Going Deep with David Rees is a brilliant show. It’s all too easy to take for granted the basic activities around us, and we can always give our life skills a polish. (That episode on eavesdropping? A life-changer). Personally, it’s the episode on how to bounce a ball that I found the most exciting, because I, a grown-ass man, cannot bounce or throw a ball to save my life.
In this episode, Rees speaks to a variety of experts on how to best bounce and throw a ball. Physics professors, a pool shark and a professional cricket player all line up to impart their wisdom on how best to manipulate a ball. And all I could think about for the entire episode was that it was a good thing they didn’t ask me, because when you hand me a ball, I honestly have no idea what I’m supposed to do with it beyond gently placing it on the ground and running away.
When I tell people I don’t know how to throw a ball, which I never do because as an adult it literally never comes up in conversation, the same question always comes back: how do you grow up in Australia not knowing how to throw a ball? It’s not like it’s a mystical activity only a chosen few participate in — there are people in this country who have done basically nothing their entire lives but throw a ball and they’re venerated as national heroes. So how did I miss out on what, as far as Australia is concerned, is a skill only slightly less important than breathing?
Our story begins in a small country town on the fringe of Melbourne. The local primary school was a Victorian-era structure big on brick classrooms and small on outside play areas. What little space we had was controlled by the older kids, so ball games weren’t really a playtime option for a five-year-old. I don’t even think we had anywhere to bounce a tennis ball. School sports days consisted of lining up against a wall and waiting to see if it would rain.
But after a year, my family moved and I started Year One at a new school that had — and this is no exaggeration — four full-sized ovals, three basketball courts, a set of cricket nets, two walls just for bouncing balls against, half a dozen foursquare courts and a bunch of other walls against which kids played downball. The year after I arrived, they added a pair of tennis courts, because why not? The school was built on an old quarry that had been filled in; they weren’t short of space.
You’d think this would be the perfect place to develop my non-existent ball skills. And it was — for all the kids who’d started there a year earlier. By the time I arrived, everyone was expertly bouncing balls off every available flat surface when they weren’t throwing them at each other's heads with unerring accuracy. It was a school of athletes — I later learned it was a feeder school for one of those private schools that only ever seem to produce A-grade sports stars.
No big deal, I’d catch up at my own pace. Unfortunately for me, while on the inside I was a shy chump who loved war comics and Lego, outside I was a very tall, athletic-looking kid who everyone, adults and children alike, instantly assumed was naturally gifted at sport. Well into my late teens, random strangers — often medical professionals or lawyers (I had an exciting childhood) — would say nonsensical things to me like: “Bet you’re wowing them on the basketball court” or “The footy talent scouts must have their eyes on you.” And they may very well have... until they saw me try to throw a ball.
Instead of getting to gradually figure out how to throw and bounce a ball, the pressure was on. Over and over, I was chosen first to be on a sports team; over and over I would fumble, drop and fall over the ball with everyone watching. Because I was a big lunk, people who cared about things like throwing a ball expected me to be good at it — and when it turned out I wasn’t, they just as quickly mocked and shunned me. Soon, whenever I was seen holding a ball, a crowd quickly gathered to see me make a fool of myself.
Maybe at some fancy over-funded private school, the PE teachers would have taught me what I needed to know. But at my state school, the part-time PE teacher had his hands full keeping us from running into traffic. Organised ball sports involved lining up for a single turn at throwing a ball. I had my go, I sucked, the kids laughed, we moved on — often to dodgeball, where everyone knew there was zero chance I’d catch the ball.
Obviously, if I’d really wanted to learn, I could have. But as every time I picked up a ball I was laughed at, there wasn’t a lot of motivation there. By high school, I rarely stepped outside. Even being near a ball game was dangerous when the only way you could throw a wayward ball back to the players was underarm.
So thanks, Going Deep with David Rees. Thanks for inspiring me to go down to my local basketball court and pick up a ball for the first time in years. Unfortunately it turned out I still couldn’t throw and my mate laughed while he took pictures, so I gave up and went home. But at least I tried, and that’s what counts. Unless you’re the one standing at the other end of the court expecting me to throw the ball to you.
Watch the "How to Bounce a Ball" episode of Going Deep with David Rees on Tuesday 1 May at 8pm on SBS VICELAND.