Hoop Dreams, Part 1

By Jimmy O'Donnell

As this season of high school basketball starts up, I cannot help but reflect on the sport that has meant so much to me over the years and shaped my life in so many ways.

Starting in primary school at Hannibal Catholic as I played in the McCooey gym, I was always enthralled with the sign above the scoreboard that said “Home of the Shamrocks”, and I couldn’t help but to study the old trophies in the gym lobby from years gone by.  When I finally got the chance in 5th grade to suit up for the Shamrocks, I naturally searched my dad’s closet for his vintage McCooey warmup that he wore as a sophomore for the 1966 season.  While the shooting shirt was noticeably too big on me, I wore it anyways.  This was a defining moment when I developed an appreciation for tradition and pride in a program, as well as the players that built that tradition.  Our coach that season was one of my dad’s former Shamrock teammates and a standout athlete in his day, Mr. Tony Viorel.  A typical youth coach, Tony made games and practices fun and gave us all nicknames; mine was “Jimbo El Rod”!   I also remember this was in the height of the Celtics vs. Lakers rivalry in the NBA, and a contingency of my teammates matched their green and white uniforms with Magic Johnson’s purple and gold Converse Weapons basketball shoes, while my contingency outfitted ourselves in the black and white Converse Weapons of Larry Bird.  Those early years would be a foundation – the start of my fascination with players from the past, and my passion to simply play the game.

As my school years progressed, I continued to enjoy the game of basketball, often at the Hannibal YMCA for countless pick-up games with friends, and later venturing out to Hannibal’s outdoor playgrounds in the summer days in search of a game.  Two of my favorite playgrounds to frequent were Stowell Playground and Douglas School playground.  Each venue had its unique characteristics and style of game.  Stowell playground required a different skill set; one being to learn the give-and-take of a large metal backboard that was very forgiving and could be your ally when launching bank shots from deep.  You also had to be aware of the rougher style of play of the many blue-collar men that preferred to play in blue jeans and work boots as opposed to the newest Air Jordans!  Douglas playground on the other hand was a faster-paced game that required you to prove your worth on the court to earn the right to be picked to play next.   Most fouls went uncalled, which meant you had better out run your opponent to the hoop or make sure you took it strong to the goal.  As I look back, I remember legends from the Hannibal playgrounds: Mike Elzea from Stowell and his ability to launch 30-foot set shots with ease while wearing his signature Cardinals baseball cap, and Douglas hoopers like Jerry McBride and Arch Allison that were great players that I looked up to, having seen them play for the Hannibal High Pirates.  I feel very lucky to have had this experience in my own hometown of Hannibal. 

My high school years were filled with more memorable experiences.  I had the honor of playing for legendary coach, Paul Kreke.  I can still see Coach Kreke and his 6’7” frame in his patented red hoodie and red sweats, hood up, at Hannibal Pirate Football games.  Coach Kreke could often be found pulling into Korf gym in his blue Ram pickup and listening to Patsy Cline in his gym office, often drawing up his next game-winning play or defensive scheme.  Coach Kreke taught me the value of hard work and what it meant to be a part of a team and a tradition.  While Hannibal was a traditional football powerhouse, Coach Kreke set out to build a basketball program built on toughness and grit.  This mentality was perfect for me, a 6-foot-nothing post player, that was once defined by a Quincy Herald Whig all-star team write up as “not particularly quick or fast, doesn’t jump well and doesn’t have a great outside shot, but his ability to create scoring opportunities was unmatched because of his hard-nosed attitude”.  How is that for a “back-handed” compliment!   I took this in stride and realized this was the truth.  I did not do a lot of the things well that a typical basketball player does to be successful, but I would be surrounded with great teammates and a great coach that put a system in place that worked for our team’s skill set and allowed us to be successful; at that time, we were one of the first Hannibal basketball teams to win districts and reach sectionals since the Hannibal teams of the late 1970’s.

I found an old player evaluation of mine from Coach Kreke as I put away some old clippings, it was from 1989.  It was interesting that reading his words in his handwriting still felt relevant to me.  It mentioned what I needed to work on: “ballhandling, strength, and shoot, shoot, shoot!”   But the words that spoke to me the most were when he mentioned being “aggressive, working hard and realizing it was a privilege to play varsity Pirate Basketball.”   That spoke to me the most, in this day of “me” and day of traveling team basketball, sometimes the tradition of playing for your high school gets lost in the shuffle.

Stay tuned for part 2 coming soon, where Jimmy talks about his time playing in college, working in the sport, and lessons learned throughout it all!

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