rayed or I’d play the next day. Turned out she was right. I’d broken the fifth metatarsal. Six weeks in a cast. Only good part was, no more basketball that year.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Yikes. I was on crutches for my senior prom and graduation, thanks to a pickup game with some friends. Another guy and I jumped up and grabbed the same rebound, back to back. I came down on the side of my foot and sprained the bejesus out my right ankle.

  8. palo

    Anybody 68 inches or taller in good shape, should be able to at least jump and touch the rim of a regular 10 feet basket. Since you are 70 inches tall and have been training with Fred Hann and Mc Guff for a while, I would expect you to slam dunk the rock.

  9. Namu

    I’m glad Sara got a supportive father who’s also smart about solving such problems in due time. With a little training she should benefit just the same way I did back in my time.

    I used to be the bespectacled weak and short nerd boy that school sports teams would pick dead last, after every girl, and then complain about… until puberty precociously made its effect (got first pubes at age 7). I was still the shortest kid but I quickly grew stronger and faster, started winning races and scoring remarkable wins at dodgeball, and so on. That gave me the self-confidence I had lacked, which made it thinkable in my mind that I could be proficient athletically, and suddenly sports were enjoyable, they were now a possible activity. The virtuous circle was running (I can do sports -> sport can be enjoyable -> practice is benefitting me -> I can do sports…), and all it took was the right push at the right time. I think Sara is getting all kinds of right pushes here 🙂

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      That’s my plan. She’ll be happy just to be a kid who doesn’t suck at sports. We know we can achieve that goal.

  10. Kerstin

    Tom – I just want to say that last summer we sold our basketball goal, and reading about your experience reminded me of us trying to load the goal into the buyer’s pickup. We did succeed without dismantling it, but what an effort! Glad you got it to all work out, and have a great time with it! 🙂


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