Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Dribbling basketballs through math

Commentary by Jim Banholzer


Jim Banholzer

Being a wise-fool through school bounced me down some interesting paths. As a kid aged in single digits, I enjoyed math, constantly solving problems in my head while dribbling a basketball between my legs. Once, while visiting my Aunt Jane, I told her that I would count up to a million by next return. Months later as we drove up to her house, I bounced a ball outside the car window, wildly exclaiming, "999,998—999,999—One Million!"

Suddenly, I was a sophomore, more fascinated in the geometric possibilities of what a trick B-Ball shot could do for a globetrotter, rather than what any algebraic formula might bring in the way of splitting up weights for future newspaper bundles. The guys sitting symmetrically around our rhombus-shaped table were all feverish fans of the Washington Bullets professional team. Mornings after a win we would chant in whispers the names of our various stars. "Chenier! Unseld! Big E!" Our algebra teacher, Mr. Kluge, was a tall man of almost 2 meters and we wondered about what shots he had erased and prime numbers placed on the basketball scoreboard before switching over to a math chalkboard.

Once, in the middle of a lesson, Kluge turned his back for an eraser. I took it upon myself to hurrah in a cockneyed voice "Porter!" honoring point guard extraordinaire Kevin Porter, who had just contributed to a playoff-clinching win with a 17-assists effort. Mishearing my cried praise, Kluge spun about, querying, "Who's the genius that said 'Ordered pairs?' We haven't even reached that chapter yet!" My fellow fanatics pointed to my quadrant while Kluge lasered me a look with a new angle of light.

A couple years later I saw Mr. Kluge taking his son Andy out fishing on a rowboat. I imagined what type of conversations my math teacher—who I had only known in the illumination of the classroom—might have with his son on a tranquil Saturday? Did they talk about depth-sounding graphs and how radar works for fish finders? Or did Kluge point out geometrically congruent fences, which joined together at the fisherman-access gate? Maybe they pondered the mathematical improbabilities of catching genius bottom-feeders if they did not let out enough line, or the physics involved when Burke Lake froze over.

Actually, whatever they postulated over made little difference. It was refreshing enough for me to see that Mr. Kluge was a well-balanced man not suffering from "nature deficit disorder" while passing along his wonderful fishing knowledge to his son.

Back in the '70s, Kluge warned us that within a few years the metric system was going to be imbedded in our culture so much that the word "pound" would be eliminated from our language. He claimed that sayings like "A penny saved is a pound earned" would have to be changed. However, through some critical thinking—which Kluge had likely prompted us for—we figured out that these particular pounds he spoke of were actually a British term for a monetary denomination. Further confounding interest, the pound has essentially replaced the penny in England since the time of my final math examination—a test I passed largely due to obtuse questions about pounds not weighing heavily over my desk like so many medicine balls.

Kluge's mindbenders were sometimes more difficult than trying to figure out how to try to steal a basketball from Kevin Porter. With some of his timed tests you were only given 10 seconds to rebound Kluge-puzzlers out of the back court of the brain, before digging deep and giving it the best shot with what you had.

Gus Johnson, who had played at the University of Idaho, became a legendary Bullet who could pluck a $20 dollar bill off the top of the basketball backboard then quickly calculate the U.S. equivalent of a pound and leave it for change. We in the class had been concerned about re-determining in metric terms the feats of his vertical jumping ability. How impressive would "Gus leaped up a century of centimeters to stuff the ball, conducting a precision face transplant on Dave Debusschere" have sounded? Thus not having to attend basketball games with a slide rule sticking out of our back pockets allowed us to feel more footloose (meter-loose?) and fancy free.

Before my finite years intersect that final exam in the sky, I would hope to run into Mr. Kluge again. Very late in this game I would come unglued from a maple park bench, still traveling with basketballs. I might find him tuning multi-indexed fish scales with his "metric crescent wrench". There I would freely throw him two pounds of advice: "Don't portage up your ordered pairs of fish onto the abacus before they're fried." Then, from my opposite hand, I would divulge to him my secret childhood corollary, employed as a shortcut in counting up to a million, while aggressively advancing dribbles, back in Aunt Jane's driveway.

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