Clockwork? No, but who's keeping score

February 08, 1997|By Rob Kasper

TIME WINDS down. Unless a volunteer is operating the scoreboard at a basketball game. Then time can zig-zag.

The other night, for instance, when I volunteered to run the scoreboard at one of my kid's basketball games, time marched forward. Instead of starting at the eight-minute mark and winding down to zero -- the way time is usually measured in these games -- the clock would only tick upward. For the first quarter of the game, time started at zero and moved to eight minutes. When it hit the eight-minute mark, I sounded a horn signaling the end of that segment of play.

Could it be that by turning the clock around, the continuum of the universe had been reversed? Was this the beginning of a trip back to the future?

No one seemed concerned about these cosmic possibilities. Least of all the two teams of 13- to 15-year-old boys, who, in honor of their coaches, I will call the Knights of Novak and the Flying Fabians. The guys play in the Townsontowne Recreational Basketball League. Their games are held in the gym of the Carver Center for Arts and Technology.

Eventually, time changed direction. This momentous swing occurred when I figured out that if I hit the "time/up/down" button on the keyboard that operated the scoreboard, then hit the "enter" button, the method of measuring time would return to the ticking-down mode.

I never was able to get the scoreboard to tell the fans which quarter of the game was being played. Fortunately, there weren't many fans in the stands -- 10, maybe 11. It was a Tuesday night, a down night for attendance in the recreational basketball circuit. Today, Saturday, is the big day. Saturday is when gyms around the state are filled with a seemingly unending procession of teams of boys and girls and their kinfolk. On Saturdays, volunteers don't often get a crack at running the scoreboard. Paid professionals, employees of the recreation department, usually handle the timing apparatus, thereby keeping the games, and the procession of teams, moving.

But that Tuesday night, a rainy night when game attendance was slack, I had a chance to run the scoreboard, and I jumped at it. In my long career as a student and gym-rat, I had never been chosen as a scoreboard operator. It had been a long wait.

When I was a kid, the post of scoreboard operator was a venerated position in the community. In elementary school, teachers always picked one of the good kids for the job, a kid who paid attention and did what he was told. A kid who could resist the urge to randomly hit the horn button, sending a powerful blast of noise jolting through the crowd. Lots of us aspiring scoreboard operators failed the horn-lust test.

Moreover, there was a moral component to the job. A keeper of the clock had to be the type who could rise above the urge to

"save" a few seconds for the home team when it was behind late in a game. Likewise, he shouldn't "accidentally" let the clock keep rolling when the home team was ahead by a few points and wanted the game to end quickly.

For years I had watched scorekeepers at work. The other night in Towson, I finally got my chance to run the bright scoreboard. Questions about my morality, sense of responsibility or game smarts were never asked. All that was required was a warm body who could punch buttons -- in short, a volunteer.

There weren't many clock-stopping opportunities in this basketball game. Unlike in many basketball leagues where the clock stops virtually every time a referee blows his whistle, in this league the referee's whistle stops the clock only during the final two minutes of the game, and for time outs.

This might not have been the way James Naismith, the game's founder, envisioned things. But Naismith didn't have to worry about getting the game over and the gym cleared out before the volleyball league rolled in. A "rolling clock" keeps leagues on schedule.

When I sat down behind the keyboard that controlled the scoreboard I saw that it was more complicated than the simple toggle-switch setup that I had eyed back in elementary school.

This keyboard had multiple buttons, options and procedures. I avoided most of them, and devoted my total mental energy to keeping score and keeping time. The two referees working the game kept me on course, and kept laughing.

When I accidentally gave the Knights of Novak three points for a two-point basket, I didn't immediately correct my mistake. I didn't trust myself to correctly manipulate all those scoreboard options. Instead, I simply waited a few minutes until the team scored another two-point basket, and awarded them only one point for it. It all evened out.

And when the Flying Fabians wanted to know how many team fouls they had, I shrugged. The part of the keyboard that was supposed to keep track of team fouls had remained uncharted ground to me.

Which proves, I guess, that recreational basketball is a hardy species. Not only can it survive the twists of time. It can also survive a shaky timekeeper.

Pub Date: 2/08/97

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