With the weather severely limiting my ability to spent countless hours playing basketball on the various outdoor courts of my hometown, I decided to use the extra time for off-court training.
The decision was made one particularly bitter February day while visiting Gauvin. There was an old weight bench (complete with the weights) sitting in a heap in the backyard, half-buried in the snow. I rather stupidly asked Gauvin whether the bench was being used, and Gauvin rather stupidly replied, "I don't know."
Anyway, this led to a short negotiation with Gauvin's dad, Vern, for ownership of the unused weight bench. We settled on a price of $50, which I thought was a pretty good deal for a bench that came with all the weights (most benches I had seen in the local sporting goods stores were sold without the weights). I'm sure Vern thought he was the one who'd gotten the deal, considering he now had a wad of cash in his pocket from selling something that was probably destined to be thrown out with the trash someday soon.
Gauvin helped me load the bench into my Fury, and I quickly drove home to set it up. There wasn't any room in my house for a weight bench, so I had to set it up in the garage. Of course, my mom was (and still is) a bit of a hoarder -- and saying "a bit" is a probably a significant understatement -- so I had to wedge the bench into very small space between boxes of Christmas decorations and huge bags of who-knows-what.
The bench was a little on the wobbly side, not to mention more than a little rusty, but I was stoked. I had been eyeballing weight benches for a while. Of all possible exercises, bench pressing seemed like the most manly. That's what all the guys at school either did, wanted to do, or talked about doing. In terms of the measures of manhood, the amount of weight a young man could bench press rivaled penis size and how many bases he had made it to with a girl.
Now, I had never actually attempted a bench press before, and I didn't attempt one the day I set up my new-but-used bench. I have no idea why. I guess the act of transporting it to my house and assembling it had been enough of a workout that day. Instead, I waited until one day after school the next week...which ended up being a pretty big mistake.
Oddly enough, my mom was out of town. She was still working at Delco Electronics, which made various car parts for General Motors. However, she has somehow stumbled into a position as liaison with another Delco plant that had been opened in Mexico, where the workers could be paid in lesser currencies (old rocks and chunks of rusty metal for instance) to do the same work fat Kokomoans were doing for upwards of $30 an hour. At any rate, my mom was in another country, and I was home alone.
I am very sad and embarrassed to report that this did not lead to a wild party or any other adventures. I didn't put a bra on my head and try to make a girl using an old Commodore 64, ala Weird Science. (But don't think I didn't want to. I mean the making a girl part, not the bra on my head part.) Nope. I did a lot of sitting around and eating pizza. And I tried out my weight bench.
Someone had driven my mom to the airport, so her car was still in the garage. The available space was so packed with stuff that I could barely walk through it to get to the bench. Inexperienced as I was, I didn't have a clear idea about how much weight I should use. However, 200 pounds sounded like a nice, manly number. So I jammed a hundred pounds of weights onto either side of the bar, squeezed past our old Christmas tree, and settled down onto the bench.
It took literally all my might to heave the bar off the bench, which should have made my Spider Sense tingle. But I was psyched and my testosterone was pumping. Therefore, instead of dropping the bar back into the braces, I slowly lowered it to my chest...
...and there it stayed.
I couldn't move it. I could not lift this thing an inch off my chest. In fact, it was taking every iota of my available strength to keep it from laying directly on me. Within about a minute of struggling, I didn't have enough strength for even that, and I was forced to let a portion of the weight rest on my chest. Now, I had grown up reading comic books, and whenever a hero really, really needed to something that required a phenomenal amount of strength, they would just imagine something inspiring -- like how Aunt May was going to die if Spider-Man didn't recover the poison antidote that Doctor Octopus had left laying just out of his reach -- which would result in an adrenaline surge that provided the hero without however much strength was required to accomplish the heretofore impossible task.
Well, I tried this method. Turns out, it doesn't work very well unless you've been bitten by a radioactive spider or exposed to gamma rays.
Now the weight was really pressing down on me. I couldn't expand my chest to get full breaths, so when I tried to scream all that came out was a rattling gasp. There was so much crap on either side of the bench, I couldn't tip the weights to either side of me. There was no escape. I couldn't yell for help. And my mom wasn't going to be home for days.
I'm going to die, I thought.
That did it. Now I got an adrenaline surge. However, it wasn't a dramatic movie moment. Like, I didn't toss the weighted bar aside like it was a paper weight. Instead, my adrenaline provided me just enough power to kinda-sorta lift the bar up enough on one side to wriggle and squirm my way -- slowly and painfully -- out from underneath the bar (while also sliding partially under my mom's car in the process).
I celebrated my survival by kicking the weight bench that had almost just killed me...bruising the hell out of my foot in the process.
Shortly after learning the importance of slowly building up to larger amounts of weight on bench press, I purchased a punching bag. Although, like most wanna-be manly men, I wanted a heavy bag, I opted to go for a speed bag instead. This was because I had heard or read somewhere that using a speed bag was good both for cardiovascular conditioning and for improving hand-eye coordination, which was a skill that could translate to other sports as well.
Because I didn't have a father around to do it for me, I had to install the bag myself. This was a problem because, again, I didn't have a father around to teach me important things. Such as when installing heavy items into drywall, you should really try to secure it into studs or wall supports. That would have been some damn handy information to have. I simply borrowed a drill from my next door neighbor, drilled some holes and screwed that sucker directly into the thin, flakey drywall.
