It was a hot and sticky July like this in the summer of 1974 when friend Tom Darling and I ventured from our Millinocket homes to the University of Maine in Orono for a weeklong summer basketball camp where I learned some inspirational lessons in athletics from Tom.
We were two naive kids who had little tutelage in organized basketball. The bulk of our experience consisted of playing on neighborhood driveways, primarily at the home of my aunt and uncle, Christine and Wendell McNally. They were exceedingly patient with as we practiced our sport year-round, even in winter when we scraped ice off the driveway and hung a light from their white birch tree.
Our goal for attending the camp, conducted then by UMaine coach Skip Chappelle, was simple, we wanted to improve. Several of our peers had attended Chappelle’s camps and told us of the valuable hoop lessons they provided.
The camp cost of $100 was a bit of an extravagance for our families. Both of our fathers were well-paid papermakers for Great Northern, but the bulk of their wages understandably went to support the essential needs of their families. However, both Tom and I had jobs, so we were able to save the money to attend the camp.
Through our participation in lots of backyard sports, Tom and I were in good physical condition and were thankful for that as the UMaine camp got under way. The camp emphasized skill development in all facets of the game — shooting, rebounding, defense and passing. Our lessons were then put to test by daily games.
Tom kept pace with us despite being born with cerebral palsy that limited use of his left hand and left leg, in which he had no calf muscle. After several years in a leg brace and operations at the Shriners Hospital in Springfield, Mass., his left leg improved, but he still walked with a slight limp and it wasn’t as strong as his right leg. His right foot was a size 10 and his left was a size 7.
He still persevered through all the demanding drills and the games, which were rough and competitive. We were fortunate to have Arthur “Skip” Hanson as the coach of our camp team. Hanson, who would guide his Foxcroft Academy Ponies to a state title in the upcoming season, was an intense coach and wasn’t shy about barking out instructions. He yelled at us when we made mistakes and praised us when we did well.
For Tom and I, it was more of the former and less of the latter. Tom took it better than I as he kept his head up, determination beaming from his eyes. Gradually, we improved a bit and continued to play hard despite the steamy conditions.
And then in one of our final games of the week Tom made a play that I’ll never forget. He dove for a ball headed out of bounds, flipped it to a teammate, and tumbled into the net that separated the courts.
The next day, the camp’s final one, Tom received the award for being the player who showed the most desire. In the several years of endless basketball practices and games that followed, I would remember Tom’s inspirational play when I felt times were getting a little tough.
I’d remember his look of determination, his bruised body tangled up in the net, and his confident, proud walk when he accepted his award.
Over the years, many of us have witnessed inspirational athletes like Tom. If you have time in this busy electronic world, take time to remember them and pass on their stories to your relatives and friends.
They might provide a helpful boost when the going gets a little tough.
It has worked for me.