By Rick Assad
Basketball was invented by Dr. James Naismith in 1891, a Canadian in Springfield, Massachusetts, as something to do for a rowdy YMCA class during the unforgiving and harsh wintertime.
And while the game has gone through some changes, it’s wildly popular worldwide, including at the high school level.
But is the experience playing at the prep level different in the 1970s compared to the 1990s and the present?
This question and a few others were asked of Alexander Wolff, Vicky Oganyan and Nicholas Garcia.
Wolff, a longtime senior writer at Sports Illustrated who retired in 2017 and is the author or co-author of nine books including “Endpapers: A Family Story Of Books, War, Escape And Home,” which will be released in March 2021, played shooting guard at Brighton High, a suburb in Rochester, New York.
“It was really satisfying to play at what was the highest level available to me at the time,” he said. “We had great school support and a pretty good team vibe, with home games regularly sold out, even on Tuesday nights.”
Wolff added: “I enjoyed my teammates very much, they had a variety of personalities and backgrounds – definitely not all the same kids I’d see in my classes during each school day,” he said.
Wolff, who edited “Basketball: Great Writing About America’s Game,” absorbed important lessons.
“And we won more than we lost – comfortably over .500 both my years on the varsity,” he said. “Probably the biggest lesson I took away from playing ball was the relationship between input and output – the more I’d work on my game, or we’d work on a defensive or offensive scheme, the more effective it would be. That’s enormously satisfying, and a great thing to realize that as a teenager.”
Wolff liked the varied backgrounds that comprised the team. “The best aspect of being on the team was probably the blending of different personalities and skill sets and figuring out how to work together to get the ball through the hoop,” said Wolff, a 1975 graduate who played one season for a third-division club team in Switzerland after his second year at Princeton University where he graduated with a History degree with honors in 1980. “Knowing that the school followed us and cared how we did was a big secondary bonus. Looking back I realize how many other sports, even football, didn’t have that kind of following at BHS [Brighton High School] during the early seventies.”
Wolff, a two-year starter and co-captain for Brighton, who poured in a career-best 16 points, reflected on his time playing in Europe.
“The biggest thing about that year was getting to see the first stirrings of how hoops would be embraced worldwide,” he said. “That would wind up being, not even seven or eight years later, a beat I’d make my own at Sports Illustrated. My feel for the game began years before that, mostly by playing pickup and then in high school, and watching (and listening, in the radio days) to a lot of broadcast basketball.”
Looking back, Wolff, who also penned “Big Game, Small World: A Basketball Adventure,” “The Audacity Of Hoop: Basketball And The Age Of Obama” and co-writer of “Raw Recruits: The High Stakes Games Colleges Play To Get Their Basketball Stars – And What It Costs To Win,” was glad to be a part of something important.
“I was a studious kid who was well-rounded at my own insistence, not my parents’ – they wanted me to play an instrument and of course get good grades, both of which I did; but I also wanted to see how far I could go with basketball. (High school varsity plus a bonus … a “stop-out” from college … year in Europe was as far as I was going to go, at least as an actual player on a real court). But in high school I felt affirmation from every part of the community for being a contributor on the team – from teachers, townspeople, staff, fellow students. As you can imagine, adolescents can be insecure, so anything positive of that nature was welcome.”
Oganyan played point guard at Glendale High for two and a half years and averaged 17.7 points with 4.5 assists as a senior in 1997 and is the current girls’ head coach at Burroughs.
“Playing basketball in high school was an amazing experience. Being part of a team, working together with teammates, creating lifelong memories, and playing a sport I loved was really the major highlight of my high school experience,” she said. “There was always that responsibility and commitment to your teammates and coaches and representing the school. So if there was pressure, I think it was in that you didn’t want to let your teammates and coaches, and your school down.”
Oganyan, who fulfilled a dream by playing college hoops at Glendale Community College this past season, said being on the team was something to cherish.
“I don’t think I thought of myself as special, but basketball was and is a huge part of my identity,” she said. “Basketball was a huge passion and still is, and that really shaped a huge part of my identity.”
Oganyan, who teaches biology, said that playing hoops taught her how to mesh talents.
“I learned how to work with other people, how to work hard, how to be disciplined and responsible, how to think outside of myself, how failing and losing could be humbling, but also the biggest key to getting better and growing, how to sacrifice for others and for something bigger than yourself, how things can be so unpredictable and how highs and lows are just part of the whole journey,” she pointed out. “How commitment and sacrifice and hard work put into something can make you mentally strong and fight harder for stuff you want.”
A 2020 graduate, Garcia was a two-sport athlete at Burroughs playing quarterback and point guard.
“It was amazing being able to play high school basketball at Burroughs,” said Garcia, who is attending GCC and is on the football team. “The coaches push you to be great every second you are in the gym. The coaches held us to a very high standard and there was pressure to win every game. The coaches treat you like a grown man and will not put up with anything.”
Garcia, who hopes to transfer to Cal Poly Pomona or UC Davis and play football, continued: “The coaches taught if you want to be in that gym you have to be working hard and giving 1,000 percent every second,” he explained. “I had an extremely fun time going to tournaments with teammates and coaches and competing every time we are on the court.”
Being the field general helped Garcia, who averaged seven points and five assists as a senior, on the hardwood.
“The best aspect of the team was being able to score the ball in transition,” he said. “I would usually push the ball and find the open shooters for a quick transition three-pointer. I think what helped me become a pass-first point guard is also being a quarterback. I know how to find teammates and when to pass to them. Being an athlete helps tremendously. It helps you get easy points in transition or you can make a tough move around your defender.”
The take-away for Garcia is something that he will hold on to forever. “What I learned from being a high school basketball player was how to learn from wins and losses,” he said. “Basketball teaches you that you can take losses here and there, but you can’t dwell on them. There are a lot of basketball games in the year, but if you dwell on one loss, it can trickle down to you losing more and more.”