I'm sure you can figure out where I'm going with this.
All things considered, I'm surprised things didn't go worse. I think the thing managed to stay in the wall for a couple weeks, which was probably a couple weeks longer than it should have. But at some point -- probably when I was punching for power instead of speed and dexterity -- the whole unit slid right off the wall and fell on me. Of course, being the idiot that I was, I just drilled some new holes and screwed it back onto the wall. This time, it only stayed up a couple days before falling off (this time I was ready and jumped out of the way in time).
Soon, I convinced Dave and Gauvin to come over and work out with me after school (but before my mom came home, meaning we had the extra car space to move around in). These days, between magazines like Men's Health and what you can find on the Internet, there are endless sources for good workout routines. But when I was a teenager, all we had were whatever crappy crap we could find at local bookstores or hear about by word of mouth.
This led to various forms of unintentional hilarity. For instance, Dave had heard from the friend of a friend of his brother's that a good ab workout was to stand against a solid wall, tighten your stomach muscles and let somebody punch you rapidly in the gut for a couple minutes (or however long you could ensure it). Next thing you knew, we were standing around punching each other. As a workout.
We also started running together. Unfortunately, Gauvin wasn't a runner. So the running circuit we devised -- which ran from Dave's house (which was across the street from our high school and a couple blocks from Boulevard school) to Highland Park (Kokomo's most prestigious park, home to Old Ben, the world's largest preserved steer) -- was much too far for Gauvin's tastes.
Therefore, it would go like this. We would start off at a moderate pace for the first half-mile or so. That's the point where Gauvin would start to lag behind. It wasn't that Gauvin wasn't in good shape. Hell, Vern believed in punishing his children with pushups and pull-ups. But he had no cardiovascular endurance whatsoever, mostly because he hated (and still hates) all forms of exercise that develop that kind of endurance.
After Gauvin started his "granny shuffle" (as me and Dave secretly called it), Dave and I would maintain our original pace until we'd gotten maybe a quarter mile ahead of Gauvin. Then we'd turn around, run back to where he was, then turn back around and resume our forward run. We would continue doing this for the duration of the run, meaning Dave and I would eventually run nearly twice the actual distance between the two points.
I should probably note that, at this particular time in my life, I didn't have a very clear notion of what good workout gear was. I had a standard basketball outfit (black Purdue shorts and a matching tank). But here was what I typically worked out in: an old-school Hulkamania tank top (complete with three rips across the back), a "Hulk Rules" bandana and a pair of yellow Purdue shorts. I probably looked like a huge, nerdy banana.
What's more, I owned exactly one pair of shoes: a pair of black Converse high tops. That's right, baby! I was rocking the Converse Weapon. These were my school shoes, my weight lifting shoes and my running shoes. They also would have been my date shoes if I had been going on any dates. Come to think about it, this fact might partially explain why I wasn't dating.
Here's a funny story. My future girlfriend, Aimee, heard me talking about going for a run and suggested we go running some time. I showed up for that run in -- I shit you not -- a pair of jean shorts and a Larry Bird t-shirt. Within about half a second of seeing me, Aimee said: "You...do realize we're going running right?"
That was the point where I finally went out and bought some legit workout clothes: mesh athletic shorts and tanks. Most of them were of decent size and quality, but, much to ongoing shame, I purchased a pair of 1980s-style Celtics practice shorts.
That is, short shorts.
What's worse, I would pair them with bike shorts (worn underneath), which had become a semi-popular practice in the NBA. I thought I looked awesome.
Regardless of how I looked, the new duds certainly made working out a lot more comfortable (and therefore enjoyable). So much so that I couldn't believe I'd been working out in what were basically street clothes for so long.
Anyway, winter was finally starting to fade. Around mid-March, the NBA on NBC was airing a matchup between the Boston Celtics and the Portland Trail Blazers. At the time, the Celtics were struggling (having lost three straight) and the Blazers were on fire (having won seven in a row). Larry Bird was on his last legs and playing in a cumbersome back brace that made him look either fat or box-like, depending on your point of view. Even worse, Portland -- the second-best team in the league and widely considered the only team that could knock the Bulls off in the Finals -- were a young, running, gunning team...Kryptonite for an old, gimpy team like Boston.
It was supposed to be a blowout. Instead, viewers were treated to an instant classic: Clyde Drexler went crazy (41 points, 8 rebounds, 11 assists, and 17 free throw attempts) but Larry Bird was, well, Larry Bird: 49 points (19-for-35), 14 rebounds, 12 assists, 4 steals and a blocked shot. What's more, Bird hit one of the craziest buzzer-beaters I've ever seen to force OT...a one-handed push shot while shuffling his feet in the midst of a bear hug from Drexler. It was, and still is, unbelievable that thing went in.
Here are some highlights:
I cannot tell you how juiced up I was after that game. It had seemed, I don't know, world changing. I felt like Bird was back. I felt like the Celtics could totally win the title that year as long as everybody stayed healthy. I thought, as Kevin Garnett would later say, ANYTHING IS POOOOSSSSSIIIBBBBBLLLLLEEE!!!
So I finally stated out loud what I had been thinking about for a while: "I'm going to be on the varsity basketball team my senior year."