Draft anxiety comes in many forms
By By Stan Torgerson / sports columnist
July 1, 2003
A pro draft, be it the NFL, the NBA, MLB, the NHL or any other sport that fills its roster with eager young athletes, is the height of suspense.
The players know their futures will revolve around the opinions of men who don't care if they made an "A" or a "F" in European history but only if they can run, throw, catch, shoot the ball or show any of the other skills required by the sport of their dreams.
Hey, I've been there. Of course, in my case there wasn't any money involved. The prize was self-respect.
The days of my youth were spent in an era before concrete basketball courts were erected by cities and called playgrounds. When I was growing up we didn't have playgrounds, we had vacant lots.
From spring until mid-summer we played baseball on a vacant lot.
If the community bat broke we nailed together the split and kept using it.
When the cover finally came off the ball, and the seams always eventually split, we took what was left of the ball and wrapped it with black friction tape and continued to play the game.
My dad couldn't afford to buy me a new bat or ball, most parents of that time couldn't, but someone always combined a birthday with a generous uncle and came up with the necessary equipment.
That's when the forerunner of the draft took place. It was called choosing up sides, but it was a draft any way you looked at it.
The best players were always the captains. They'd flip a coin for first choice and the juvenile form of the draft would begin, alternating between one captain and the other. The rest of us stood there, praying our names would be called.
It usually took a long time before Stan was called.
You'd stand there, shifting from one foot to the other, looking down on the ground to avoid the embarrassment of being ignored. And when your time finally came, because everyone was always allowed to play, you knew, if you were me, you were going to be sent to the outfield where you could do the least damage.
In the fall after school that vacant lot became a football field. Same procedure. Someone always had a football, even if sometimes it didn't hold air very well.
Here I moved up in the system. I was among the biggest kids out there so I was almost always drafted in an early round.
You don't know what slow is if you didn't see me as a 10- or 12-year old, but size was all that mattered because we played mostly tackle football. Without helmets, I might add.
You also don't know how many pebbles or small stones there are on the average vacant lot unless you've tried tackle football where the grass is sparse.
From time-to-time, when only a few kids showed up, we'd play touch and the captains moved me down to a later round. The runners moved up, the big slow kids moved down. Either way I played in the line before anyone knew that linemen are actually indispensable if a running back is to score touchdowns.
So, having been there, I sympathized with Mississippi State's Mario Austin when one of the local TV stations sent a camera man over to York, Ala., last week to wait and watch with him as television started calling names of the soon-to-be-rich first rounders and the hope to be rich in the second round.
Austin was sitting on a couch, doing the equivalent of looking at the ground and trying not to catch anyone's eye. With each choice he slumped seemingly lower and lower and lower.
He'd been told he had a chance to be a first rounder, and when it didn't happen he had the look of young man who just wished everyone, especially that TV camera, would just go away and leave him alone.
No pressure during a game could ever have been worse than the wait for his future to unfold.
On the 36th choice the Chicago Bulls called out Mario Austin's name. He didn't jump up, wave his
arms or shout. A small "thank God it's over" smile came on his face, but he never got off the couch.
His friends and relatives, however, descended on him, shaking his hand, slapping him on the back, hugging him. He was relieved. They were thrilled.
As I watched, I thought of the many times in my youth when I had stood on the sidelines as a game was ready to begin, waiting, hoping, almost praying that someone would call my name and tell me they wanted me on their side.
At that moment, I knew exactly how Mario Austin felt.