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American Past Time
A novel by Len Joy

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Basketball and My White House Fellowship

In 1982 I applied for a White House Fellowship. The White House Fellows program was established by President Johnson in October 1964. The mission of the program was "to give the Fellows first hand, high-level experience with the workings of the federal government and to increase their sense of participation in national affairs." White House Fellows typically spend a year working as full-time, paid special assistants to senior White House Staff, the Vice President, Cabinet Secretaries and other top-ranking government officials. Each year there are over a thousand applicants for the nineteen fellowships. Approximately 100 of the applicants are selected by regional panels of prominent local citizens. Based on the interviews the finalists are selected.

I survived the first cut and was invited to participate in the Midwest regional interview process. Each candidate met with a panel of five questioners. My interview was rolling along until one of the women panelists asked me what was the most traumatic or life-changing event of my life. I immediately, without even thinking, said, “When I tore up my knee playing basketball at the Y.” I can remember the look on her face as she tried to not roll her eyes. “Basketball at the Y? Did this affect your career? You’re not a professional athlete are you?” I’m not sure if she asked those questions or I just thought that’s what she wanted to ask. It didn’t matter. I was so flustered that when the next questioner tried to bail me out by asking me about my avowed interested in working with the CIA, all I could do was babble incoherently.

I didn’t make it to the finals. Ronald Reagan had to rebuild America without my help. Too bad, because I could have really helped them in the CIA. For years I beat myself up for giving such a stupid answer, but eventually the kids came along and I had other things to think about.

Last year at Squaw Valley Writer’s Conference I was part of a “finding the story” in our lives seminar and the question came up again. I had a second chance and a day to think about it, before I gave my answer to the class.

And when I had time to think about it, I realized it was a good answer, just poorly explained. All through college I played intra-mural basketball. And after graduation for the next ten years I played in local leagues, and pickup games at the Y. We’d play for hours. I was getting better every year. Then, when I was 27, on an all out fast break drive to the basket, I was hit just as I planted my left foot. My leg buckled and I can still remember the sick feeling as the top half of my leg turned outward in a totally unnatural movement. I can also still remember the pain, so much so, that it hurts to write these words. I crawled off the court.

I had torn my ACL. That was 1979 and I had never heard of that injury. The orthopedic surgeon explained that repairs of the ACL were iffy and it was unlikely I would have the same stability I’d had before the accident. I was in a leg cast for eight weeks and it took me a year to recover. The knee was never the same.

As I prepared my answer for that writer’s conference, I realized, with the benefit of three decades of hindsight, that the reason it was such a life-changing event for me was that it was, literally, the end of my youth. I was in my prime, each year getting faster, stronger, more skilled. And then it was over. There was a new world order. I had to be careful, take care of my body – work harder just to stay even.

Of course, even if I'd had the insight to give an articulate answer during that interview, my interest in the CIA probably would have killed my chances anyway.


sybil shepardess said...

It's really interesting to look back at events that shaped one's life and you are extraordinarily thoughtful about yours. It seems as if, in retropect, your interviewer wasn't too sharp if she couldn't accept that each person's answer to that question would be sui generis and thus intrinsically right for that particular person.

American_in_Cairo said...

Finding the story! I knew I had read this somewhere before...


kenan said...

The read dots on the white house look cool! lol latest sports news

Mark said...